Thermoforming Using 3D Printed Tooling

   By Ricky Shannon on October 16, 2018

TriMech is fortunate to work with clients from Maine to Florida and out to Arkansas, offering a range of engineering solutions. This week’s client story showcases a global packaging solutions provider and their use of Stratasys FDM technology.

3D printing is progressively changing the way products are designed, prototyped and you guessed it – packaged! For example, one of our longtime clients is a global packaging solutions provider who produces packaging products for virtually every industry. Their corporate office uses Stratasys 3D printing equipment to advance their development and testing of thermoformed packaging products.


Before diving into the client’s story, we must first establish a basic understanding of what thermoforming is and how it’s used.

Thermoforming client example

Thermoforming client example

Thermoforming is the process of making the clear, rigid, plastic packages that are commonly seen on consumer products, sometimes referred to as blister packaging. The process of thermoforming (also known as vacuum forming) starts when a thin sheet of the thermoplastic (i.e. ABS, PVC, PET, PC) is heated until it becomes very soft and pliable. The heated and now flexible sheet is then draped over a three-dimensional pattern on a vacuum table. The vacuum table then rapidly draws the air out from between the pattern and the heated plastic sheet. The evacuating air causes the heated sheet to tightly conform and stretch over the pattern. After the sheet is cooled for several seconds and becomes rigid again, the newly formed part (or blister) is removed from the reusable pattern, and the process is ready to be repeated.

3D Printed Patterns

For our global packaging solutions provider client, 3D printed patterns are invaluable tools for the development of packaging products. Using their Stratasys Dimension Elite FDM 3D printer, they can quickly prototype and verify package designs. When asked about their experience with 3D printed tooling their packaging designer says:

“The FDM printer is a critical asset for our design process.  By printing our 3D models, we are able to quickly thermoform a blister to test our design intent.

Testing allows us to ensure products fit well and stay within the blister; prototypes work as well as envisioned; and that the try me feature designed is ergonomic and intuitive.

From there, we refine the overall package and send a tangible sample to the customer, allowing them to experience the final product before investing in hard tooling for the plastic molds as well as dies for the paper structure. TriMech has strengthened our prototyping stage of the design process.

Thermoforming model

Thermoforming model

Why Stratasys FDM Technology?

Stratasys Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers offer several features that allow them to excel at the production of thermoforming tooling. First of which is the ability to control the density of the part from within the included software. In order for the heated sheet of thermoplastics to tightly stretch over a complex shaped part during the vacuuming stage, all the air must be drawn out from between the sheet and the pattern. Traditionally, small holes must be drilled into the pattern to channel the air out from between the heated sheet and pattern. If this is not done, then air may get trapped in pockets and details around the pattern limiting the depth the blister can be formed to.

Thermoforming machine

Thermoforming machine

FDM printed patterns, on the other hand, can be intentionally produced to be low density and intentionally not airtight. This allows air to be pulled through the pattern creating a very tight fit between the thermoplastic sheet and FDM printed pattern without the need to design or drill holes in the pattern.

Another advantage of Stratasys FDM technology is the wide range of materials available for producing 3D printed thermoforming patterns. For a thermoforming thin gauge, low temp films like PET and PETG, the use of widely available and economical materials like ASA and ABS-M30 are perfectly suitable. Meanwhile, when high-temperature or thick gauge materials like Kydex and Polycarbonate are formed, Stratasys high-performance materials such as polycarbonate, carbon fiber filled nylon, and Ultem materials are great candidates.

Related Products
Stratasys 3D Printers

Browse the TriMech web store for Stratasys 3D Printers for rapid prototyping and short-run production manufacturing.

Ricky Shannon

Technical Manager of the Additive Solutions Team