What is a Shrinker? [Complete Guide of 2024]

A shrinker is a tool or device used to shrink or reduce the size of something. Shrinkers work by applying heat, pressure, chemicals or other methods to make an object smaller in physical size. They are commonly used for shrinking plastic, rubber, textiles and other materials. Some key things to know about shrinkers:

How Do Shrinkers Work?

There are a few main ways that shrinkers reduce the size of materials:

Heat Shrinking

Heat shrinking is one of the most common shrink methods. It involves heating a material to cause the polymer chains to move more freely. As it cools, it sets into a tighter formation which results in the material shrinking. Heat can be applied through convection, infrared radiation, hot air guns, or by submerging the material in hot liquid.

Heat shrinking is particularly effective for shrinking tubing and plastic films. It causes the material to shrink uniformly, allowing it to conform tightly over irregular shapes. The amount of shrinkage depends on factors like exposure time and temperature.

Chemical Shrinking

Certain chemicals can be used to shrink materials. For example, some solvents can swell the polymer structure of plastics, allowing polymer chains to move more freely. When the solvent evaporates, the material sets in a swollen state, resulting in shrinkage.

Chemicals can also shrink fabrics and fibers. Products containing chlorine, like bleach and other cleaning agents, are commonly used to shrink wool, cotton, and other textiles. The chemicals break down the fibers, causing them to tighten and shrink.

Mechanical Shrinking

Mechanical techniques like embossing, calendering, and compressing can also shrink materials. Embossing uses textured rollers to compress a material, reducing its size. Calendering presses a material between hot rollers to shrink it evenly on both sides. High pressure can be applied to directly compress certain materials too.

Cryogenic Shrinking

Extremely cold cryogenic temperatures can significantly shrink some materials. The cold causes the fibers to tighten, resulting in up to 20% shrinkage. Insulated chambers or cryogenic liquids like liquid nitrogen are used to expose materials to temperatures below -300°F.

This method works well for shrinking tubing and plastic films. It provides very uniform shrinkage without any localized weak spots caused by heat.

Key Uses of Shrinkers

Shrinkers have many applications across different industries. Here are some of the main uses:

  • Shrink sleeves – Shrinking plastic films and tubing to create tight shrink sleeves for product labeling and packaging.
  • Wire and cable insulation – Heat-shrinking tubing is used to insulate wires, electrical cables, and wire splices. Provides insulation and environmental sealing.
  • Product assembly – Shrinking parts like tubes, sleeves, and films allow precise fit over components during product assembly.
  • Shape forming – Pre-shaped shrunk plastic films can be formed over molds to make covers, caps, and custom-shaped parts.
  • Fabric modification – Shrinking fabrics with heat, steam, or chemicals to intentionally shrink clothing and textiles for desired effects.
  • Medical devices – Heat shrinking is used in the manufacturing of catheters, sheaths, and other medical components. Provides a tight fit.
  • Food packaging – Cryogenically shrunk plastic films maintain a tight fit over food products, keeping foods fresh.
  • Model making – Shrink films can be vacuum-formed over models to precisely copy surface details for making molds and replicas.

Shrinking Materials

Many materials can be shrunk as long as they contain polymer chains that can be manipulated to tighten the material structure. Here are some of the most commonly shrunk materials:

  • Plastic films, sheets, and tubing – PVC, PETG, polyethylene, etc.
  • Rubbers – Both natural and synthetic rubber.
  • Woven fabrics – Cotton, wool, linen, nylon, polyester.
  • Foams – Polyurethane, neoprene.
  • Adhesives – Can be pre-shrunk on a carrier material.

Polyolefins like polyethylene and polypropylene are among the most widely used shrinkable plastics. Their polymer chains readily reform upon heating to shrink the plastic uniformly.

The degree of shrinkage depends on the material thickness, orientation of polymer chains, processing methods, and shrink parameters. Material shrinkage ratios of up to 75% are possible.

Shrinkage Ratios

The shrinkage ratio is used to measure how much a material shrinks. It is calculated as:

Shrinkage Ratio = (Original Dimension – Shrunk Dimension) / Original Dimension

For example, a 10-inch long tube that shrinks to 8 inches has a shrink ratio of (10 – 8) / 10 = 0.2 or 20%

Higher shrinkage ratios result in more shrinkage. Common ratios range from 10-75% depending on material and process factors. Materials can be manufactured with orientation to provide controlled directional shrinkage (e.g. only shrink-down diameter).

Shrinkage Factors

Several factors influence the shrinkage that can be achieved:

  • Material – Chemical and physical properties affect shrinkability. Amorphous polymers shrink more readily than crystalline.
  • Thickness – Thicker materials generally shrink more than thinner ones.
  • Exposure Temperature – Higher temperatures result in increased shrinkage.
  • Exposure Time – Longer time allows more shrinkage to occur before the material cools.
  • Retained Orientation – Molecular orientation from manufacturing impacts shrink direction/ratios.
  • Pre-shrinking – Preshrunk materials will have less room to further shrink.
  • Constraining Force – External constraints prevent full shrinkage.

The right balance of parameters is needed to achieve targeted shrinkage results and avoid defects. Process controls like thermocouples and timers ensure optimal and repeatable shrink conditions.

Shrink Process Considerations

Several considerations should be made when shrinking processing materials:

  • The shrink process should be tested and validated to identify optimal time, temperature, and methods.
  • Overheating or too rapidly shrinking risks defects like distortion, tearing, or blistering.
  • Constraining forces that restrict shrinkage by more than 10% should be avoided.
  • Cryogenic processing requires insulated chambers and personnel protection equipment.
  • Chemical shrink methods involve flammable solvents and require ventilation controls.
  • Pre-treating materials (e.g. pre-shrinking) helps minimize later variability.
  • The process needs to accommodate the thermal expansion of the material as it heats up.
  • Vent holes are often required to allow trapped air and gasses to escape when shrinking over a substrate.

Following shrink guidelines and controls will result in high-quality shrink applications.

Shrinker Types and Methods

There are various commercial and industrial shrinker machines and systems available to produce controlled shrink results when processing materials in higher volumes:

Convection Oven Shrinkers

Convection ovens use hot forced air to uniformly heat materials for consistent shrinkage. Temperature and dwell times can be programmed for different materials and products. Simple conveyor convection ovens affordably handle high throughput production.

Infrared Shrink Systems

Infrared heaters intensely radiate infrared wavelengths that are absorbed by the material, causing rapid heating and shrinkage. Controlled zones allow targeted heating. Used for shrink sleeves and thin films.

Liquid Bath Shrinkers

Submerging materials in a hot liquid bath provide full contact heating for even shrinkage, especially useful for tubing and cylinders. Different bath mediums (water, oil, glycols) can be used.

Hot Air Guns

Handheld hot air guns direct a stream of hot forced air to locally heat and shrink an area. Provides control for shrinking over irregular shapes. Mainly used for small production, prototyping or repairs.

Cryogenic Shrink Systems

Cryogenic chambers use liquid nitrogen cooling for extreme material shrinkage. The liquid or cold nitrogen gas can also be directed locally. Requires protective equipment for operators.

Steam Shrinkers

Steam provides rapid heating and high heat transfer efficiency for shrink fabrics and textiles. Steam jets or chambers are used. Provides precise control and high throughput.

Each shrink technology has its advantages. The optimal method depends on the material, production speed, cost, and product needs.

Shrinker Safety Issues

Shrinking processes involve dealing with extreme temperatures and hazardous equipment. Some key safety issues include:

  • Hot surfaces – Guarding to prevent accidental contact with hot oven surfaces.
  • Fire and smoke risks – Requires appropriate fire detection and suppression equipment.
  • Fumes – Proper ventilation to mitigate solvent and plastic fumes.
  • Cryogenic hazards – Insulated chambers, protective clothing, and controlled gas venting are needed.
  • Equipment integrity – Preventing explosions from over-pressurization requires relief valves.
  • Operator training – Workers must be properly trained on all equipment operation, maintenance, and emergency procedures.

Safety interlocks, alarms, emergency stops, maintenance schedules, and controls like maximum temperature limits all help mitigate shrinker hazards. Following safety protocols is critical when operating shrink equipment.

Shrinker Maintenance

To keep shrinkers in good operating condition:

  • Inspect heating elements and mechanisms for damage, replacing worn parts as needed.
  • Verify temperature sensors, controls, and safety devices are functioning properly. Recalibrate equipment regularly.
  • Inspect belts, motors, and moving parts; lubricate and replace them if worn.
  • Check cooling and ventilation systems for obstructions and cleanliness.
  • Inspect high-pressure systems and tubing for leaks or damage.
  • Confirm power supplies, electrical wiring, and connections are intact.
  • Test emergency stops and equipment interlocks.
  • Clean equipment and remove material buildup.
  • Monitor processes for consistency and full shrinkage.

Following the manufacturer’s maintenance procedures will maximize uptime and production.

Innovations in Shrink Technology

Some newer advancements in shrink technology include:

  • Predictive shrink software helps operators achieve target shrink results through simulation.
  • Intelligent temperature controls with adaptive heating algorithms optimize shrinking.
  • Automated vision inspection detects shrink defects for process improvement.
  • Radiofrequency and microwave shrink methods provide rapid, non-contact heating.
  • Nanoparticle additives enable greater shrinkage at lower temperatures.
  • Recyclable and biodegradable shrink films reduce environmental impact.
  • Combining shrinking with 3D printing allows shrink-fitting of printed parts.

Continued innovation in shrink materials, equipment, and modeling will open up new capabilities and applications.


In summary, shrinkers provide an effective way to uniformly reduce the size of plastic, rubber, fabric, and foam materials using heat, chemicals, or other shrink processes. They are widely used across many industries to create shrink sleeves, tight-fit assemblies, shape-forming, wire insulation, and unique effects. A variety of commercial shrink systems are available using convection, infrared, steam, and cryogenic methods.

Following safety protocols and maintenance procedures ensures optimal shrink performance and production quality. Ongoing advances are enhancing the possibilities of controlled shrink applications. Understanding the shrinking mechanisms, processes, and equipment considerations allows for the intentional, beneficial use of material shrinkage.

FAQs About Shrinkers

What are the main advantages of using a shrinker?

Some key advantages of using a shrinker include creating a tight fit over irregular shapes, providing full surface contact for insulation, sealing out contaminants, allowing low-stress assembly, producing smooth/crevice-free surfaces, and uniformly shrinking materials for desired effects.

What materials can be shrunk?

Many thermoplastic materials can be shrunk, including polyolefins, PVC, PET, rubbers, polyurethanes, and nylons. Natural fabrics like cotton and wool can also be shrunk. The material must contain polymer chains that can be manipulated to cause shrinkage.

How much can materials shrink?

Shrinkage ratios of 10-75% are possible depending on the material, process parameters, and product needs. Thicker materials and amorphous polymers tend to achieve more shrinkage. Directional orientation and constraints also impact shrinkability.

Does a material’s thickness affect shrinkage?

Yes, thicker materials shrink more readily than thinner materials in most cases. The additional material volume allows more room for the shrinkage to occur. However, very thick materials may require longer heating times to fully penetrate and shrink the thickness.

Can you reverse or undo shrinkage?

For plastics, shrinking is not easily reversible since it permanently reforms the material’s polymer structure. However, there are ways to stretch fabrics and textiles back to near original size after shrinking. This may weaken the material over repeated shrink/reverse cycles.

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