A Brief History of Vacuum Forming

It was in Birmingham, England in 1855 that Alexander Parkes who used steam to heat and shape celluloid. When cooled Parkes noted that the celluloid maintained its shape.

In the 1870s this pioneering work by Parkes with celluloid, the world’s first recognised synthetic plastic, would be taken on by John Wesley Hyatt.

John Wesley Hyatt is seen as the father of modern day plastics, and along with Charles Burroughs, they would use steam, and steel moulds, to make toys and bottles. Hyatt and Burroughs ideas expanded to the manufacture of relief maps, ice cube trays and ping pong balls.

Thermoforming lead the way for household products

Thermoformed plastic products struggled to find their way in to mainstream market due to the inefficiency of the production method. In 1938 this changed with the invention of the first reel-fed thermoforming machine by the Klaus B Strauch Company.

Strauch’s new machine enabled household products to be made at far higher speed. And speed of production was imperative for a world about to be plunged in to a second world war.

If it was the Victorian post industrial revolution era that first spurred on Parkes, Hyatt and Burroughs it would be the Second World War that would see another industrial revolution in manufacturing processes, materials and innovative products.

The aircraft cockpit was one such product that would exemplify the use of new plastic materials and the employment of new thermoforming techniques. In 1936 RJ Mitchell working for Supermarine Aviation Works, a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong, designed and built the first Spitfire aircraft.

The Spitfire would go on to become a step change that was to influence aircraft design going forward. The Spitfire was the fastest aircraft in the world and used its speed and agility to great effect as a military weapon.

The secret to the success of the Spitfire was RJ Mitchell’s innovative fuselage and wing design, enormous power and lightweight. For the aircraft cockpit Mitchell looked to a new plastic, acrylic, and to the R Malcolm and Company. Malcolm pioneered the thermoforming of clear acrylic for the Spitfire cockpit resulting in a lightweight alternative to glass.

The finished product was seamless, aerodynamic, lightweight and offered protection and excellent all round visibility for the pilot. The product became known as the Malcolm Hood and became the standard across the entire aircraft industry.

The Consumer Boom

Post war Europe and America saw would see a prosperity boom, a baby boom and a consumer boom. In 1948 the Troman Brothers would develop the work of the R Malcolm Company and thermoform acrylic to make the first bath tubs.

Phillips would take the new refrigerator and line the interior with thermoformed PVC. Thermoformed plastic materials were no longer simply an alternative but they were now becoming the standard.

In 1945 the first self-service hypermarket was launched by 7-Eleven. This would be replicated in the UK in 1950 with the launch of the supermarket by Tesco.

The 1950s saw an appetite for a rapidly growing population for consumer products and the desire for all things new, colourful, and useful. The hypermarket required colourful attractive packaging, whilst there was a huge demand for toys and household products.

In 1946 the plastic thermoforming machine manufacturer Illig was established. This was followed by the plastic thermoformer Geiss in 1957. In 1964 the first vacuum forming machine was patented. Speed of production and now fine detail could be built in to the design of thermoformed plastic products.

The 1960s would see the full embrace of the consumer society for new and innovative materials. This was epitomised by the Jetson cartoon family and the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

Thermoplastics were now being developed with improved colour, UV stability, impact strength, heat tolerance, chemical resistance and safe to use with food and in medical applications.

The 1960s saw the development of new extruded thermoplastic materials: styrene, high impact styrene, high density polyethylene, polypropylene, polycarbonate, and the new versatile ABS used by Lego. Whilst the continuing influence of the 60s hypermarket influenced the development of PET for bottles and packaging.

Modern Thermoforming

Today the thermoforming of plastic products includes the manufacturing processes of vacuum forming, injection moulding, casting, and rotational moulding.

The technology has moved on from the early work of Parkes, Hyatt and Burroughs with Celluloid, the invention of the reel-fed thermoforming machine by Strauch, the Malcolm aircraft cockpit, the Troman Brothers acrylic bath and the cascade of innovative products of the post-war 1950s and 1960s. Plastics now shape the very world that we live in.

Illig and Geiss are still at the heart of the thermoforming industry and their machines power such companies as Ansini. Ansini is recognised as one of the UK’s leading and most experienced vacuum forming companies.

Ansini manufactures materials as diverse as acrylic, HIPS, PE, PP, ABS, and PC. As well as specialising in aircraft grade polycarbonates and hybrid materials such as KYDEX. Ansini is at the heart of the 21st Century advancements of CNC design and trimming, high tech aluminium and polyurethane tooling, and the ever expanding catalogue of materials and applications.

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