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Heavy Gauge Thermoformer Specializes in Innovative Vacuum- and Pressure-Formed Parts
A 10-foot by 18-foot capacity thermoformer enables Ray Products to tackle a variety of large-part thermoforming projects.
Image courtesy of Ray Products Co., Inc.
California-based Ray Products has boosted its capabilities to serve new and emerging markets with its large-capacity thermoforming machine.
If you build it, they will come. It worked for Kevin Costner's character, who built a baseball diamond in the movie Field of Dreams. And for Brian Ray, president of Ray Products Co. Inc., the decision to have a 10-foot by 18-foot capacity thermoformer built for his company in 2005 meant a lot of new clients coming to his doorstep with some big plans.
As Ray Products' website (www.rayplastics.com) announces, if you want really big products, you need a really big thermoformer. And for a company that specializes in heavy-gauge thermoformed plastic parts, which means going from 0.060-in thickness to 1/2 inch, the capacity of its machine is essential. Technology was important to Brian Ray, who took over the Ontario, Calif. - based business from his father in 2004, a few months before the massive thermoformer was delivered on seven flatbed trucks. With the motivation to "deliver big" to its clients, Ray Products now commands the largest thermoformer west of the Rockies, and, through its capacity, can offer customers a wide range of material choices, a decrease in assembly expense, a decrease in product weight, and a single, seamless part.
When using another material, like fiberglass, or using a smaller thermoformer, "you might have to mechanically fasten or bond pieces," Ray said. "But what we see with the 10-foot by 18-foot machine is now you have the opportunity to look at this whole assembly and look at incorporating them (the pieces) into one part." (Click here for more on designing for parts consolidation.) He added that the potential of the large-part thermoformer really gets exciting when liquids or moisture are involved with the end product and a seamless part becomes unparalleled in function. And when no fasteners are required, that translates into reduced weight and reduced cost, as well as cosmetic appeal.
"Wouldn't you rather have a skylight that was made of one sheet of material rather than made in two halves that have to be brought together?" Ray said, adding that he is always keeping his eye open for new "big part" markets, such as the transportation industry with its rail cars, heavy trucks, agricultural equipment, and RVs. Typically, when Ray mentions that plastic thermoformed parts would be lighter weight than fiberglass or sheet metal, potential customers get excited because of the energy savings. The rail car market has really opened up to Ray Products because plastic thermoformed parts tend to weigh much less than fiberglass. And the strength-to-weight ratio is particularly important to transportation, whether that be locomotive, rail cars, buses, boats, heavy truck, or RVs, because it translates into savings on miles per gallon.
Thermoforming recently gained the spotlight when the Las Vegas Monorail was targeted to have its 250 fiberglass seats replaced by 2012. The company operating and maintaining the system, Bombardier Transportation, Inc., set its sights on using a material that was kinder on the environment than non-recyclable fiberglass. Kydex, LLC, manufactured the thermoplastic sheet, and Ray Products was the thermoformer. "The goal was a ten-year lifespan versus the current three years Bombardier was getting from the composite seats," said Ray in a statement. "The fact that there's a recyclable option out there for the thermoforming industry is significant. People are really looking for greener choices." The green industry is becoming more interested in thermoformed plastics, Ray said, adding that "people like to say that a portion of their product is made from recycled material."
Also opening up new market potential is the wide array of thermoplastic materials Ray Plastics utilizes, including acrylonitrile-butadiene-
styrene (ABS), polyethylenes (PEs), polypropylenes (PPs), polycarbonates (PCs), acrylics, and polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs). Waste management is another area Ray said he is investigating, explaining that lids or pans for industrial grease applications are well suited for his company's offerings. "Stainless steel pans are really expensive and there are not a lot of things that can hold chemicals or fluids, but now you can start talking about thermoplastic materials that have great chemical resistance and great UV resistance. They can solve some of these issues. There are a lot of materials we can choose from and it really starts there. We've got materials that are great around fuels, great around chemicals, great around sunlight, great with impact, and great with low temperature and high temperature," he said.
As a heavy-gauge thermoformer, Ray Products specializes in offering both pressure forming and vacuum forming, highlighting its low-cost aluminum tooling as one of its advantages over injection molding. Ray is first to admit that his processes may not be right for every application, but is quick to remind potential customers that thermoformed plastics can be recycled, are pre-colored and pre-textured, and, unlike fiberglass, don't emit any volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Vacuum forming, when it involves molding parts over a male aluminum tool, allows the use of pre-colored and pre-textured material that results in outside surfaces that are highly cosmetic. "You're typically not going to paint a vacuum-formed part. You mold it in the texture and color you want, and you're going to have a part that is pretty much finished from a cosmetic standpoint after it's molded," Ray said. Sheet metal, though, is a different story. "When someone runs a sheet metal part, if they grind and weld that sheet metal, then they have to go in and do some sort of surface finish to it. They have to powder coat it or they have to prime it or something like this. So you have these other processes with sheet metal that you don't have to do with plastics, specifically vacuum forming. If you're running a pre-colored, pre-textured material, the sheet is molded and it's done. You don't have to go back and do these other processes."
Economical for medium-to high-volume applications, vacuum forming is ideal for crafting a strong, durable, lightweight plastic part, cover, or enclosure, partly because low-cost aluminum tooling also allows for rapid modifications. Because the inside surfaces of the finished part are controlled, it is ideal for point-of-purchase (POP) displays, pool and spa equipment covers, custom dunnage, and material handling trays, including returnable packaging for medical devices, as well as fitness equipment, radome covers, and parts for the transportation industry.
Ray Products is a big supplier of pressure formed parts to the medical industry because of the high levels of detail achieved by using a female cavity tool. "We get very high levels of detail and very good tolerances, as well as very good repeatability. So we attract industries that are focused on highly-cosmetic, engineered parts," Ray said. "You can have very sharp corners, very detailed and intricate designs in that tool surface because you're taking and heating up material, and you're using 80 to 100 psi of air pressure and putting that pressure behind the material and driving it into the tool surface."
Pressure forming allows for sharp, crisp detail, zero draft, even material distribution, and highly cosmetic exteriors. The aluminum tooling allows for shorter lead times, and typical volume ranges from high hundreds to high thousands. For customers who only make a thousand of a type of part per year, injection molding is not the best choice, especially as the parts get larger, Ray said, explaining that he finds he needs to educate people on the thermoforming process and show them that for certain applications and volumes, it's the better choice than injection molding.
"The flexibility of the process really comes into play when we find people interested in learning about thermoforming. They say, "Wow, I like the price of aluminum tooling, I like the time to market of six to eight weeks, and the ability to run different materials, different colors, and different textures," he said. "We go in and show them pressure-formed parts, and customers say they didn't know you could do that. I must get asked a million times if this part was injected molded, and they ask how I got that level of detail. And we say it's a female tool and we used 80 to 100 psi and pushed that material into a tool surface. We use acid-etched texturing, which is what injection molders use to texture their tools, and we can do undercuts and do zero draft and negative draft. We can mold in label recesses and all sorts of crazy things that people aren't used to seeing unless they spend time around the process."
In design schools, Ray noted, there's a lot of emphasis put on teaching injection molding, but not a lot of focus on thermoforming. So Ray partnered up with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., to have senior classes tour the facility. As the students watched parts getting molded and saw the robotic trimming, they were "scratching their heads," according to Ray. "Hopefully, they leave here with some ideas in their heads that they might use down the road," he said.
Ray likens opening up his business to new markets to "keeping his head up" when he was playing sports as a child. It's about always looking around and being aware of new opportunities, such as solar and wind. Although he'll never make solar panels, Ray wonders about whether his business could play a part in how they are shipped or installed. "And what about some of the covers for the wind towers? Could there be thermoformed parts up there? What about things underground, like vault liners or storage tanks or making thermoformed parts that move water around, rather than using other forms of piping? Look at the insides of airplanes. The planes are getting bigger, the parts are getting bigger, and there's opportunity there."
As a third-generation, family-run company, Ray Products has been producing thermoformed parts for 62 years. Brian Ray, whose father and grandfather have seen the company through some turbulent times, including world wars, took on the challenge of opening up new markets and bringing in new technology. "It's possible to thermoform the side panels for a car rather than have them made of stamped metal. There are (plastics) materials that have been proven, and now they have all those alternative vehicles coming out, electric or hybrid. There are all sorts of things our processes can work for. We have low-cost tooling, quick time to market, ability to make quick changes. We don't want to get stuck in just one market, and so our struggle is to say "Let's put our toes in that water and let's talk to some solar people and see what they feel are some of their big challenges and needs. And let's talk to some of the wind guys and some of the water guys, and talk to some of the guys that make containers for waste management, and see if there's anything there. And let's talk to people who make heavy trucks or trailers or agricultural equipment, and see if there's anything there."
The technology brought in since Brian Ray took over has really "changed the business," he said, adding that the company has six-axis robotic trimming capabilities. "We made a decision years ago that we want to be a leader in our discipline, so if we're going to be in large parts, we're going to be a leader in large-part thermoforming. And if we want to use robots, we're going to be a leader in robotic trim." Ray Products is ISO 9001:2008 certified and UL listed as a fabricator with fully-equipped reverse-engineering capabilities. The quality control analysis includes an advanced coordinate measurement machine guaranteeing a 0.0005-inch accuracy rating; 3D measurement technology; and CAD-to-part analysis on parts.
"We have a robotic arm for inspection, and this arm allows us to pick a part and set up for inspection. It will touch a part in several areas to get data and overlay that with the CAD model we started with when the project began," Ray said. "We have a system here that's closed loop. We get a CAD model from a customer to build a tool, we build the tool, the tool comes in, we run samples off the tool to validate it and make fixtures to trim the tool on a robot, and take that trimmed part to inspection. That Faro arm goes over all those surfaces and takes that inspection data and overlays it on the CAD model we started the whole project with. It's very fast, very accurate, and very intuitive. Our CAD to part analysis is phenomenal."
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