Acrylic Machining vs. Polycarbonate Machining

At Plastic Design, Inc., we specialize in designing and fabricating products from acrylic and polycarbonate. We use cast rods, sheets, tubes, and custom forms to manufacture a wide range of finished products in both materials.

Acrylic and polycarbonate serve as the two most frequently used clear plastics, with both materials offering distinct advantages and disadvantages. With over four decades of experience in the plastic manufacturing sector, we clearly understand these nuances and how they affect product and production performance and apply this expertise to all of our manufacturing operations—including machining.

Some industry professionals may find it difficult to choose between the two plastics for their unique machining applications. To facilitate this selection process, we put together the following blog post that provides an overview of acrylic and polycarbonate, their advantages and disadvantages, and their typical applications.

Acrylic vs. Polycarbonate

Before deciding whether acrylic or polycarbonate best suits your machining needs, it is important to understand the differences between the two plastics materials. Each exhibits particular advantageous and disadvantageous characteristics that make one or the other more appropriate to use in a given application.

The table below outlines the various characteristics—both positive and negative—of acrylic and polycarbonate.

Acrylic Polycarbonate
Description Transparent thermoplastic plastic

Also referred to by the trade name Plexiglass

Available in a wide range of colors and opacities

Naturally transparent thermoplastic

Available in several formulations, including FDA-compliant, glass-filled, enhanced bearing, and wear grades

Advantages High strength (4–8 times that of glass)

Superior clarity (making it a suitable alternative to glass)

High durability (resistant to a broad range of temperatures, weathering, and UV radiation)

Broad versatility (easily fabricated through a variety of techniques and bonded with adhesives and solvents)

Low cost (less expensive to manufacture than other materials, including polycarbonate)

Superior strength (200 times that of glass)

Superior transparency (transmits light as effectively as glass)

High durability (high impact resistance)

High machinability (easily manipulated and shaped using various fabrication processes)

Minimal creep (less likely than other plastic materials to warp or deform under pressure)

Disadvantages More susceptible to cracking than polycarbonate

More susceptible to chipping than polycarbonate

Poor heat resistance (loses structural integrity at temperatures over 160 degrees Celsius and will warp or melt when exposed to open flames)

More susceptible to scratches than acrylic

More susceptible to denting under impact than acrylic (due to greater flexibility)

High costs (more expensive than acrylic)

Common Product Applications for Acrylic and Polycarbonate

Due to their differing characteristics, acrylic and polycarbonate find use in varying product applications. Some of the most common products made from acrylic and polycarbonate include:

  • Polycarbonate:acrylic polycarbonate machining
    • Architectural facades and features
    • Bulletproof and bullet-resistant windows
    • Clear manifolds
    • Machine safety glass
    • Point-of-Purchase (POP) retail displays
    • Sight glasses

Acrylic and Polycarbonate Products from Plastic Design, Inc.

At Plastic Design, Inc., we use the most advanced manufacturing equipment to produce the highest quality acrylic, polycarbonate, and other plastic products on the market. We offer a variety of services, including CNC machining, laser cutting, routing, forming, pipe fusion, and plasma cutting, to meet the needs of a wide range of applications. From single prototypes to large-scale production runs, we fulfill customer orders with short lead times and quick turnaround.

Some of the most common uses for acrylic or polycarbonate machining include:

  • Biomedical and pharmaceutical
  • Cleanroom
  • Storage equipment
  • Semiconductor
  • Recreational marine

In addition to our superior fabrication services, our experienced engineers and specialists are happy to provide computer-aided design assistance and on-site support. For more information about our products and services, contact us or request a quote today.

Common Materials for Machining Plastic

When manufacturing plastic components, many companies turn to molding techniques to produce the necessary parts and products. However, this method often proves expensive and time consuming.

Machining serves as an alternative to molding that creates small quantities of complex and close tolerance plastic parts quickly. Since the workpiece has to be rigid enough to withstand operations without warping or bending, not all types of plastics are suitable for machining. Despite these restrictions, there remain several plastics of varying costs and performance characteristics that are machinable.

Plastic Material Selection

Machinable plastics are available in many forms—such as sheets, rods, or tubes—and can be broadly classified into two categories: thermoplastics and thermosets.

plastic material selectionThermoplastics

Thermoplastics are the largest category of plastics. They are characterized by their ability to soften and melt under heat multiple times without experiencing any chemical change. Some of the other key properties of thermoplastics are:

  • High creep resistance
  • Solubility in certain solvents
  • Susceptibility to swelling in the presence of some solvents
  • Amenability to the use of fillers—such as carbon fibers, glass fibers, graphite, and molybdenum disulfide—for changing material properties

Thermoplastics are available in a wide range of generic and trademarked plastic formulations, each of which demonstrates different material and performance characteristics. Some of the most common types employed include acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), acetal, acrylic, nylon, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF).

Thermosets

Unlike thermoplastics, thermosets do not melt or soften under heat for reuse since the polymers in the material form stable, cross-linked bonds once cured. Other significant characteristics of thermoset plastics are:

  • Insolubility in most solvents
  • Insusceptibility to swelling when exposed to most solvents
  • High creep resistance (once cured) and susceptibility to chipping (brittle)
  • Amenability to use of fillers for composite materials

Some of the most commonly used thermosets are Bakelite, epoxy, melamine, phenolics, and vinyl ester.

Material Characteristics of Common Machined Plastics

When selecting a plastic material for a machining application, there are two main factors to consider: (a) suitability of the plastic’s properties for the application and (b) its suitability for machining. Some of the characteristics that machined plastic parts can have are:

  • Biocompatibility: targeted toward medical and pharmaceutical applications where machined parts must not cause biological reactions in patients
  • Chemical resistance: important for parts used in the agricultural, chemical, and food and beverage industries as parts must not dissolve or degrade when they come in contact with chemicals
  • Dimensional stability: an important property for outdoor parts that are exposed to varying stress and environmental conditions
  • FDA classification: plastics used in food and beverage industry applications must be approved by the FDA
  • Impact resistance: some plastics, such as polycarbonate, offer greater impact resistance than glass, making them suitable for use in high impact or stress applications
  • Loading strength: the ability of the plastic to withstand compressive and tensile loads
  • Temperature resistance: depending on the specifications of the application, the plastic material must be able to perform well under a wide range of temperatures
  • UV resistance: an important property for outdoor applications
  • Wear resistance: plastic parts used in high speed or high torque applications must have good resistance to wear

Industries and Applications

Machined plastic parts find application across a diverse set of industries as components of cabinets, carts, enclosures and tanks, fume hoods, laboratory equipment, light lenses, point-of-purchase (POP) displays, sign holders, and more. Some of the industries that use machined plastic parts are:

Plastic Solutions From Plastic Design, Inc.

At Plastic Design, Inc., we have over 40 years of experience designing, prototyping, and manufacturing machined plastic parts for a wide range of industries. We can fabricate parts to standards such as Factory Mutual, Semi, NFPA, and OSHA or custom specifications and maintain ISO 9001:2015, I.P.C.A. 620, and confined space entry certifications. Regardless of whether you need a one-off prototype or a large production run, we can meet your machined plastic needs.

In addition to our design and manufacturing capabilities, we also offer the following services:

  • On-site installation
  • Support
  • Stocking and distribution of plastic materials in various forms, including extruded and molded rods, sheets, and flexible and rigid tubes.

To learn more about our plastic machining and distribution capabilities, contact us or request a quote today.