Here you are: you have been sitting at your desk, clicking through and collecting images for your idea board and now you’re ready to put a design together for some unique reception furnishings. During your search, you kept finding desks, chairs and wall features using thermoformed solid surface and you think your client would be interested. But before you start to generate a 3D model of your part, there a few basics you should understand first especially if you have a cost-conscience client (and no matter how big the company, they are all cost-conscience!) So, applying these tips early will help you form a design that is what everyone wants: amazing and cost effective.
First of all, you might ask “What is thermoforming?” Thermoforming is the process of heating up a plastic material, such as solid surface like Corian, Krion or LG Hi-Macs, to a temperature where the sheet is pliable. In this state, the sheets can then be formed into a variety of shapes. The heated-up material needs to have a mold or structure of some kind behind it to hold the shape until it cools and “locks in” the new shape.
Tip #1 Thermoforming Affects Color. Any color of solid surface can be thermoformed, but the resins are impacted, even if slightly, by the heat and so if thermoformed sections are being bonded next to non-formed pieces, it is often good practice to heat those pieces up as well, so that the resin is affected the same and can keep the color shift between sheets to a minimum. So when laying out the design, some thoughtful consideration in where a formed piece will be hard-bonded to a non-formed piece can help minimize the extra work of heating & cooling sheets that aren’t being formed.
Tip #2 Keep the Number of Different Radii to a minimum. Because the heated solid surface is extremely pliable and it can take any shape its subjected to (which is good and bad). Therefore, it’s typical that a forming fixture or mold is required to hold the proper shape until the material cools. So, for every unique radius in your design, that will equate to a specific mold. And in thermoforming solid surface, one of the biggest costs in the process is the design and fabrication of the molds themselves. Molds are generally a clam-shell mold – a two part mold that sandwiches the heated material so that it takes the correct shape as it cools. So, if you’re looking to create a great design but keep costs relatively low, then keep the radii limited. For example, the bench seen here was a part of a larger installation at a biotech company in San Francisco and had one inside radius and one outside radius all along the feature.
Tip #3 Using the Casework as the Forming Fixture Instead of a Mold. This is a great option for projects and can be a real cost-saver. But it does require that somehow the casework supplier is able to get the casework to the solid surface fabricator and that could be cost prohibitive if the best qualified fabricator for thermoforming is out-of-state or otherwise remote from the project and the casework company. But, if the casework can be used, it should. For the Legacy Emmanuel Children’s Hospital, the casework company built the frame of the large, curved seating and Omega formed all of the solid surface directly to it, saving what would have been thousands of dollars in formwork. Extra tip: Sometimes it pays to see if the solid surface fabricator can also source the casework for the thermoformed features!
Tip #4 Maybe You Don’t have to Thermoform At All. Another way of getting some shape out of solid surface is “cold forming.” Cold forming is simply the process of bending the material without the use of heat or ovens. Solid surface, technically, is not a cold-formable plastic meaning once it’s bent into a shape, it won’t keep that shape so it has to be fastened in place. This process works best with ¼” thick solid surface but ½” can be used, depending on the radius. And this only works with, large, simple curves, which are often seen on large, round reception stations.
Thermoformed solid surface furnishings and features really add an exceptional look and feel to a space whether it’s commercial, hospitality or healthcare. But without knowing how to put a cost-effective design together, it can turn out to be cost-prohibitive. But, with a little planning ahead of time, the end result is amazing!