My contact with thermoforming dates back to the fall of 1975, when I wrote my first feature on the subject. What I heard from processors back then was that thermoforming was just beginning to change from “black art” to science.

My contact with thermoforming dates back to the fall of 1975, when I wrote my first feature on the subject. What I heard from processors back then was that thermoforming was just beginning to change from “black art” to science. Practitioners of that art looked forward to the day when their “orphan child of the plastics industry” would gain the same respect for precision, repeatability, and industrial efficiency that was afforded to injection molding or extrusion or blow molding.

Leaping ahead to 1992, we ran a cover story in December, in which we showed several computer housings that were injection molded and one that wasn’t. “Can you tell the thermoformed part?” we asked. It was evident then that crisp pressure forming and CNC trimming were giving thermoformed industrial parts a level of aesthetic quality comparable to injection molding. Two years later, attendance at the annual SPE Thermoforming Conference was exploding toward the 1000 level, and would-be participants were literally turned away for lack of room. As I was admiring the entries in the parts competition, I overhead another visitor say, “These parts should scare the hell out of injection molders!”

As Senior Editor Jan Schut’s cover story this month makes clear, more than just injection molders are scared now. And this time the battle is not about aesthetics. In their assault on auto fuel tanks, thermoformers are challenging one of the most functionally sophisticated structural applications in blow molders’ repertoire. If it succeeds in penetrating more than a small niche of the high-profile automotive market, thermoforming can truly be said to have hit the big time.