TThermoset plastics are here to stay, but thermoplastic resins are becoming increasingly competitive, in part because they skip the lengthy curing process required by thermoset resins and can be reformed, reshaped and reused. However, because they are usually in a solid state at room temperature, impregnating fibers can be difficult when using them as a resin.

One solution may come from Cetex Institute, which is developing machines to produce cost-effective continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastic materials using a method incorporating thermoplastic film. The process can use carbon, glass or basalt fibers with plans in place to work with PPS, PEI and PEEK as a matrix material.

As the auto industry looks to composites for high-volume mass production, thermoplastic reinforced carbon fiber composites could be supplied to OEMS in stock sheets and rods, heated and reshaped or stamped on the mass scale – much like stock metallic materials.

Like thermoset resins, advances in thermoplastics are being driven by the aeronautics industry. AgustaWestland is using a thermoplastic composite for the tailplane of its AW169 helicopter. The new concept could be applied to other tailplanes as well as other products such as aircraft floor panels.

Processes for using thermoplastics are still being established and have not yet reached the mass market. AgustaWestland recently launched Altuglas, claiming that it is the first thermoplastic resin that could make composite parts with the same equipment and processes as thermoset composites while retaining the same mechanical properties and the added advantages of being able to thermoform and recycle it.

While thermoplastic composites are expected to find niche markets, it is expected that the mass market is still at least five years away.