High-performance thermoplastics: Are they worth it?

Why would you pick a specialty polymer that costs more than most engineering thermoplastics (ETPs)? How can your company compete if buyers choose higher-cost, high-performance thermoplastics (HPTPs) instead of lower-cost ETPs like nylons and polycarbonates? Material properties matter, of course, but do you really need a more expensive thermoplastic for your application?

Material selection

The consequences of choosing the wrong material can be costly. In industries such as aerospace and mass transit, part failure can also be catastrophic. High-performance thermoplastics are higher-priced, but they provide greater thermal resistance than other engineering polymers. For example, many HPTPs can withstand long-term service temperatures of 150°C and short-term temperatures of 250°C.

Compared to other thermoplastics, HPTPs also offer greater thermal stability over both the short and the long term. This includes higher melting points, heat deflection temperatures, glass transition temperatures, and continuous-use temperatures. High-performance thermoplastics also combine stronger resistance to burning with improved mechanical properties and chemical resistance.

Material selection isn't just a matter of choosing one polymer instead of another, however. According to a recent study by Lux Research, HPTPs have "the potential to replace advanced metal, ceramic, and other composite parts." In terms of material properties and costs then, buyers are now comparing HPTPs to many different types of materials. In industries such as electronics, HPTP usage is growing.

Existing and emerging markets

In its report entitled, "Innovating High-Performance Thermoplastics: Scouting Process and Material Technologies for Existing and Emerging Markets," Lux Research forecast sales for three types of HPTPs: sulfur-containing composites, polyketones, and polyimides. All three HPTP families are used commonly and have outstanding high-temperature properties. 

Several of the study's findings are of special interest to industry. For example, Lux Research predicts that as 3D printing evolves from prototyping to parts manufacturing, demand for HPTP feedstocks will grow more rapidly than for other types of materials. The Boston-based research firm also forecasts increased demand for lightweight HPTPs for passenger seats in high-speed rail.    

Demand for high-performance thermoplastics is worth watching, but so are developments with other specialty polymers. In my next blog entry, we'll look at military-approved plastics.

About the author

Doug Sharpe is the president of Elasto Proxy, Inc. (Boisbriand, Quebec, Canada), a supplier of sealing solutions and custom-fabricated rubber and plastic parts to a variety of industries, including aerospace, mass transit and electronics.

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