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What is Plastic Extrusion?

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org:80/wiki/Plastics_extrusion

Plastics extrusion is a high volume manufacturing process in which raw plastic material is melted and formed into a continuous profile. Extrusion produces items such as pipe/tubing, weather stripping, window frames, plastic sheeting, adhesive tape and wire insulation.

Process Overview

In the extrusion of plastics, raw thermoplastic material in the form of small beads (called resin in the industry) is gravity fed from a top mounted hopper into the barrel of the extruder. Additives such as colorants and UV inhibitors (also in pellet form) are often used and can be mixed into the resin prior to arriving at the hopper.

The material enters through the feed throat (an opening near the rear of the barrel) and comes into contact with the screw. The rotating screw (normally turning at up to 120 rpm) forces the plastic beads forward into the barrel which is heated to the desired melt temperature of the molten plastic (usually around 200 °C/400 °F). In most processes, a heating profile is set for the barrel in which three or more independently controlled heaters gradually increase the temperature of the barrel from the rear (where the plastic enters) to the front. This allows the plastic beads to melt gradually as they are pushed through the barrel and lowers the risk of overheating which may cause degradation in the polymer. Extra heat is contributed by the intense pressure and friction taking place inside the barrel. In fact, if an extrusion line is running a certain material fast enough, the heaters can be shut off and the melt temperature maintained by pressure and friction alone inside the barrel. In most extruders, cooling fans are present to keep the temperature below a set value if too much heat is generated.

Extrusion Screw

Thorough mixing of the molten plastic occurs during its journey down the barrel. There are many different screw designs, some made to enhance mixing with special ridges in the middle section of the screw to cause turbulent flow.

At the front of the barrel, the molten plastic leaves the screw and travels through a screen pack to remove any contaminants in the melt. The screens are reinforced by a breaker plate (a thick metal puck with many holes drilled through it) since the pressure at this point can exceed 5000 psi (34 MPa). The screen pack/breaker plate assembly also serves to create back pressure in the barrel. Back pressure is required for uniform melting and proper mixing of the polymer.

After passing through the breaker plate, the molten plastic enters the die. The die is what gives the final product its profile and must be designed so that the molten plastic evenly flows from a cylindrical profile, to the product's profile shape. Uneven flow at this stage would produce a product with unwanted stresses at certain points in the profile. These stresses can cause warping upon cooling. Almost any shape imaginable can be created so long as it is a continuous profile.

Extruder Cross Section

The product must now be cooled and this is usually achieved by pulling the extrudate through a water bath. Plastics are very good thermal insulators and are therefore difficult to cool quickly. Compared with steel, plastic conducts its heat away 2000 times more slowly. In a tube or pipe extrusion line, a sealed water bath is acted upon by a carefully controlled vacuum to keep the newly formed and still molten tube or pipe from collapsing. For products such as plastic sheeting, the cooling is achieved by pulling through a set of cooling rolls.

Sometimes on the same line a secondary process may occur before the product has finished its run. In the manufacture of adhesive tape, a second extruder melts adhesive and applies this to the plastic sheet while it.s still hot. Once the product has cooled, it can be spooled, or cut into lengths for later use.

A common post-extrusion process for plastic sheet stock is thermoforming, where the sheet is heated till soft, and formed around a mold into a new shape.

At Proplastex we specialize in Custom Profile Plastic Extrusion, below is an overview of Plastic extrusion of various types:

Blown Film Extrusion

The manufacture of plastic film for products such as shopping bags is achieved using a blown film line. This process is the same as a regular extrusion process up until the die. The die is an upright cylinder with a circular opening similar to a pipe die. The diameter can be a few centimetres to more than three metres across. The molten plastic is pulled upwards from the die by a pair of nip rolls high above the die (4 metres to 20 metres or more depending on the amount of cooling required). In the centre of the die is an air outlet from which compressed air can be forced into the centre of the extruded circular profile, creating a bubble. This expands the extruded circular cross section by some ratio (a multiple of the die diameter), thus decreasing the wall thickness. This ratio, called the .blow-up ratio. can be just a few percent to 200 percent of the original diameter. The nip rolls flatten the bubble into a double layer of film who.s width (called the .layflat.) is equal to ½ the circumference of the bubble. This film can then be spooled or printed on, cut into shapes, and heat sealed into bags or other items.

Overjacketing Extrusion

In a wire coating process, the bare wire is pulled through the center of a die similar to a tubing die. Usually, a plasticized PVC material is extruded around the wire. Essentially, an insulated wire is a thin walled tube which has been formed around a bare wire.

Tubing Extrusion

Plastic tubing, such as drinking straws, is manufactured by pushing molten polymer through a die of the desired profile shape (square, round, triangular). Hollow sections are usually extruded by placing a pin or mandrel inside of the die, and in some cases positive pressure is applied to the internal cavities through the pin.

[Plastic extruder with barrel cut open to show the screw.]