Vacuum Forming

Vacuum forming, commonly known as vacuforming, is a simplified version of thermoforming, whereby a sheet of plastic is heated to a forming temperature, stretched onto or into a single-surface mold, and held against the mold by applying vacuum between the mold surface and the sheet.

The vacuum forming process can be used to make product packaging, speaker casings and even car dashboards.

Normally, draft angles must be present in the design on the mold (a recommended minimum of 3°), otherwise release of the formed plastic and the mold is very difficult.

Vacuum forming is usually – but not always – restricted to forming plastic parts that are rather shallow in depth. A thin sheet is formed into rigid cavities for unit doses of pharmaceuticals and for loose objects that are carded or presented as point-of-purchase items. Thick sheet is formed into permanent objects such as turnpike signs and protective covers.

Relatively deep parts can be formed if the form-able sheet is mechanically or pneumatically stretched prior to bringing it in contact with the mold surface and before vacuum is applied [1].

Suitable materials for use in vacuum forming are conventionally thermoplastics, the most common and easiest being High Impact Polystyrene Sheeting (HIPS). This is molded around a wood, structural foam or cast/machined aluminum mold and can form to almost any shape. Vacuum forming is also appropriate for transparent materials such as acrylic which are widely used in applications for aerospace such as PCW (passenger cabin windows) canopies for military fixed wing aircraft and "bubbles" for rotary wing aircraft.

Vacuum forming is a plastic thermoforming process that involves forming thermoplastic sheets into three-dimensional shapes through the application of heat and pressure. In general terms, vacuum forming refers to all sheet forming methods, including drape forming, which is one of the most popular. Basically during vacuum forming processes, plastic material is heated until it becomes pliable, and then it is placed over a mold and drawn in by a vacuum until it takes on the desired shape. Vacuum thermoforming is a great method for producing plastic parts that have sharp details and fit nicely to specific products.

During the vacuum forming process, a sheet of heated plastic material is placed over a male or female mold. The mold then moves towards the sheet and presses against it to create a seal. Next, the application of a vacuum draws out the air between the mold and the sheet so that the plastic conforms to the mold exactly. This is accomplished through venting holes in the mold that are joined to vacuum lines. The mold also has a water cooling system integrated into it that brings the temperature of the plastic to the set temperature needed. When the curing temperature is reached and the piece is formed, air blows back into the mold and separates the new part from the mold.

Vacuum forming produces plastic parts for various industries, such as the food, cosmetic, medical, electronics, entertainment, household products, toys, athletic equipment, appliance, automotive, office supplies and clothing industries. One of the most important industries that thermoforming serves, however, is packaging. Products like blister packs, inserts, trays and clamshells are used to house other products and are important for both preservation of the items they hold and the aesthetic designs they can provide. Consumer product manufacturers often use vacuum forming to produce plastic trays and glasses. Another interesting use for vacuum formed plastic is the creation of signs for gas stations and convenience stores.

The greatest advantage to vacuum forming is that it involves less parts and tooling than injection molding, and therefore is more cost-effective. It is an economical choice that can be used for small and medium production runs, with low cost tool modifications. There is great design flexibility available, from a variety of prototypes to custom made designs that can be used to cover almost any product. Most manufacturers also offer a wide variety of trim and other decoration options that can prove quite a visual advantage. Time of production is generally short, which frees up time to do more detail-oriented aspects of production. Sharp, precise detail is available for many products, which makes vacuum formed plastics an attractive alternative to other molding processes.


  • Economical for small to medium production runs
  • Low tooling costs
  • Quick startup
  • High strength to weight ratio
  • Efficient prototyping
  • No need for painting; the color and texture are formed in