Plastic Part Design

Successful plastic part design includes selecting the right material, manufacturing process, and geometry

Plastic part design involves selecting the best polymer for an application, creating a geometry that is both functional and cost effective to produce, and choosing the right manufacturing process to make the parts. It is important that designers consider all three elements (material, geometry, and manufacturing method) early in the design process in order to avoid conflicting requirements.

For example, canvas phenolic sheet might have ideal mechanical properties for a particular domed machine guard, but this material can’t be thermoformed into the required part geometry. ABS sheet or polycarbonate sheet might be better choices for the application since they have good thermoforming characteristics which allow them to be easily shaped into a dome.

Material selection and blueprint for plastic part designMany geometric features such as tight dimensional tolerances and countersunk mounting holes, which are permissible on metal parts, may not be suitable for plastic parts.

Consider some of the following design guidelines for plastic material selection, plastic manufacturing processes, and plastic part geometry:

Material Selection

Plastic material selection starts by considering the functional requirements of the part including mechanical loads and the operating environment (temperature range, presence of water or chemicals, outdoor exposure, etc.). It is important for designers to recognize that the reported mechanical property values for a plastic material reflect the results of short term laboratory tests and are not indicative of the loads that can be sustained in actual use.

Most “real world” applications involve extended service life, and therefore long term behaviors such as creep, stress relaxation, and thermal degradation need to be considered when selecting a plastic material for an application. Additional considerations include requirements for transparency, compatibility with adhesives and/or surface finishes, and any friction and wear requirements.

Finally, flammability characteristics, electrical properties, and agency compliance requirements (FDA, USP Class VI, ISO 10993, etc.) need to be considered when selecting a plastic material for an application. Our experienced sales and technical teams are available to assist you with material selection challenges.


Plastic Manufacturing Processes

Plastics can be shaped via a number of processes including extrusion, injection molding, machining, and thermoforming.

  • Plastic profiles can either be extruded on a thermoplastic extruder or machined via multiple passes through a precision shaper.
  • High volume plastic parts with thin walls, consistent wall thicknesses, and appropriate draft are typically produced via injection molding. It is important to note that injection molding requires expensive tooling that is often specific to a single polymer. This limits design flexibility in the event that material or part geometry changes are desired.
  • CNC machining (via router, mill or lathe) is often the best choice for plastic parts with thick or uneven walls or in cases where design flexibility is desired since machining generally does not require expensive tooling.
  • CNC routers are outstanding machines for rapidly producing two dimensional parts from flat plastic sheet. Routers are able to manufacture parts more quickly and cost effectively than CNC mills, however routers generally require more open dimensional tolerances than CNC mills and they are for lighter duty work than mills.
  • CNC lathes are used to create parts that are round in cross section.
  • Thermoforming is a process where plastic sheet is heated and softened and then stretched over a mold.  Air is then evacuated from the system and atmospheric pressure forms the finished part. Thermoforming is a good choice for hollow parts such as kiosk fronts, machine guards, and medical equipment housings that have even wall thickness and sufficient draft for release from the mold. Thermoforming tooling tends to be relatively inexpensive since it does not have to withstand the temperatures and pressures associated with thermoplastic injection molding.

Part Geometry Tips

It is important that designers be sensitive to certain part geometry and dimensional tolerance considerations when developing plastic parts. Plastics tend to have higher rates of thermal expansion than metals and plastics can change shape due to the absorption of water or other chemicals.  Additionally, plastics may grow, shrink, or warp due to residual stress or creep. These properties require designers to specify wider dimensional tolerances for plastic parts compared with tolerance that are typical for metal parts. If plastic components are to be used in direct contact with mating metal parts, it is important that assembly methods allow for thermal expansion mismatch between the metal and plastic components. This is often accomplished through the use of oversized or slotted mounting holes or by using flexible adhesives that allow the plastic parts to expand without joint failure.

Stress concentrations are a particular concern for plastic parts, especially for amorphous thermoplastics such as acrylic and polycarbonate. These materials are more susceptible to environmental stress cracking than semi-crystalline thermoplastics or thermosetting plastics.  It is important to avoid features such as sharp 90 degree internal corners, which concentrate stresses in ways that can lead to part failure. Internal corners on plastic parts should be designed with generous radii whenever possible.

Fasteners with flat tapered heads and/or sharply pointed threads also create stress concentrations that can lead to environmental stress cracking and/or creep rupture. This is particularly problematic when fasteners are placed to close to the edges of plastic parts. Fasteners with rounded threads, flat (not tapered) contact surfaces, and fastener designs that include washers are preferred for plastic parts.  Additionally, fasteners should be kept some distance from the edges of parts to minimize the chance of cracking during assembly or subsequent failure due to creep rupture.

Threaded metal inserts can be problematic if they are press fit into plastic parts or if they have sharp external threads, either of which can cause stress concentrations, environmental stress cracking, and/or creep rupture.  Designers are encouraged to specify threaded inserts that have been specially designed for plastics. These inserts are often thermally or ultrasonically installed and they have geometries that limit stress concentrations. Additionally, it is important that metal inserts be free from lubricants or other chemicals that might be stress crack agents that could potentially degrade adjacent plastic surfaces. 

Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most important considerations when selecting a plastic material for an application?

First, it is important to determine which family of plastics (amorphous thermoplastics, semi-crystalline thermoplastics, or thermosetting plastics) is most appropriate for the application. Then the operating environment including chemical exposure, UV or other radiation exposure, and the operating temperature range need to be considered. Finally, it is important to consider any friction and wear conditions and agency compliance requirements (FDA, USP class VI, etc.).

What are the benefits and limitations of machining compared with molding processes such as injection molding?

Injection molding is an outstanding process for producing low cost, high volume plastic parts. Injection molding tools tend to be expensive and the molding process can impose limits on the part geometry. Some plastics (PTFE) can’t be molded on thermoplastic injection molding equipment. Machining is an effective method for producing plastic parts with heavy / uneven wall thicknesses and difficult geometries.

Can all plastic materials be thermoformed?

Most plastic sheet materials can be thermoformed. However, the degree of difficulty involved with thermoforming a particular plastic is a function of the material’s rheology (melt strength) and the processing temperature range. Amorphous plastics (polystyrene, acrylic, polycarbonate) tend to have excellent thermoforming characteristics. Semi-crystalline plastics (HDPE, polypropylene) are more difficult to thermoform. Thermosetting plastics (canvas phenolic, G-10) can not be thermoformed.

What are the most important part geometry considerations when designing a plastic part?

It is important that designers specify wider dimensional tolerances for plastic components since the dimensions of a plastic part can change due to thermal expansion, moisture absorption, residual stress, and/or creep.  Additionally, it is important to avoid problematic geometric features or mechanical fasteners that create stress concentrations which can lead to environmental stress cracking and/or creep rupture.

Can plastic parts be assembled with adhesives and/or mechanical fasteners?

Many plastics can be assembled with adhesives or solvent cements. However, some semi-crystalline plastics (PTFE, acetal) are engineered to have good chemical resistance, which limits their ability to bond. These materials may require surface treatment (corona, chemical etching, flame) prior to bonding. Plastics can be joined using mechanical fasteners. Avoid mechanical fasteners that concentrate stresses in ways that can lead to part failure (environmental stress cracking, creep rupture).