Thermoforming and 3D printing

Discover how thermoforming and 3D printing complement each other and how they can be used together

3D printers and 3D formers are becoming increasingly prevalent in manufacturing workflows. When used together, the technologies can complement one another, adding more value than when used individually.

Adopting 3D forming is also quite simple, especially when coupled with existing knowledge of 3D printing technology and its many benefits. In this article, we’ll take a look at both 3D forming and 3D printing, examining how they complement one another and the ways in which they can be used together. 

Not so long ago, 3D printing and thermoforming were only used in industrial environments. Now, however, they are much more common and accessible to all designers, engineers, and manufacturers. They also share many of the same benefits. 

Below are a few of the benefits of thermoforming:

  • Affordability. For prototyping, tooling, and small production runs, thermoforming techniques such as vacuum forming or pressure forming are often less costly than processes such as injection molding. This is because thermoforming brings with it a lower tooling cost.
  • Speed. Thermoforming features a faster turnaround time than traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding or CNC. 
  • Flexibility. Because it is often cheaper and faster, thermoforming enables designers, engineers, and manufacturers to more efficiently manufacture and test prototypes – especially because templates can be made of 3D printed or easily modified materials such as wood or structural foam.
  • Materials with unique properties. Thermoforming technology can be used with materials featuring unique properties such as flexibility and transparency. Additionally, certain plastic materials – such as high-density polyethylene – can be sterilized, and therefore suitable for containers used in the food and beverage industry. 
Thermoforming template being placed in the Mayku Multiplier

While many types of 3D printers are compatible with thermoforming processes, the most popular are FDM, SLA, and SLS. Below are a few of the benefits of using 3D printing technology in your workflow:

  • Flexibility. 3D printing enables you to manufacture what you need, when you need it. This is ideal in thermoforming, as there are no minimum manufacturing quantities or order size.
  • Cost efficacy. 3D printing is often cheaper than traditional manufacturing methods, giving you room to test and retest before committing to a final design. This is especially helpful when printing thermoforming templates, where prototyping is key to success.
  • Good mechanical properties. Properties such as strength and temperature-resistance that are well-suited to the creation of thermoforming templates – as they need to withstand high levels of both heat and pressure.
  • Complex designs. 3D printing allows for the efficient creation of complex and customized designs that are built for highly specific tasks
  • Less waste. When compared to subtractive manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing only uses the amount of material that is needed, resulting in less waste and in parts that are lighter and more suited to specific purposes. 

Learn how to implement different 3D printing technologies into your thermoforming workflow:

SLA 3D printed template and final part

In 3D printing and 3D forming workflows, 3D printers are often used to manufacture thermoforming templates. Both technologies can also be used together, resulting in parts that feature 3D printed and 3D formed components. 

Manufacturing templates is the most common workflow that involves both 3D printers and 3D formers. In these cases, 3D printers are used to create the template, which 3D formers then use to create final parts or molds. Here, 3D printing provides a great deal of flexibility, which goes well with 3D forming’s fast production speed. Additionally, 3D printing is a near-perfect technology for manufacturing templates that adhere to thermoforming’s specific design guidelines. You can read more about those guidelines in our article on how to design for thermoforming.

Templates can be manufactured with even the most common types of 3D printers, such as FDM, SLA, and SLS. If you’d like to learn more about this process, you can read our article on technologies used to create thermoforming templates

Thermoforming template made on a Formlabs Form 3L
Thermoforming template made on a Formlabs Form 3L

Both 3D printing and 3D forming boast very fast iteration cycles. With 3D printing, for example, you can manufacture templates in hours instead of weeks. Mayku’s 3D formers also enable users to run small production batches in hours – entirely in-house and with complete flexibility. 

Prototypes made with 3D printed templates and Mayku-made molds
Prototypes made with 3D printed templates and Mayku-made molds

Manufacturing large and thin parts with good mechanical properties has always been challenging for most 3D printing technologies. Large parts can easily warp during the 3D printing process, and their properties are usually not homogenous. Thermoforming, however, is well-suited to creating three-dimensional parts with consistent thickness and mechanical properties. 

Car light prototype made with PMMA on the Mayku Multiplier

Creating transparent parts with 3D printers is often a complex process, and yields results that often don’t reach the necessary requirements. Thermoforming, on the other hand, is able to make use of fully transparent materials such as PETG or PMMA. This makes thermoforming a great method of manufacturing enclosures that must be transparent or that have transparent components. 

Most 3D printing processes and materials aren’t food-safe, meaning they cannot be used in environments where they can come into contact with food or edible items. 

Thermoforming processes and materials, including most Mayku materials, are food safe. This means thermoforming offers a solution to a 3D printing limitation. Thermoformed and 3D printed components can be used in a combined solution in food production.

Chocolatier Philip Khoury using a Makyu-made chocolate mold
Chocolatier Philip Khoury using a Makyu-made chocolate mold

3D printing and thermoforming are closely related technologies. They also share many of the same benefits that allow for faster, more flexible, and localized manufacturing. Used correctly, they can be combined to create an efficient and effective solution for workflows in a wide variety of industries and sectors.  

If you’d like to learn more about thermoforming, you can read our articles on creating thermoforming templates and how to manufacture thermoforming templates with SLA 3D printing. Or if you’re ready to get started with thermoforming, you can explore Mayku’s range of 3D formers.

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