When it comes to composites, you have probably heard this before: “There are so many factors that influence the selection of [fill in the blank].” Some argue that selecting a sandwich core material is even more complex due to the extremely wide variety of products available.

Today, there are various tables, matrices and apps available to users that rank different products, all designed to simplify the selection process. The difficulty for core materials, however, is that when these tools assess a product, they only look at the base material. Choosing a sandwich core is not as simple as selecting end-grain balsa or Nomex® honeycomb. Each product has three parts: type, density and configuration.

Furthermore, the categories in these evaluation tools often do not align with what is important for each specific application, and the rankings are more often based on assumptions than test data. In addition, one category is almost always missing – cost. A proper evaluation should take all of these elements into consideration with the understanding that density, configuration and thickness can all be tailored to meet the part’s demands.

When selecting sandwich core materials, the first thing to do is create a list of critical parameters for your specific application, part geometry and manufacturing process. Ask these two questions:

  1. What will be built?
  2. How will it be laminated?

Application consideration has two parts: structural design and environment. Core material properties critical to structural design include shear strength and modulus, compression strength and modulus, and skin-to-core bond strength (tensile/peel). Furthermore, the application may have a particular requirement, such as fatigue or damage tolerance (impact). Damage tolerance is often ranked by measuring a material’s shear elongation. However, elongation is not the only important property with respect to energy absorption under impact; shear and peel strength are also critical.

In addition, it’s not as clear-cut as just ranking different materials based on strength, modulus and so on because these properties are dependent on density. Many products, particularly cellular foams, can be manufactured in a very wide range of densities, some of which have greater benefits than others. For example, while low density urethane foams can be weak, higher density urethane-based core materials can be extremely strong.

Other behaviors may depend on the configuration or finishing option. For instance, the damage tolerance of styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) foam is excellent if laminated in rigid sheets, but the behavior is vastly different if a flexible (scored) configuration is used.