How to Select the Right Tooling for Pipe Extrusion | Plastics Technology

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How to Select the Right Tooling for Pipe Extrusion | Plastics Technology

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In pipe extrusion, selecting or building a complementary set of tooling often poses challenges due to a range of qualitative factors. Here’s some guidance to help you out.  

Selecting the right extruder and downstream equipment are two prerequisites for the successful installation and operation of a new pipe extrusion line. However, there’s a third, vitally important factor: the right tooling.

Consisting of the pipe die, calibration/sizing tooling, cooling system and downstream supports, extrusion tooling makes all the difference between a pipe production line that should work, and one that works optimally. Pipe tooling is to a pipe production what an assembly line is to the quality of a car or appliance: It’s the element that receives the essential parts of the product (for example, heated and extruded material flows, colors, markings and more) and assembles, aligns and shapes them into a finished product.

With all other upstream and downstream equipment being equal, deviations in tooling specification, manufacturing or tolerances will result in measurable differences in the fit, finish and yield of your final pipe product, or in production failures and the need to retool.

Many of the factors needed to specify optimal pipe tooling are the same ones required for selecting the extrusion line and downstream equipment. They are:

FIG 1 Cross section of a single-layer pipe head, showing how the melt from the extruder splits when it reaches the die pin and is then channeled into a series of flow paths that later merge to form the circumference of the extruded pipe. Photo Credit: Conair

However, some customers elect to run multilayer pipe using these materials. The most typical multilayer pipe consists of three layers, with a center layer of regrind delivered from one extruder that is sandwiched between two layers of virgin material delivered by another extruder, with all of the materials coming together in a multilayer pipe die (Figure 2). Other multilayer pipes may combine two or more materials, consisting of a base material layer with additional layer(s) of a different material with barrier properties.

FIG 2 Multilayer pipe die. Photo Credit: Conair

When inline printing is not possible, it becomes necessary to use a multilayer extruder, with an additional small extruder that embeds colored markings or stripe(s) into the surface of the extrudate before it enters the pipe head.

Pipe heads are typically designed to accommodate a range of pipe sizes and outputs. Some typical output ranges are listed in the accompanying table above, based on a standard dimension ratio (SDR) of 11, a very common SDR that means the pipe sidewall thickness is equal to 1/11th of the pipe diameter.

As the first major piece of tooling, the pipe head receives a flow of molten plastic from the extruder, then distributes that flow outward into a circular pattern that forms the shape of the pipe. A well-designed pipe head works with the extruder to move the plastic through the pipe die evenly, without generating excessive pressure that could begin to distort the pipe dimensions. There are several major factors involved in selecting the right pipe head:

Spider or spiderless/basket design: The first key variable in the pipe head is the internal configuration that holds the die pin inside the melt flow to form the inner diameter (ID) of the pipe. Pipe dies feature two basic designs, each of which offers extrusion challenges but can be optimized for particular types of material.

Spider-type pipe heads were developed first, with spiderless pipe heads evolving later to cope with different materials and pipe requirements. One key difference is in the heat tolerance of the materials you’re extruding. Generally, rigid PVC extrudes very smoothly through a spider-type pipe head. However, to extrude polyolefins like HDPE and PP, a basket design is preferred. The difference is in the polymer molecule — polyolefins have a more stable molecular structure, so they can tolerate the more restrictive basket flow channels, while PVC tends to degrade and burn when pushed through more restrictive die flow channels.

Land length: Land length refers to the length of the area of the pipe head where the pin and bushing run parallel to each other. Getting this length right is essential to stabilizing the melt as the pipe begins to form, prior to exiting the pipe die. Too little land length can cause the pipe shape to vary as it leaves the die, resulting in dimensional instability. But too much can create resistance (backpressure) which can restrict die output. A general guideline for producing HDPE pipe is a 30:1 ratio of land length to wall thickness.

Internal air cooling: Because of the mass of hot extrudate in a larger pipe size, external cooling alone is insufficient to cool and stabilize pipe dimensions when pipe exceeds 10 inches in diameter. So, an internal flow of cooling air, delivered through the die head, is used to carry away internal heat while providing positive pressure to maintain the ID of the pipe during vacuum sizing. The hot air flows through and out of the pipe as it moves further downstream. The practical effect of internal cooling is that it can save extrusion floor space by reducing the number or length of external cooling tanks required.

Remember that tooling helps to assemble and transition the elements of the extrusion as they proceed down the line. One of the most visible and critical requirements of tooling is to manage the flow of “hot” pipe material as it exits the pipe head and then rapidly “draws down” to enter calibration tooling, which begins the sizing and cooling process.

Material Drawdown: “Drawdown” refers to the degree to which a “hot” pipe extrusion shrinks or “necks down” between the exit of the pipe head and the entrance of the sizing tooling, specifically the neck of the calibration sleeve on the vacuum cooling tank. To enable drawdown, the pin and bushing back in the pipe head are engineered to be larger than the nominal pipe size being produced. Ideally, the excess in size enables the melt flow to cool and shrink (drawdown) just enough to “seal” the circumference of the pipe as it enters the calibration sleeve — which is the first element of vacuum sizing tooling.

If the hot pipe exits the head being too small (not enough estimated drawdown), it won’t complete the tooling seal needed for vacuum sizing to optimize its dimensions during cooling. This will result in leakage of lubricating water from the neck of the calibration tool. If the pipe comes out too large (too much estimated drawdown), the melt will jam at the entrance of the sizing tool. Such jamming causes uneven stress in the molecular structure of the pipe and can result in reduced burst strength and other problems.

The degree of drawdown is substantial and material specific, so predicting and engineering extrusion tooling to get it right can be time-consuming. However, there are some general guidelines, based on experience: Drawdown on polyolefins generally ranges from 30% to40%, while PVC draws down 15-20%, for example. Watching material shrink so much in the few inches of open air between the pipe head outlet and the neck of the sizing tool really brings home the importance of getting drawdown right.

FIG 3 Placed at the entrance to a vacuum cooling tank, calibration sleeves receive the hot extrudate from the pipe die. All along the sleeve structure, openings or grooves in or between the sleeve segments admit spray cooling water to help stabilize the pipe surface as it passes through the tank. Photo Credit: Conair

Calibration tooling. As the hot pipe material draws down, it enters a calibration sleeve, which is mounted at the entrance of a vacuum cooling tank. The calibration sleeve (Figure 3) is expected to perform a range of vital tasks and therefore relies on a series of design elements:

With so much going on within the calibration sleeve, one might wonder if the work of sizing the pipe is done in a single step with the calibration sleeve. That’s not so. Especially on fast-moving, high-output extrusion lines, the calibration sleeve only “sets the skin” on the outermost material or layer of the pipe, stabilizing it so the pipe can undergo subsequent cooling.

Vacuum tank tooling: Initial water cooling for pipe is provided in one or more vacuum cooling tanks (additional nonvacuum cooling tanks may also be required.) When vacuum is applied to the exterior of the hot pipe, airflow within the pipe exerts relative positive pressure to maintain the ID of the pipe.

Because of the mass of material in larger size pipes, pipes can take a long time to cool, shrink and harden to finished size. So, it is vital to have another set of properly adjusted tooling — pipe supports — within the vacuum cooling tank and other downstream tanks, when those are necessary. Pipe supports that are shaped to the pipe OD, acting as an extension of the sizing tool, must follow the sizer to maintain the OD of the pipe as the melt continues to cool. Often, the need for these supports is overlooked or treated as an afterthought in the design of an extrusion tooling package, but they’re vital.

Experience shows that solid supports, properly sized and formed of materials like UHMW PE (for good surface lubricity) offer a superior combination of stability and support within a cooling tank (Figure 4). Some might suggest using rollers within vacuum or cooling tanks, but rollers can move and shift due to the size and mass of the pipe, resulting in irregularities or flat spots on the pipe surface.

FIG 4 Vacuum cooling tank with external spray nozzles (red) and solid pipe supports (yellow). The sturdy yellow pipe supports perform better than rollers, especially with larger pipe sizes. Photo Credit: Conair

Though immersion-style cooling tanks work well with small tubing, they are impractical for large extruded pipe for two reasons: First, larger pipes hold a significant volume of air, which makes them too buoyant to move smoothly through an immersion cooling process. The preferred cooling method for large extruded pipe, external spray cooling, reliably dissipates surface heat while preventing stratification layers in the cooling water — the other problem with immersion cooling.

On larger pipe sizes, usually 10 inches in diameter or greater, external cooling is supplemented by internal air cooling, which is delivered through the die head and flows downstream through the pipe (Figure 5).

FIG 5 A typical internal pipe cooling system consists of a centrifugal blower delivering a stream of cool air through the pipe head and into the pipe ID. Internal cooling is common on extruded pipe of 10 inches in diameter and above. Internal cooling can save floor space by reducing the length of the required cooling tanks. Photo Credit: Conair

Like other forms of extrusion, successful pipe extrusion is accomplished by understanding and controlling multiple factors in the process. Generally, it is possible to size the pieces of equipment in an extrusion line based on quantitative factors such as dimensions, tolerances and output. However, selecting or building a complementary set of tooling often poses additional challenges due to a range of qualitative factors: polymer characteristics, tooling design and materials, drawdown, process temperatures, cooling methods, cut methods and more.

While extrusion processing norms may sometimes point the way to the right solutions, empirical knowledge developed over time to better understand these qualitative factors can make all the difference in successfully defining and operating a pipe extrusion line.

About the Authors:  Ernie Preiato recently retired as vice president, extrusion, for Conair, following a 50-year career, most of which was spent at Conair. Chris Weinrich joined Conair in 2011 and is now general manager, extrusion sales. In his career, Weinrich was also global product manager for Xaloy and spent 14 years with Milacron as product manager. Contact: 724-584-5500;;

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How to Select the Right Tooling for Pipe Extrusion | Plastics Technology

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