Plastic Characterization


The physical testing of plastic materials for the purpose of defining material constitutive models in finite element analysis can be very simple or incredibly complex depending on the objective of the analysis. Linear analysis of structural parts is routinely performed using only a couple simple parameters. More complex analysis may involve elevated temperatures, severe plastic deformation and strain rate sensitivity requiring customized material model development and rigorous experimentation.

There are a few experiments that are particularly useful in characterizing plastics for analysis. They are simple tension with transverse strain measurement for elasticity and Poisson's ratio determination, simple load and unload experiment to separate the plastic and elastic strain components and thermal expansion as a function of temperature. Several of these experiments are outlined below.

Typical Plastic Experiments:

Tensile Test

The tensile test is performed by straining a plastic specimen in one direction such that the sides of the specimen are free to contract. The region of interest is the narrowed section where the desired state of strain is achieved. Basic parameters derived from a tensile stress-strain curve are the initial material stiffness (Young's Modulus), the material yielding point and the failure stress and failure strain.

various tensile test plastic specimen shapes, gage area

Various Tensile Test Specimens

plastic tensile test specimen with an axial clip on strain gage extensometer

Tensile Test Specimen with an Axial Extensometer Mounted

Tensile Test with Transverse Strain Measurement

Transverse strain is sometimes measured in the modulus region in combination with axial strain such that the ratio of transverse strain to axial strain may be determined. This slope is the Poisson’s ratio and is a measure of material compressibility. Like low strain axial measurements, low strain transverse measurements are typically made with a clip-on strain gage style extensometer. Full field strains may also be measured using cameras and Digital Image Correlation methods.

plastic straining images with a dic digital image correlation pattern showing localized straining,  full field strain, crack growth

Full field strain measured during a tensile experiment.

image of plastic tensile specimen with axial and transverse strain measuring, compressibility, Poisson's ratio

Tensile Specimen with Both Axial and Transverse Strain Extensometers

Loading and Unloading Strain Measurements

Plastic deformation may appear at very small strain values. A more accurate way to determine the yield point is by unloading the specimen. By unloading the specimen from a specific total strain, we can observe plastic strain directly by removing the elastic contribution during unloading to near zero stress. We can then load to the specimen to increasingly higher total strain levels and unload at each to observe the increase in the plastic strain contribution.

loading and unloading plastic strain stress test data, deformation, unload sequence

Typical Load-unload Sequence 3 Strain Levels

Short Term Creep Experiment

As a stress is applied to plastic, the material will strain. If the stress is held constant, the plastic will continue to strain. This behavior is creep or viscous behavior. Combined with elasticity, we have viscoelastic behavior. At small resulting strains over relatively short times, the release of the stress on the material will result in the material returning to its original shape. At larger strains or longer times, release of the stress will likely reveal a permanently deformed plastic.

image of short tensile specimen in a compressive creep fixture, in-plane compression, short term creep, viscous behavior

Creep Experiment Using an In-plane Compression Fixture

Shear Test

The shear state of strain can be an important addition to the fitting of a multi-axial material model. Shear tests for plastics include various ‘notch’ based experiments including the Arcan, Isopescu and Rail specimen style. The shear experiment can provide meaningful data across a wide range of material stiffnesses and a broad strain range. The region where the pure shear state occurs is in the center region. A 3D digital image correlation system is used to measure the strain in this region.

plastic shear test strain stress data at multiple test temperatures

Shear stress strain loading unloading curves at several temperatures.

rail shear stress strain load-unload curves with measuring instrumentation

Rail Shear stress strain loading unloading curves instrumentation.

plastic modified Arcan shear specimen

Plastic modified Arcan shear specimen unstrained on the left side, strained on the right side.

image of a tensile test instrument with a rail shear fixture and specimen installed.

Plastic rail shear specimen with a DIC pattern in fixture.

Plastic Film Experiment

Testing plastic film requires low force load cells and low mass gripping systems. Since contact with the material will alter the measurement, non-contacting laser or image based strain systems are employed.

image of thin film in a tensile test instrument, plastic film experiment with video strain measurement

Plastic Film Experiment with Video Strain Measurement


The compression test is a challenging experiment in that tall specimens can create an unstable loading condition and short specimens create a constrained loading condition. In any case, direct measurement of platen displacement is required for accurate strain measurement in a short specimen condition and surface strain measuring such as digital image correlation is required for in-plane compression.

image of a simple compression experiment, compression platens with a capacitative strain sensor

Compression Platens with a Capacitive Strain Sensor Installed

image of an in-plane compression test on a plastic specimen in a test chamber, compression fixture

In-plane Compression with dic strain measuring in an environmental chamber.

Plastic Specimen Preparation

Material testing experiments on plastic materials often require test specimens to be cut from actual parts or plaques. The shop at Axel is able to cut and machine specimens in various ISO, ASTM and custom shapes based on the application.

variety of plastic tensile specimen shapes

Typical Plastic Tensile Test Specimen Shapes

variety of plastic tensile specimen shapes

Humidity and Temperature Conditioning Chamber for Moisure Sensitive Materials like Polyamides

image of a router with guides for making tensile test specimens from plaques.

Onsrud Router System for Cutting Specimens from Plaques

image of CNC machine center for cutting of test specimens for physical testing

Haas CNC Vertical Mill for Cutting Specimens from Plaques