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A Preliminary Look at the Nature, Causes, and Consequences of Plastics Failure



This book is not the first to deal with plastics failure. For example, "Failure of Plastics, [I]" provides detailed reviews of many types of failure including theoretical aspects. The present work picks up from that point and concentrates on the practical technological considerations, with many examples of actual failures from the author's experience and from the literature [2-4].. Plastics failure can cause economic and legal problems, as well as contributing to personal injury or death. Public perception of plastics is adversely affected by their failures, such as the bad reputation that early plastics earned with toys that broke too easily. Failures are usually not expected and often occur abruptly. Service or functioning of a whole system, dependent on a small plastic part that failed, could be interrupted. It is a practical necessity to know why plastics fail so that failures can be minimized or eliminated. The difference between good performance and long life or failure can result from a seemingly small difference in the variables that affect plastics properties. While it is most often thought of as fracture, failure occurs in many other ways. Section 1.9.



Compared to other materials, such as metals, glass and stone, plastics have existed for only about 125 years [5,6]. Other materials go back many hundreds, if not thousands of years. Large scale development of plastics is only about 50 years old. The fact that failure of plastics does occur is not surprising, given their short history and the recent evolution of many plastics materials, processes, and applications. The first commercial plastic, nitrocellulose, was patented by John Hyatt [6] in 1869. Failures similar to those of more modern plasticized plastics were caused by factors such as embrittlement due to volatilization of plasticizer, poor thermal stability, and flammability. The problem of celluloid movie film catching fire is well known. The term plastic implies an ability to flow or be formed, generally under pressure. Thermoplastic means a material that can be formed with heat, usually also under pressure. A thermoset plastic usually goes through a plastic stage during formation, after which it becomes crosslinked and then is no longer thermoplastic. Between these two extremes of plastic types, there is a world of different plastics materials, processes, and applications. One of the objectives of this book is to provide an understanding of the

High temperature needed to reduce melt viscosity to manageable levels may contribute to degradation during processing. processing. the plastics failure analyst has to consider the subtleties. A polymer chain is measured as the sum of the atomic weights of all the atoms present.. polystyrene has molecular weight 102-104 times higher (10. and ultimately the in-service use and environment. the clues that may or may not be important. condition of the processing equipment. While generally desirable and contributing to strength. It may be compared to a long chain with many links connecting the same unit over and over again. compounding. The result is that the plastic part or material has internal stress (Chapter 2). storage.fundamental nature of plastics on which to base a sound approach to determine the cause and ultimately prevent plastics failure. QC testing. long molecules in which a basic unit of composition is repeated many times. to a great extent. or for a miserable failure with unfortunate consequences. warpage. "Poly" means many and "mers" refers to basic or individual units of the polymer molecule. and processing problems.e. Another consideration with polymers is that in some cases their composition and structure permit the long polymer molecules to come together in a highly ordered crystalline state (Chapter T). Rapid cooling contributes to inhibiting the return to a normal disoriented relaxed state state before the part solidifies. with consequent potential for failure by environmental stress-cracking. the sequence of events from the manufacture of the plastic material. thus affecting product properties dependent on high molecular weight. A polymer may contain as many as 100-10. Thermal degradation lowers the molecular weight. While the monomer styrene has a molecular weight of about 100. i.3 Polymers Plastics belong to the generic family of materials called polymers. service conditions. joining and welding conditions. frozen-in stress. conditioning prior to processing. testing. it can also be a factor in failure. much of which are due to the problem of processing high molecular weight viscous material. etc. partly because crystalline order can be affected by processing conditions and service conditions. for the unusual strength and chemical resistance of polymers." Like a detective looking for clues to solve a mystery. plastics product designers and engineers have to be "molecular engineers..000 monomer units linked together. For example. resistance to flow. This high molecular weight compared to nonpolymeric materials is the main feature that sets them apart from other materials and accounts. 1. etc. A significant percent of plastics failures are due to problems such as poorly fused products.000). The combination of molecular weight and crystallinity can make for a very successful product. High melt viscosity also means that polymer molecules which have become aligned or oriented during flow in processing are slow to return to a disoriented state. its transportation. weak weld lines. weak weld lines. along with high molecular weight comes high melt viscosity. product design. . polystyrene is the polymer made by polymerizing the monomer styrene.000-1. Unfortunately. Polymers are high molecular weight. conditioning after processing. mold design. To a great extent.000.

vinylchloride.1. These examples illustrate how plastics supplement or improve on the properties of competitive materials such as metal . Chapped and cracked hands often result due to the removal of body oils that normally soften the skin and prevent cracking. etc. Examples of natural polymers are proteins (polyamides from amino acids) and cellulose (the polymer of glucose). Another example of how natural and synthetic polymers respond in similar ways to common forces is what happens when we wash our hands too often or with aggressive soaps or detergents. including breakdown in molecular weight and structure.4 Rubbers and Elastomers These materials are also polymers and bear a close resemblance to plastics. service conditions can remove some plasticizer resulting in a brittle film likely to crack. In general. and end use conditions apply to their failure as to plastics. Usually elastomer refers to the polymer used to make rubber.6 Plastics in the Family of Materials Some of the other materials which plastics supplement or compete with are metals. corrosion does not occur as it does for metal. high molecular weight is a fundamental feature together with intermolecular order (crystallinity). This can be reduced by a scratch-resistant coating. 1. while most plastics are tough and rigid at room temperature (glass transition temperature greater than 250C). simply drying out can significantly embrittle it as a result of losing the plasticizing action of water. processing. 1. As with synthetic polymers. and loss of water which acts as a plasticizer. causing breakdown of the polymer. design. and concrete. All the same considerations of material. a rubber is flexible at room temperature (glass transition temperature less than 25 0C). glass containers and windows are used extensively. With nylon. While plastics are not completely free of problems.5 Natural Polymers Most plastics are synthetic polymers made with monomers such as styrene. With plasticized PVC. The latter polymer is the main one responsible for paper and for wood products. This is analogous to a plastic part becoming brittle and failing as a result of exposure to heat and light. Many metal products corrode or rust in service. When a twig or branch falls from a tree and becomes brittle with time it is because of one or more of a number of changes. glass. ethylene. Unbreakable windows are made of polycarbonate. Natural polymers such as these constitute the main building blocks of animal and plant life. In spite of their ease of breakage. But there is a large category of polymers that have existed naturally since long before we started making synthetic polymers. but they tend to scratch easily. ceramics.

. If processed improperly. the same basic considerations apply to the manufacture of metal products and to plastics products. If sufficient design reinforcements are used. To a great extent. saving weight of the order of 400-500 lbs. One design may tolerate greater variation in material characteristics.and glass. There often is considerable interaction of the four factors. Many paper and cardboard packages and bags are now made of plastic. Plastics have made major inroads in replacing products of metal and glass. such as molecular weight. thin film plastics compete with aluminum foil. or end use. Processing—thermal and orientation effects. such internal stress is unavoidable. etc. shrink tubing is designed to shrink with the application of heat. A chemical alone. uniform dispersion of materials. not under stress. fatigue. commonly known as "acid rain. The trick is to introduce into a satisfactory. The first three are chosen to satisfy the service requirements. chemical resistance. Four major areas to consider are: Material—the polymer or polymers plus all additives and contaminants. or stress in the absence of chemical agent. To show the diversity of plastics applications and what constitutes failure. in regions of acidic precipitation. the part performance may not depend so much on material properties. processing. i. that product will have failed for a reason that most other plastics processors work very hard to have in their products. Plastics have replaced many metals. degradation during processing. Service conditions are unpredictable and may be underestimated. so that the degree of orientation is lower than needed to achieve the required shrinkage. Service conditions—heat. Failure is the result of inadequacy in material. etc. a low level of frozen-in stress. economical part as little frozen-in stress as possible such that it will not fail within its expected service life. Design—dimensions. per automobile. stress sites." some plastics and other materials in outdoor . etc. As an example of underestimated service conditions. to which polyethylene is particularly prone. Furthermore.7 Common Features and Differences in Performance or Failure of all Materials Using metals for illustration. the simultaneous application of two conditions may cause failure in a way and in a time frame that would not likely occur under the influence of each alone. reinforcements. In food wrapping. design.e. are much less likely to cause failure than when the two conditions are applied together. A common example is environmental stress-cracking. 1. More than half of the containers are made of plastics. and areas of stress concentration are minimized. One of the subtle aspects of failure analysis is that stress sufficient to interact with environmental stress-cracking agents to cause failure may be present within the part as a result of processing. than another design. outdoor exposure. a major part of the weight reduction and attendant fuel saving of automobiles is due to replacement of many metal parts by plastics. replacing glass. humidity.

in part or whole. some substances present are not there by choice and their presence may not be known or realized. such as stress raisers (notches. stress corrosion cracking requires the coincidence of three factors: susceptible material. A paper [8] on corrosion of metal water tubes in a nuclear reactor reads remarkably like a paper on plastics environmental stresscracking might. including fatigue. The problem may stem. etc.). design must take into account features which may contribute to failure. frozen-in stress is usually unintentional. holes. For example. In both cases. they have to be heated high enough to melt the crystalline structure. The plastics engineer has a great challenge to produce useful products of long life in spite of the difficult requirements of plastics processing that result from wrestling huge molecules that may have molecular weights as high as 100. A plastic that continues to crystallize in service. from the effect on a component or reinforcing agent. Control of molecular weight in selection of the starting material and not allowing it to be reduced significantly in processing are absolutely essential to plastic products. degree of orientation. compounding process aids. In processing. resulting in shrinkage or other undesirable effects. brittle fracture. molecular weight is not a major consideration as it is with plastics. but composition and intermolecular order are." For the material. Annealing is a standard feature of glass blowing. It affects the processing of plastics in a unique way and is a primary factor in contributing to the performance or failure of plastic products. of the order of 50-100. 1. packing or transportation. When metals are processed. while others are "unintentional. under stress in the application [7]. corrosion or other damage due to water and other chemicals (environmental effects). Fundamental considerations in design of metal products and plastics products are alike to a significant extent. Plastics derive their desirable features of strength and chemical resistance. degree of fusion). thermal expansion and contraction. Examples are water.000. It cannot be emphasized too much that the unique distinctive feature of plastics and all polymers that make them different from other materials is their high molecular weight or long chain nature. Annealing is also important in some metal products to ensure that the product has the desired crystalline structure and freedom from internal stress required for the application. and intermolecular order (crystallinity. As for the materials aspect. polymers and plastics involve choices of molecular weight. from their high molecular weight. Annealing after manufacture may be needed to reduce internal stress to ensure the product won't fail in service. contaminants from resin manufacture.000-1. High pressure is not a requirement in the processing of metals as it is with most plastics.000. is .8 The Unintentional Factors Affecting Failure Some of the factors that affect performance or failure are "intentional" or at least expected. aggressive environment. in large part. but then the viscosity is very low and they can be poured very easily. like glass fiber. chemical composition. Many of the same types of failure apply to metal products as to plastics. For metals.applications may have their life shortened due to chemical or physical effects of acid. and stress. The molecular weight of metals is the molecular weight of the elements themselves.

and cracking to relieve the stress. but that adds cost. 1. distortion. While high orientation is required for some applications. For example. Excessive plastic deformation or shrinkage. but resists breakage or tearing. failure is to be judged in the light of the product design and expected service life. it would not be fair to call that failure. if a different mechanism applies as a function of temperature. . Estimated life is usually based on accelerated service conditions. An important part of plastics failure analysis is to discover the unintentional factors and to assess their contribution to failure. Another is plastic pipe testing using procedures of the Plastics Pipe Institute [10]. One of the most difficult things to do is to estimate service life accurately. That is. just as failure of a one-time usually disposable product. five years beyond expected service life. Electrical or mechanical breakdown in 20 years would constitute a failure. If these are significantly more severe. such as the choice of tests performed and whether the polymer changes in the same way under accelerated conditions as during normal service. causing shrinkage. that should not be considered failure in the usual sense. Failure is a very complex matter that may be fully within normal expectation or may be unexpected depending on material. during use after its intended service. for example. is not really a failure. the procedure has worked well in setting of temperature ratings of plastics by Underwriters Laboratories [9]. At 45 years. One can minimize chances of early failure by a substantial safety factor in design and/or material. Electrical power distribution cables. If they break when someone makes multiple or improper use of them. such as fibers or "living hinges" many plastics are designed for onetime. At times several different modes may combine to produce the resultant failure. if a plastic is supposed to tear or break easily to permit entry into a bottle or into a package. are expected to be in service 40 years or more without failing. For example. processing and service conditions. wear or loss of attractive appearance may constitute failure just as much as fracture does.9 Types and Causes of Failure Failure is any malfunction or deviation from the norm that significantly detracts from performance. Many factors may affect the reliability of the procedure. At the other end of the service life spectrum are applications requiring life of many years. Some of the failure types and causes are given in Table 1-1. Any service life estimate is based on certain assumed service conditions. extrapolation of test results to a lower temperature may not be realistic. disposable service. failure in shorter time may occur. design. Service life depends on the severity of service conditions. then that is a failure—the failure to behave as intended. Service conditions may cause failure due to conditions that are too severe or were not anticipated at all.undergoing unintentional or delayed processing. Nevertheless. A common example is environmental stress-cracking in which a devastating effect results from simultaneous application of stress and environmental agent. Failure in one case may be the intended result in another. High orientation or frozen-in stress is usually undesirable in most products.

Failure caused in a contiguous material by migration of an additive from or into the plastic product 12. not due to degradation from aging 1.1 Due to product as made.2 Change in surface gloss 10. or evaporation 1.2 Seals made with an adhesive 6.1 Color transfer 12. Warpage or distortion 8. ozone..2 Migration of toxic substance.2 Antioxidant/stabilizer transfer resulting in accelerated degradation 12.3 May occur due to high level of internal stress or to externally applied stress 4.3 Embrittlement due to loss of plasticizer or water in service 1. such as opening and closing of a hinged part. Possible especially for parts made with residual frozen-in stress 10.3 Plasticizer migration into adhesive layer on flooring causing loss of adhesion 13.2 Seals made with an adhesive 7. Fatigue Fracture due to repeated application of tensile.2 Fracture or crazing due to an external chemical or stress-cracking agent 3.2 Stress applied for long periods of time resulting in unacceptable deformation 3. e. into food or other product in excess of regulations 12. rain.3 Partial inward distortion of containers holding liquid products 9. Power distribution (electrical cable failure (5-35 kV) 13. Creep 2.1 Too high temperature in service may cause release of orientation. Low adhesive bond strength for applications requiring high bond strength 5. ultraviolet and visible light. Co-extruded film adhesion failure 7. Crazing and stress-cracking 3.2 Due to degradation from aging (thermal. Change in appearance 10. or repeated impact leading to crack formation and growth 5. flexural or shear stress. nuclear radiation).2 Severe service conditions 8.g.1 Water treeing—combined effect of water and electrical stress .4 Fracture due to too much regrind of low molecular weight 2. Toxicity and odor 11.1 Low bond strength due to interfering substances at the interface 8.1 Color change or fading —improper choice of dye or pigment —migration of dye —degradation on aging —discoloration due to processing at high temperature with flame retardants in the compound —discoloration due to processing of polymers sensitive to temperature 10.1 Thermally bonded heat seals 5. extraction.3 Change in transparency—development of haze or cloudiness 11. May be caused by inadequate stabilizer/antioxidant content or their loss by migration.Table 1-1 Some Types and Causes of Failure 1.1 Odor due to residual solvent or monomer 11. due to processing conditions 8.1 Material undercured or too low heat resistance for service conditions 2. monomer or solvent. Shrinkage 9. High adhesive bond strength—for applications requiring low bond strength 6.1 Thermally bonded heat seals 6.1 Fracture or crazing due to an internal environmental chemical or stress-cracking agent 3.1 As made. Fracture 1.

the plastics compounder. The people involved include the designer. the plastics supplier.10 The People Factor People involved in one phase or another of manufacture of plastics products may contribute to their failure. Sea animals have died because of eating indigestible plastics and from being trapped fatally by plastics picked up on beaks or noses. The same bar will not fracture in use when it is new or has not lost too much of its original thickness. whether they realize it or not. and the salesman who sold the product on the basis of certain performance capabilities. too. While it may seem unrealistic to consider such cases as plastics failure. Certainly any condition that threatens to prohibit the use of plastics in a major application area is a failure of enormous magnitude and threatens to make all other types of failure irrelevant and obsolete. leading to unrealistic expectations for its performance. But these processes result in a high level of orientation. plastics processes and product evaluation to know when a problem may develop and prevent an expensive legal case against the company. anything that detracts from the acceptability of plastics products is a failure. So. For example. bearing in mind the characteristics and limitations of the material. machine operator. the processor or supervisor. the person who selected the plastics to use. most common plastics used for packaging float in water due to low density. The salesman must not oversell the product. diplomatic way. for all practical purposes. Failure may be the result of poor processing conditions which may be detected before the product is sold. QC supervisor. . Many failures are predictable. A major consideration in preventing failure is that people must understand how what they do can make the difference between success and failure. One of the reasons plastics are so attractive and economical is that they can be produced rapidly and effectively by methods like injection molding. blow molding. let alone an understanding of polymer science and technology. and that sometimes they must communicate with others in the chain. apply generally to products of most materials. The principle of adequate thickness for the application applies to all materials and designs. plastics discarded in the oceans do not degrade. provided that the correlation between the basic features of the product and properties are known. and extrusion. reinforcing ribs and freedom from unnecessary areas of high stress. for example. the QC operator or technician. To compensate for that fact a person with overall responsibility for the manufacture of the product ideally should have sufficient knowledge and understanding of plastics. Some of the people in the chain may have little or no technical background. Failure of plastics packaging to degrade or to become harmless when discarded into the environment after use is a major cause of public criticism. Unfortunately. in a persuasive. a frequent contributor to failure.As a simple example of the effect of design on failure of all materials. Any one of these can cause or contribute to failure. Often that includes the processor and designer. 1. part dimensions suitable for the application must be adequate. A soap bar breaks when it becomes thin from use. Quality control should be able to catch potential product failures resulting from processing before they reach the customer.

The design records should include testing to show that the products will have adequate safety factors for the applications. improper compounding by a compounder to introduce additives by way of a concentrate. Continuous processing in which new batches of resin are placed in the top of a silo feeding the processing machines makes it hard to pin down the particular lot of resin used in making a certain group of products.11 The Consequences of Plastics Failure The reputation of plastics has been severely damaged by well known failures. The resin used must be shown to have acceptable properties in accordance with specifications. it may not be possible to ascribe the fault to the supplier or the processor. the essence of accountability of the cause of failure requires documentation of every stage of the process. Many such failures were eliminated by rubber modification of the polymer to give impact grade polystyrene and ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene). may be difficult to prove. or service conditions beyond what was intended for the product. If the resin is not available. from design to material to processing to quality control.11] Companies can be put out of business because of one serious failure. or maybe if the concentrate was involved. There is still. may lead to abrupt changes in the normal functioning of entire systems. the damage to the car may be extensive and. however. too. that the public's perception of plastics has improved from the days of the early polystyrene toys. Regrind use should be shown to have been within normal practice.00 plastic part. such as fractures. an unanticipated failure to perform. More recently plastics have become so ubiquitous and somewhat less likely to fail.000 automobile. A failure may also be due to poor design of the product. The cause of a failure may be due to improper resin received from the supplier. may be left inoperable because of the fracture of a $1. This. If a sample of the original resin and of the concentrate used to make the failed product were retained it may be possible to determine if the failure started with the resin or the processing. a great deal of room for further improvement. poor processing. Process conditions must be shown to have been normal and under control. most important. the occupants and/or others in the path of the car may be killed or injured. 1. A $10. Failure of plastics or of any other material is a serious matter. such as early toys that broke due to the inherent brittleness of polystyrene. .1. If the part failure causes loss of control of the vehicle. But the impression of plastics as being unreliable lasted a long time. for example. Some cases. especially if loss of life or serious injury is involved. In any case.12 Legal and Financial Aspects of Plastics Failure (Chapter 9) [3. The very nature of failure is that of an unexpected malfunction. with control of the acceptability of the regrind for addition to virgin resin.

Himmelfarb. 1986. Tess. all people and companies must be prepared to defend themselves. 1. 3. Organic Coatings and Plastics Chem. 7. 1985. In its defense the supplier submitted quality control records to show they had supplied consistent and good quality material." EPRI Journal. Morton-Jones and J. How to Avoid Products Liability Lawsuits and Damages—Practical Guidelines for Engineers and Manufacturers.. Recalls may sometimes be necessary. The court would not allow any of the QC records to be used and the resin supplier lost the case. 1603 A. Jr.E. Fortunately. 1275 K St. the processor may in turn sue the resin supplier or designer. 1987. In any case.W. 4. 1987. "Primary Water Stress Corrosion Cracking Remedies. the resolution of the problem may have had quite a different result. A Guide to Product Failures and Accidents. 259. 7500 Old Oak Blvd. Chap. potentially allowing the stroller to roll unnoticed. 1989. Long Island. Brostow and R. 1285 Walt Whitman Rd..H. Witherell. Soc. properly kept and relevant to the product or service made or performed. Trucks. "Designing for Economical Production. "Applied Polymer Science. 721. The QC records were not fully documented in a few places. 1975. MI M. 9. If only the processor is sued. If a processor is a small company with little chance of paying what a court decides against them. Noyes. the much larger resin supplier may also be sued on the assumption that they will be able to pay. 8. At all levels of involvement in the product.. Sept.D. Failure of Plastics 1986. NJ . 51 Underwriters Laboratories. in a baby stroller. was prone to fracture. Corneliussen. Materials and Processing.. Washington. 48. 6. References W. Cleveland. The redesign of the part and greater attention to processing conditions prevented reoccurrence.A major plastic resin supplier was sued by a manufacturer of radio cabinets who had gone bankrupt. Groeger. DC H. A major concern of companies when they lose cases is that their liability insurance premiums may be raised. ANTEC Conf Proc.H. A polycarbonate molded part. N. designer. Am. The claim was that the resin supplier furnished variable and poor quality resin. a Division of the Society of the Plastics Industry." Chap. of Manufacturing Engineers. Craver and R. Mcllree. W. NY 11747 Plastics Pipe Institute. Plastics Eng. and processor. Frequently a plaintiff will sue all parties concerned in failure litigations. Technomic. Chapman and Hall. Melville. Plastics failures can lead to litigation that can bankrupt a company and maybe even bring charges against individuals. 2. Advanstar Communications. 11. Dearborn. Lancaster. 5. PA D. Hanser. Polymer Products—Design. failure can sweep up all parties even remotely involved in the manufacture of the defective product.13 1.W. 11.. Soc. then raised again when there is another decision against them.. Had there been a serious injury or death of a child. OH 44130 D. That means appropriate records. New York Plastics Design Forum. there were no serious injuries and the company carried out the recall in a satisfactory manner. 10. Park Ridge. including resin suppliers. Washington. New York J. Ellis." Soc.K.." 2nd ed. Ezrin and J. consultants. DC 20006 C E . Chem. 1985. "Examination of Field Failures of Fiberglass Rod Guy Strain Insulators.