Composites are structural products comprising a combination of dissimilar constituent materials. The overall engineering performance characteristics of a finished composite far exceed those achievable from any of the individual components used in isolation.
The use of composites by mankind dates back into antiquity, with one of the earliest recorded uses being the manufacture of mud bricks incorporating straw reinforcement. Reinforced concrete is a more recent example.
Most modern engineering composites comprise a thermosetting resin matrix in combination with a fibrous reinforcement. Some advanced thermoplastic resins are also used, whilst some composites employ mineral filler reinforcements, either alone or in combination with fibrous types. Cellular reinforcements (foams and honeycombs) are also used to impart stiffness in conjunction with ultra light weight.
Modern day reinforcements include glass, carbon and aramid fibres, these being available in a variety of forms (continuous, chopped, woven, multi-axial) as well as combinations of these. Careful selection of reinforcement type enables finished product physical strength characteristics to be tailored to almost any specific engineering requirement. Glass fibre is by far the most widely used fibrous reinforcement, hence the terms "GRP" (glass reinforced plastic), "Fibreglass" and "FRP" (fibre reinforced plastic) are often used to describe articles fabricated from composites.
Commonly used thermosetting resin matrices include polyester, epoxy, vinyl ester and phenolic types. Selection of appropriate resin type enables the designer to vary the service temperature capabilities, chemical resistance properties, weatherability, electrical properties, fire resistance and adhesive characteristics of the finished composite.
Almost any article which can be produced in traditional materials such as metals can be manufactured from composites. Whilst the use of composites will be a clear choice in many instances, material selection in others will depend on factors such as working lifetime requirements, number of items to be produced (run length), complexity of product shape, possible savings in assembly costs and on the experience and skills of the designer in tapping into the optimum potential of composites. In some instances, best results may be achieved through the use of composites in conjunction with traditional materials.
Fabrication processes, too, have undergone substantial evolution in recent years. Although the traditional hand lay-up process will remain the process of choice for some applications, new developments in pultrusion, resin transfer moulding, vacuum infusion, sheet moulding compound, low temperature curing prepregs and low pressure moulding compounds are taking the industry to new heights of sophistication, and are now being exploited in high technology areas such as the aerospace industry.
To further investigate the potential suitability of composites for your needs, use the links to contact engineering and design consultants experienced in the use of composites.
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