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D E S I G N I N P L A S T I C S : PA R T 2

Physical And Mechanical

Properties of Plastics
This article is the second in a 5-part series that reviews basic concepts for designing
and fabricating plastic parts. The first, in August of this year
(http://www.1rs.com/011df-525), looked at design considerations
for injection-molded parts.

By Frank Jaarsma
Ticona Corporation, Summit, NJ

hoosing a plastic for a specific use can be a daunting task. Designers face a seemingly
endless variety of resins and a host of properties that define them. Each market usually
needs a unique set of properties for the plastics used in it (Table 1). Electronic connec-
tors, for example, are complex, precision components that need good flow in thin section and
high dimensional stability. Packaging materials, by contrast, need stiffness, strength and good
water vapor barrier properties. These re-
quirements drive the process for select-
ing plastics. This article reviews plastic
materials, and the key physical and me-
chanical measurements that define them.
Plastics are either thermosets or ther-
moplastics. Thermosets flow before
molding but undergo chemical change
during processing, which cures or hard-
ens them to create a complex, intercon-
nected network. If too much heat is
added after this, the polymer degrades
rather than melts. Thermosetting plastics
include phenolic, epoxy, alkyd poly-
ester, polyurethane, urea-formaldehyde
and unsaturated polyester resins. Natural
and synthetic rubbers, such as latex, ni-
trile, millable polyurethane, silicone,
butyl and neoprene, are also thermosets.
Thermoplastics, by contrast, soften
when heated and harden when cooled.
Molding does not change their chemi-
cal structure. They have a perfor-
mance-based hierarchy from commod-
ity to engineering grades. Commodity
thermoplastics include low and high
density polyethylenes and polypropy-
lene. Engineering thermoplastics in-
56 explore all sites on www.manufacturingcenter.com November 2000
D E S I G N I N P L A S T I C S : PA R T 2
Table 1
Key performance characteristics by market

E/E Interconnects Telecommunications Packaging

Good flow in thin walls Good flow in thin walls Excellent barrier properties
Dimensional precision Dimensional precision Stiffness, strength
Heat resistance Stiffness, strength
Flame retardance Cryogenics
Automotive Excellent barrier properties
Healthcare Good flow in thin walls Good low temperature properties
Good flow in thin walls Solvent resistance Stiffness, strength
Chemical resistance Temperature resistance
Withstands sterilization Dimensional stability Audio/visual
Stiffness, strength Good flow in thin walls
Business machines Dimensional precision
Good flow in thin walls Stiffness, strength
Dimensional precision Temperature resistance
Chemical resistance

clude acetal, nylon, polycarbonate, by combining it mechanically and chemically

polyphenylene sulfide and liquid crystal poly- with one or more polymers. Alloys, or me-
mer. Those higher in the hierarchy generally chanical blends of two or more polymers,
carry greater loads and withstand impact, improve performance and processability and
high temperature and chemical attack better. lower material cost. Their properties usually
Most thermoplastics are rigid, but some are fall between those of the starting polymers,
highly elastic (thermoplastic elastomers, or although some have better properties than ei-
TPEs), and can be stretched repeatedly to at ther one alone. Copolymers chemically com-
least twice their original length at room tem- bine two or more repeating units. Copoly-
perature, then return to near their original mers and homopolymers (one repeating unit)
length. Many injection-moldable TPEs are re- in the same plastic family can have different
placing traditional rubbers. They are often properties.
used to modify rigid thermoplastics to aid A plastic’s physical and mechanical proper-
impact strength. Additionally, most thermo- ties can be modified with additives, fillers
plastics are amorphous, but some have chains and reinforcements. In general, mechanical
packed in an organized way and are consid- properties are best increased by adding rein-
ered partly or mostly crystalline. All crys- forcing fibers made of glass, metal, carbon or
talline plastics have amorphous regions be- other materials. Particulate fillers like talc or
tween and connecting their crystalline re- ground calcium carbonate generally increase
gions. Liquid crystal polymer, a good exam- modulus, while plasticizers decrease modulus
ple of a semicrystalline resin, has rodlike and enhance flexibility. Other common addi-
molecules set in parallel arrays that makes tives include flame retardants, oxidation in-
them stiffer, stronger and more resistant to hibitors, and thermal and UV stabilizers.
creep, heat and chemicals (Table 2).
A plastic’s properties depend on its chem- Physical properties
istry, structure, chain length and the bonds Properties can vary through a plastic and
between chains. Its properties can be altered with the direction of measurement. Plastics
58 explore all sites on www.manufacturingcenter.com November 2000
D E S I G N I N P L A S T I C S : PA R T 2
Table 2
Comparison of Properties
Amorphous polymers Semi-crystalline polymers Liquid crystal polymers

No sharp melting point Relatively sharp melting point Melt over a range of temperatures, low
heat of fusion

Random chain orientation in both solid Ordered arrangement of chains of mol- High chain continuity; extremely or-
and melt phase ecules and regular recurrence of crys- dered molecular structure in both melt
talline structure only in solid phase phase and solid phase

Don’t flow as easily as semi-crystalline Flows easily above melting point Flow extremely well under shear within
polymers in molding process melting range

Fiberglass and/or mineral reinforcement Reinforcement increases load bearing Reinforcement reduces anistropy and in-
only slightly improves Deflection Tem- capabilities and DTUL considerably, par- creases load bearing capability and
perature under Load (DTUL) ticularly with highly crystalline polymers DTUL

Can give a transparent part Part is usually opaque due to the crystal Part is always opaque due to the crystal
structure of semi-crystalline resin structure of liquid crystal resin

Examples: cyclic olefinic copolymer Examples: polyester (Impet PET, Celanex Example: Vectra LCP
(Topas COC), acrylonitrile-butadiene- PBT, Duranex PBT), polyphenylene sul-
styrene (ABS), polystyrene (PS), polycar- fide (Fortron PPS), polyamide (Celanese
bonate (PC), polysulfone (PSu), poly- nylon), polyacetal copolymer (Celcon
etherimide (PEI) POM, Hastaform POM, Duracon POM)

are homogeneous if they have the same dimensional stability and some mechanical
makeup throughout as in many unfilled ther- and electrical properties.
moplastics, or they can be heterogeneous and • Mold shrinkage — how much a part’s
vary from point to point. If properties are the dimension changes as it cools and solidifies
same when measured in any direction, the in a mold divided by the mold dimension.
plastic is isotropic. If not, then it is Molds are sized to allow for shrinkage,
anisotropic. In molded crystalline and glass- which varies with wall thickness, flow direc-
fiber-reinforced resins, properties can differ in tion and other conditions. Reinforced and
the cross-flow and in-flow directions. filled plastics shrink less than neat ones.
Physical properties often evaluated for • Elasticity — the plastic’s ability to return
specifying a plastic include: to its original size and shape after being de-
• Density and specific gravity — Density formed. This is high in rubber and TPEs.
is mass per unit volume (lb/in.3 or g/cm), Contrast this with plasticity, the opposite of
while specific gravity is the mass of a vol- elasticity, in which a plastic holds the shape
ume of material divided by the same volume to which it is deformed. This occurs when a
of water (both at 23°C). As a dimensionless plastic is stressed beyond its yield point
number, specific gravity is a good way to (where permanent deformation begins).
compare materials as regards part cost, • Ductility — how well a plastic can be de-
weight and quality control. formed without fracture or how well it can be
• Water absorption — the percent in- stretched, pulled or rolled without destroying its
crease in weight of a specimen (dried for 24 integrity. It is measured as a percent elongation.
hr.) before and after immersion in 23°C • Opacity and transparency — usually
water for various times. This property affects measured as haze and luminous transmittance.
November 2000 explore all sites on www.manufacturingcenter.com 59
D E S I G N I N P L A S T I C S : PA R T 2
Haze is the percent of light transmitted of creep depends on applied stress, tempera-
through a specimen and scattered more than ture and time. It is usually measured at four
2.5 deg from the incident beam. Luminous or more stress levels and plotted as strain vs.
transmittance is the ratio of transmitted light log of time. Crystalline resins usually have
to incident light. lower creep rates than amorphous ones. Glass
• Lubricity — measures load bearing char- fiber reinforcement improves creep resistance.
acteristics under relative motion. Good lu- A plastic part will fail when too high a fixed
bricity goes with low coefficient of friction strain is imposed for too long a time.
and a tendency not to gall (to be worn away • Impact loading — evaluates how well a
by friction). part absorbs energy from an impact and is
dependent on the shape, size, thickness and
Mechanical properties type of material. Tests can be done on
Mechanical properties are crucial in nearly notched or unnotched samples. Notched tests
all plastic applications. Laboratory-generated, measure how easily a crack propagates
short-term data provide ideal values that are through a material. Impact tests are not ana-
useful in selecting a resin. Lab tests usually lytical, but can be used to compare the rela-
subject samples to a single, steady force for tive impact resistance of materials. The main
a limited time. In the real world, many fac- impact tests are:
tors occur at once, so parts should be evalu- • Izod impact strength (mainly the U.S.)
ated in actual use to gauge how varying —a pendulum arm is swung from a height to
force, temperature and other factors affect impact a notched cantilevered specimen. The
them. Note that short-term values do not distance the pendulum travels after fracturing
work for such structural responses as creep, the material indicates the loss of energy, which
impact and fatigue. is the Izod strength in ft-lb/in or J/m. This test
The most significant mechanical properties also has unnotched or reversed notched (facing
include: away from pendulum) versions.
• Toughness — the ability to absorb me- • Charpy impact (mainly in Europe) —
chanical energy without fracturing. High-im- like the Izod measurement, except the beam
pact, unfilled resins generally have excellent is supported at both ends. The pendulum hits
toughness. Brittle resins, which lack tough- the beam at its midpoint.
ness, often have less impact strength and • Falling dart impact — involves dropping
higher stiffness. Many glass-reinforced and a weight onto a flat disk. Height of release
mineral-filled materials are brittle. and dart weight are varied until half the
• Tensile strength — the maximum specimens break.
amount of tensile load per unit area a mate- • Fatigue endurance — evaluates the me-
rial can withstand. chanical deterioration and failure of parts that
• Tensile elongation — how much length are cyclically stressed. This test subjects a
increases in response to a tensile load ex- cantilevered beam to reverse flexural loading
pressed as a percent of the original length. cycles at different stress levels.
Elongation at break is the maximum elonga-
tion the plastic can undergo. The next installment of this series will con-
• Flexural strength — how much of a tinue to look at plastic properties by reviewing
bending load a plastic can withstand before it thermal, electrical and chemical properties.
• Creep — a plastic’s deformation under For more information:
load (tension, compression or flexure) over Circle 450 - Ticona or connect directly to
time. It does not include the initial change in their website via the Online Reader Service
dimension when the load is applies. The rate Program at http://www.1rs.com/011df-526
60 explore all sites on www.manufacturingcenter.com November 2000
World-Class Engineering Polymers Contact Information

n Celanex® thermoplastic polyester (PBT) Americas

Ticona Engineering Polymers
n Celcon® and Hostaform® acetal copolymer (POM) Product Information Service
8040 Dixie Highway
n Celstran® and Compel® long fiber   Florence, KY 41042
reinforced thermoplastics (LFRT) USA
Tel.: +1-800-833-4882
n Fortron® polyphenylene sulfide (PPS) Tel.: +1-859-372-3244

n GUR® ultra-high molecular   Customer Service

Tel.: +1-800-526-4960
weight polyethylene (UHMW-PE) Tel.: +1-859-372-3214
Fax: +1-859-372-3125
n Impet® thermoplastic polyester (PET)
email: prodinfo@ticona.com
n Riteflex® thermoplastic polyester elastomer (TPC-ET)
n Vandar® thermoplastic polyester alloy (PBT) Ticona GmbH
Information Service
n Vectra® liquid crystal polymer (LCP)
65451 Kelsterbach
Tel.: +49 (0)180-584 2662 (Germany)*
+49 (0)69-305 16299 (Europe)**
Fax: +49 (0)180-202 1202
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Any values shown are based on testing of laboratory test specimens and
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in data values. Any determination of the suitability of this material for
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