In the extrusion of plastics, the raw compound material is commonly in the form of nurdles (small beads, often called resin) that are 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 process has much in common with plastic injection molding from the point of the extruder technology though it differs in that it is usually a continuous process. While pultrusion can offer many similar profiles in continuous lengths, usually with added reinforcing, this is achieved by pulling the finished product out of a die instead of extruding the polymer melt through a die.
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 heated barrel. The desired extrusion temperature is rarely equal to the set temperature of the barrel due to viscous heating and other effects. 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 certain materials 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 cooling jackets are employed.
The manufacture of plastic film for products such as shopping bags and continuous sheeting is achieved using a blown film line.
This process is the same as a regular extrusion process up until the die. There are three main types of dies used in this process: annular (or crosshead), spider, and spiral. Annular dies are the simplest, and rely on the polymer melt channeling around the entire cross section of the die before exiting the die; this can result in uneven flow. Spider dies consist of a central mandrel attached to the outer die ring via a number of "legs"; while flow is more symmetrical than in annular dies, a number of weld lines are produced which weaken the film. Spiral dies remove the issue of weld lines and asymmetrical flow, but are by far the most complex.
The melt is cooled somewhat before leaving the die to yield a weak semi-solid tube. This tube's diameter is rapidly expanded via air pressure, and the tube is drawn upwards with rollers, stretching the plastic in both the transverse and draw directions. The drawing and blowing cause the film to be thinner than the extruded tube, and also preferentially aligns the polymer molecular chains in the direction that sees the most plastic strain. If the film is drawn more than it is blown (the final tube diameter is close to the extruded diameter) the polymer molecules will be highly aligned with the draw direction, making a film that is strong in that direction, but weak in the transverse direction. A film that has significantly larger diameter than the extruded diameter will have more strength in the transverse direction, but less in the draw direction.
In the case of polyethylene and other semi-crystalline polymers, as the film cools it crystallizes at what is known as the frost line. As the film continues to cool, it is drawn through several sets of nip rollers to flatten it into lay-flat tubing, which can then be spooled or cut.