UNSW Making

Thermoforming Plastics Basics

Tutorials, guides, material advice and more! All the things you need to know about thermoforming plastics in the workshop

What is plastic?

Precious plastic describe this well,

The word itself is derived from the Greek plastikos meaning “capable of being shaped or moulded” and refers to their malleability during manufacture that allows plastic to be cast, pressed or extruded into a variety of shapes—like films, fibres, plates, tubes, bottles and much more.

Plastics are synthetic chemicals extracted mainly from petroleum and made of hydrocarbons (chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms). Most plastics are polymers, long molecules made up of many repetitions of a basic molecule called a monomer and this structure makes plastic particularly durable and long lasting. Due to their relatively low cost, ease of manufacture and versatility, plastics are used in an enormous and expanding range of products, from shampoo bottles to space rockets.

Different Plastic Types

There are two major categories of plastic: Thermoplastics and Thermoset.


Thermoset plastics contain polymers that cross-link together and create an irreversible bond, meaning they can’t be remelted - once they take shape, they will be solidified forever. Resin is a really good example of a thermoset plastic. None of these plastics can be recycled.


Thermoplastics is a plastic polymer which becomes soft when heated and hard when cooled. Thermoplastic materials can be cooled and heated several times: when they are heated, they melt to a liquid and when they cool they become hard.

Thankfully, 80% of plastics in the world are thermoplastics meaning they can be recycled and transformed. Thermoplastics are divided into further subcategories depending on their structure and properties, and can be recognised by their name or number that should be usually printed or embossed somewhere on your products.

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Plastics in the Design Futures Lab

Plastic Pile

Where possible in the Design Futures Lab we use plastics that are recyclable. We endeavour to recycle our plastic waste responsibly and now if we can do it ourselves we are.

We ask that users of the workshop think about the all the materials they use and their impact.

In the polymers lab we use the following materials:

HDPE - High Density Polyethylene - number 2

PETG - Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol

HIPS - High Impact Polystyrene

PLA - Polylactic Acid

Acrylic - PMMA - Poly(methyl methacrylate)

HIPS - High Impact Polystyrene

Vacuum Forming

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Injection Moulding

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Sheet Press

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