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    Thermosetting Materials vs. Thermoplastics

    For the past several decades, engineers have used industrial plastic materials to replace metal components in applications where corrosion resistance, low coefficient of friction, or weight reduction is needed for load-bearing or mating components.

    Industrial plastics are lightweight, can reduce vibration and noise levels, are easier to maintain than metals, and can oftentimes operate without external lubrication. These advantages provide cost-saving benefits for end users and equipment manufacturers, prolonging the lifespan of the entire system. Generally, industrial plastics fall under two main categories: thermosets and thermoplastics.

    To decide between thermoset materials vs. thermoplastics for your industrial project, it is essential to understand their polymer structures and how they differ from one another. In general, these industrial plastics are impact-resistant, chemical-resistant, lightweight, and, in the case of polyethylene and polypropylene, weldable. Industrial plastics play a vital role in most sectors, including but not limited to the following:

    • Building & Construction
    • Consumer Products
    • Electrical
    • Electronics
    • Industrial Machinery
    • Packaging
    • Textiles
    • Transportation

    Learn more about thermoset and thermoplastic materials, including their respective properties and applications, to select the ideal industrial plastic for your project.

    What Are Thermoset Composite Materials?

    After undergoing a chemical reaction caused by heat, ultraviolet light, or other catalyst, liquid thermosetting materials permanently harden. Their properties are set, and they cannot be re-softened and cooled to solidify. Thermosets have a high melting point, but once they are cured to their solid state, exposure to this temperature would simply burn the material.

    Thermoset materials offer the following benefits:

    • Rigid and hard
    • Highly stable
    • Resistant to extreme temperatures
    • Reinforceable with fiberglass, carbon, or Kevlar
    • Long-lasting due to structural integrity

    What Are Thermoplastics?

    A thermoplastic is a polymer that can be repeatedly melted by heating, cooled, and solidified without any changes to its chemical properties. The plastic material melts into a pliable form when it reaches a certain temperature and solidifies as it cools. Thermoplastics are reusable and typically stored in pellet form before injection molding.

    Thermoplastics resist corrosion from chemical exposure and will not rust like metals. The lightweight material is sustainable due to its recyclability, and its low coefficient of friction means it is ideal for protecting key components against wear and tear. The plastic material also reduces the amount of vibration and noise produced compared to other commonly used metal components.

    Thermoplastics offer the following benefits:

    • Recyclable
    • Fatigue resistance
    • High mechanical strength, stiffness, and hardness
    • Formable into any shape using injection molding or thermoforming
    • Can be combined with fillers or rubber for added flexibility and strength
    • Easily remolded and reshaped
    • Customizable with various coatings, textures, and paints
    • Some grades are food-safe
    • Resistant to impacts, corrosion, and chemical exposure

    Common Thermoset Composite Materials

    There are several different kinds of thermoset plastic materials, each with unique applications and features. Some of the most common thermoset plastic materials are listed below:


    Originally known as Bakelite, Ryertex is a group of phenolic thermoset laminate products that were first developed in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. Ryertex has evolved over the years and is now used in everything from electronics to heavy equipment. Traditional applications using Ryertex include buttons, frying pan handles, and telephone mouthpieces. Today, Ryertex is used in a variety of industrial applications as structural components, bearings, wear liners, and electrical insulation.


    Developed for demanding interior applications, Trespa’s underlying technology combines wood-based fibers with thermosetting resins under high pressure and at high temperatures, transforming them into robust composite panels that meet the most exacting specifications. The unique properties of Trespa® Virtuon® make them highly durable with a long life of retained appearance.


    Arboron is a composite of papers impregnated with a phenolic thermosetting resin with an outer layer of melamine on the top surfaces. It is consolidated under high pressure and temperature into dense, uniform sheets with good electrical and mechanical properties. The melamine surface of Arboron provides excellent electrical, creep, chemical and abrasion resistance. It’s very high strength-to-weight ratio and relative ease of fabrication make Arboron your first choice for new designs.

    Common Thermoplastics

    Thermoplastics can be divided into two main categories: semicrystalline resins and amorphous resins. Amorphous resins are usually brittle, but they have good dimensional stability and precision. Plastic plates, foam cups, and plastic utensils often contain amorphous resins. While amorphous resins soften gradually as temperatures increase, semicrystalline resins have higher, sharper melting points, meaning they quickly turn into liquid once they absorb enough heat. These materials have numerous industrial applications as bearing and wear components.

    WS Hampshire, Inc. works with the following common types of thermoplastics:

    • Polyether Ether Ketone (PEEK): This engineered plastic is highly preferred due to its excellent blend of resistances, workability, and strength. PEEK is a commonly used semicrystalline engineering thermoplastic material of the polyaryletherketone (PAEK) family. Its properties include strength, stability in extreme environments, and high-temperature tolerance.
    • Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMW): The exceptionally tough plastic remains durable even after being exposed to repeated impact. The abrasion resistance of UHMW is excellent, and there is low friction under load. Virgin-grade UHMW is also resistant to chemicals, including organic solvents.
    • Nylon: This popular engineering plastic is extremely versatile and has exceptional tensile strength and hardness. Other advantages of nylon include superior wear resistance, low coefficient of friction, and heat resistance up to 230 °F.
    • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): When there are concerns regarding dimensional stability following machining, PET is a preferred replacement for acetal. PET materials have a low coefficient of friction, excellent wear resistance, and are FDA-compliant. They also have a very low water absorption rate, making them an ideal choice for electrical applications.
    • Acetal: Acetal plates are durable and strong enough to replace metals in certain applications. The plastic is dimensionally stable under humid or wet conditions, resists most organic solvents, and has low water absorption properties.

    Thermosetting Materials vs. Thermoplastics

    Thermoplastics and thermosetting materials are distinct polymers that behave differently when exposed to heat. After the curing process, thermoplastics can be recast, but thermoset materials will retain their form and stay solid.

    The most apparent difference between thermosetting materials and thermoplastics is how these polymers react during curing. Thermosetting materials are impossible to remold since they solidify and form an irreversible chemical bond during the process. Since thermoplastics do not experience the same chemical reaction during curing, they are reusable and easy to remold. Repeated heating, cooling, and reshaping of thermoplastics will not alter their chemical structure.

    Thermosetting & Thermoplastic Material Fabrication by WS Hampshire, Inc.

    WS Hampshire, Inc. is an industry-leading custom fabricator of non-metallic materials with capabilities that include assembly, vacuum forming, rotary die cutting, stamping, punching, and CNC machining. We produce innovative, high-quality OEM fabricated components and made-to-order parts supported by a customized supply chain.

    Now that you know the basic differences between thermosetting materials vs. thermoplastics, you’re prepared to select the best option for your specific application. For further assistance, our experienced team offers thorough application engineering and technical expertise to help you reap the full benefits of your chosen products or materials.

    Contact a member of our team today for more information about WS Hampshire’s products and services.