Engineered Plastics?

21st September 2012 by Tony Norton

This post is taken from Simulate to Innovate

I was chatting recently with fellow Altair blogger Bob Yancey about the use of the word ‘composites’. Yancey will often write about the application of high-end laminate constructions for aerospace applications. While this is a similar type of composite to those used by our racecar customers, such as Dallara, most automotive composites are perhaps better described as ‘engineered plastics’. The engineered part of that name is important, as not all plastics are composites; that soda bottle you drank from earlier was just plastic.

You can find many definitions of a composite that read along the lines of:


A combination of two or more materials, differing in form or composition on a macroscale.


This is a very inclusive characterization. We know fiberboard and plywood are composites too, so what is the term we should be using for a “polymer matrix with a reinforcing fiber in a non-laminate construction?” I decided to ask a few people.

I’ll let Yancey lead off. He likes the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) definition that “composite materials are the combination of two or more materials to reinforce their properties and make them stronger together than they are apart.” Yancey adding to it, “Composites allow one to engineer the properties of the material to meet design and performance requirements.”

Jamie Buchanan leads Altair ProductDesign in the UK. He felt there are so many options available to build composites, from injection molded chopped strand reinforced polymers to the glass reinforced plastics used in boat building, that maybe there could be no universal term. After I pestered him a little longer, he suggested “non-ply based fibre reinforced plastics” – with the British spelling.

Jeff Wollschlager, Altair’s Boeing Account Manager, has a long history with composites. In fact, he has written a book on the subject. His favorite definition is “particulate composite materials” for composite materials that are manufactured with chopped reinforcement in the matrix.

The question I asked has no right or wrong answer, but to pile onto the feedback from my colleagues, I’m picking “randomly-oriented reinforced plastic.”