Composites are made up of individual materials referred to as constituent materials. There are two categories of constituent materials: matrix and reinforcement. At least one portion of each type is required. The matrix material surrounds and supports the reinforcement materials by maintaining their relative positions. The reinforcements impart their special mechanical and physical properties to enhance the matrix properties. A synergism produces material properties unavailable from the individual constituent materials, while the wide variety of matrix and strengthening materials allows the designer of the product or structure to choose an optimum combination.
Engineered composite materials must be formed to shape. The matrix material can be introduced to the reinforcement before or after the reinforcement material is placed into the mold cavity or onto the mold surface. The matrix material experiences a melding event, after which the part shape is essentially set. Depending upon the nature of the matrix material, this melding event can occur in various ways such as chemical polymerization or solidification from the melted state.
A variety of molding methods can be used according to the end-item design requirements. The principal factors impacting the methodology are the natures of the chosen matrix and reinforcement materials. Another important factor is the gross quantity of material to be produced. Large quantities can be used to justify high capital expenditures for rapid and automated manufacturing technology. Small production quantities are accommodated with lower capital expenditures but higher labor and tooling costs at a correspondingly slower rate.
Most commercially produced composites use a polymer matrix material often called a resin solution. There are many different polymers available depending upon the starting raw ingredients. There are several broad categories, each with numerous variations. The most common are known as polyester, vinyl ester, epoxy, phenolic, polyimide, polyamide, polypropylene, PEEK, and others. The reinforcement materials are often fibers but also commonly ground minerals. The various methods described below have been developed to reduce the resin content of the final product, or the fibre content is increased. As a rule of thumb, lay up results in a product containing 60% resin and 40% fibre, whereas vacuum infusion gives a final product with 40% resin and 60% fibre content. The strength of the product is greatly dependent on this ratio.