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Thermoformed Plastics: A Lightweight Replacement For Metal Defense Assembly Systems

January 13, 2022

More and more, modern manufacturing practices for military and defense applications are looking to heavy gauge thermoformed plastics as a viable replacement for metal components and assemblies. Thermoformed products can be up to six times lighter than their steel counterparts and up to half the weight of aluminum components.

Heavy gauge vacuum forming and pressure forming can create strong and lightweight sheet material products that range from .125 to .500 inches thick. Yet, the lighter weight components exhibit mechanical and cost performance properties that meet or exceed those of metal while contributing to less physical fatigue for soldiers in the field.

What is Heavy Gauge Thermoforming?

When compared to thin gauge thermoforming, heavy-gauge components require specific machinery and manufacturing techniques that are distinctly different – even though a thickness may vary by only a few tenths of an inch.  Thermoformed military products commonly use plastic resins such as HDPE, ABS, TPO, PC/ABS, PVC/Acrylic, or HIPS.

In addition to being ultra-lightweight, these plastic materials have a greater density, are excellent at absorbing impact, and are extremely resistant to chemical attack and abrasion.

The process of thermoforming starts with sheets of thermoplastic material that are put through various stages of heating in a thermoforming machine. Once the proper temperatures are achieved, the material is molded into the desired component, then off-loaded and delivered to a series of cooling and finishing stations if necessary.

There are a wide range of defense industry components and assemblies that have successfully made the switch from metals to thermoformed plastics, including:

  • heavy military vehicle components
  • durable pallets and military-grade containers
  • military barracks building materials and furnishings
  • helmets, shields, panels, and machine covers
  • aircraft, amphibious vehicle, and light tactical vehicle parts

Thermoforming advantages in Military Applications

When it comes to military defense systems and military transport, weight comes at a high cost. Heavy metal equipment costs more to transport and takes longer to load and off-load. There is an economic downside that metal component manufacturers must absorb, including greater operating costs.

And finally, the environmental impact of the metal industry produces a larger carbon footprint in both fuel and energy consumption along with greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic thermoformed defense assembly systems have even more advantages, including:

Higher quality and more precise components – military specifications demand the tight tolerances that thermoformed products deliver. High-quality plastic components with sharp detail and exact dimensions are common. And, when carbon fibers are added to the plasticized material, the product’s strength to weight ratio competes well with metal – even for ultra-lightweight assemblies.

Shorter production lead time – metal components typically go through a wider range of processes on a wide variety of machinery to deliver a component from raw stock to finished product. Thermoformed military components have a much shorter production time because it often requires a single tool or mold to create part geometry, surface finish or texturing, and branding.

Comparable physical and mechanical properties – thermoformed military products excel in almost every measurable physical property like density, electrical and thermal conductivity, and texture when compared to metals. Mechanical properties like stiffness, toughness, strength, ductility, hardness, and impact resistance can be enhanced by additives to create specific formulations.

PMT for Defense Industry Thermoformed Products

When it comes to mission-critical applications in the defense industry, choosing the right thermoforming manufacturer is essential. Partner with PMT, a leading supplier of custom plastic heavy-gauge thermoforming to the military defense industry. We work with your teams through every phase of the component manufacturing process, including engineering consultation and product development, and high-volume production.

We work hard on quality processes and quality management as shown by our registered certification in a long list of professional and standards organizations including DFARS Compliant, AS9100 Certified, ISO 9001-2015 Certified, ROHS Compliant, and NADCAP Accredited.

Headquartered in Colorado, Plastic Molding Technology is a global supplier of plastic vacuum & pressure formed, CNC machined, and other high-tolerance components to customers around the world.

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