3D-Printed Thermoforming

Recently at work, we’ve been wrestling with the problem of custom covers for prototype parts. I’ve tried epoxied-together plastic sheets and FDM printing, but haven’t gotten anything to look decent. I’ve also tried molding thermoformable plastic by hand, which looks terrible (and is a burn risk).

However, combining two of these ideas – thermoforming and 3D printing – does seem to be showing some promise. I used SolidWorks’ mold tools to create cavity and core forms for a small test part, and printed them in ABS on a MakerBot Rep2X. I then gently heated Kydex (in .060 and .029 thicknesses) to 170C for a few minutes, draped it over the core, and pressed the cavity down with an arbor press.

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So far, the test parts have come out pretty well! I had to cut the test parts out on a bandsaw, which wasn’t terribly clean. Next, I’m going to try designing core/cavity tools with shear blades built in, to automatically cut out the shape.