What are Engineering Plastics?

August 1, 2014
What are Engineering Plastics?

The infancy of the plastic age is rich in ubiquitous applications, but the scope of usage of the synthetic was severely hampered by the less than stellar characteristics of the material. Plastic was too soft, too quick to melt when the temperature began to climb. It wasn’t until the advent of polymer technology that plastic gained a new dimension, adding developmental attributes that, while not making steel alloys redundant, raised plastic to the tip of engineering prominence. Today, it’s chemical engineering that has overtaken the metallic component, replacing iron and stainless steel with engineered plastics formed from strongly bonded molecules known as polymers.

The modern industrial setup still uses stainless steel in large quantities, but the functionality of steel has shifted to the housings of machinery, leaving engineering plastics to dutifully handle the forces contained within the housings. Mining machinery uses graded polyurethane solutions to cope with wear-and-tear. Caustic factory settings use elastomeric materials and hardened variants of engineered plastic to handle corrosive substances without aging and succumbing to chemical reactions. The engineered plastics used in these applications promote intelligence of molecular design over the simple benefits of metallic integrity as extracted from the earth.

The plastics in question here may share many of the same characteristics as metal, but they’re fundamentally different at a subatomic level. The science involved comes from an entirely different discipline, the realm of polymer engineering where the molecules of the substance can be maneuvered to create new forms of plastic capable of an ever-widening series of properties. Synthetic polymers created in labs can imitate their natural polymer cousins, but they can also exceed the limitations imposed by nature. Engineered polymers create plastics with incredible properties that far outweigh similar properties in metal. For instance, polyurethane can be graded to be near as hard as steel or as pliable as rubber, molded into linings for pipes or fabricated as a gasket with properties similar to rubber.

Produced with chemical certitude, enhanced with practical features, engineering plastics are tailor-made to defeat corrosion as imposed by the elements, but they also resist the corrosive effects of far more caustic environments, environments that would rapidly destroy lesser materials. The same rule applies to temperature, with specialized grades of plastic providing resistance to extremes in heat without being compromised. The primary feature of the material is therefore obviously found in its versatility. Yes, an alloy of stainless steel can take on some of this flexibility by adding nickel or chrome, but rarely with the effectiveness found within engineered plastics. The high performance of these impressive polymers is near unassailable, coming in at an affordable cost that, again, can’t be matched by metals.

If an engineering plastic doesn’t meet customer specifications, it isn’t hard enough or sufficiently pliable, an engineering department will simply turn all resources to the task of manufacturing an analogous material. Since leading engineering plastic companies have access to literally hundreds of highly-specialized structural polymers in their fabrication process, it’s easy to procure the technically specified plastic.