In search of lighter-weight materials to reduce mass and meet fuel-economy and carbon-emission targets, automotive OEMs are exploring the idea of thermoplastic composites in manufacturing.

The thermoplastics have a soft, pliable form when heated above a certain temperature, and the materials take a solid form when cooled. Thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-shaped any number of times.

According to recent research, the automotive industry is expected to use thermoplastic composites at the fastest rate, thanks a growth in 3D printing in the manufacturing of automotive components.

Today, however, automotive and defense manufacturers predominantly use thermoset composites materials like epoxy, silicone, polyurethane, and phenolic, which do not melt and remain in a permanent solid state after being cured one time.

In a Tech Briefs webinar titled Lightweighting with Composites and Plastics, a reader asked the following question to Raj Mathur from the Netherlands-based manufacturer DSM Engineering Plastics:

"How do thermoplastic composites compare to the thermoset composites already in use for several decades?"

Read Mathur's edited response below.

Raj Mathur, Global R&T Manager, Advanced Thermoplastic Composites, DSM Engineering Plastics: Thermosets has been in industry for a very long time. I think the distinctions are that thermosets are not conducive for recycling, and recycling is becoming very important today. Once thermosets "set," that’s the end of it. You can’t reuse them.

Although curing has also advanced, it is still a fairly long process. Maybe now you see examples of curing being done in very short time cycles, but nevertheless they’re not as short as the thermoplastics process. From a cycle-time point of view, thermoplastics have an edge over thermosets. That is why there’s an interest today.

Even today, and until a few years ago, the industry was more than 90% thermoset and just a little bit thermoplastic. Still, the industry is very predominantly thermoset, but that ratio is moving today. That begins to show people are interested in thermoplastics for the reasons I point out.

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