In the extrusion
of plastics, raw thermoplastic material in the form of small beads (often 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 (in either liquid or 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 (which can range from 200 C/400 F to 275C/530F depending on the polymer). In most processes, a heating profile is set for the barrel in which three or more independent PID controlled heater zones 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. If forced air cooling proves insufficient then cast-in heater jackets are employed, and they generally use a closed loop of distilled water in heat exchange with tower or city water.
Plastic extruder cut in half to show the componentsAt 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, and how much pressure is generated can be 'tweaked' by varying screen pack composition (the number of screens, their wire weave size, and other parameters). This breaker plate and screen pack combination also does the function of converting "rotational memory" of the molten plastic into "longitudinal memory".
After passing through the breaker plate 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.
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.