Work hardening

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A phenomenological uniaxial stress-strain curve showing typical work hardening plastic behavior of materials in uniaxial compression. For work hardening materials the yield stress increases with increasing plastic deformation. The strain can be decomposed into a recoverable elastic strain (
{\displaystyle \varepsilon _{e}}
) and an inelastic strain (
{\displaystyle \varepsilon _{p}}
). The stress at initial yield is
{\displaystyle \sigma _{0}}
. Rock plasticity compression plain.svg
A phenomenological uniaxial stress–strain curve showing typical work hardening plastic behavior of materials in uniaxial compression. For work hardening materials the yield stress increases with increasing plastic deformation. The strain can be decomposed into a recoverable elastic strain () and an inelastic strain (). The stress at initial yield is .

Work hardening, also known as strain hardening, is the strengthening of a metal or polymer by plastic deformation. Work hardening may be desirable, undesirable, or inconsequential, depending on the context.


This strengthening occurs because of dislocation movements and dislocation generation within the crystal structure of the material. [1] Many non-brittle metals with a reasonably high melting point as well as several polymers can be strengthened in this fashion. [2] Alloys not amenable to heat treatment, including low-carbon steel, are often work-hardened. Some materials cannot be work-hardened at low temperatures, such as indium, [3] however others can be strengthened only via work hardening, such as pure copper and aluminum. [4]

Undesirable work hardening

An example of undesirable work hardening is during machining when early passes of a cutter inadvertently work-harden the workpiece surface, causing damage to the cutter during the later passes. Certain alloys are more prone to this than others; superalloys such as Inconel require machining strategies that take it into account.

For metal objects designed to flex, such as springs, specialized alloys are usually employed in order to avoid work hardening (a result of plastic deformation) and metal fatigue, with specific heat treatments required to obtain the necessary characteristics.

Intentional work hardening

An example of desirable work hardening is that which occurs in metalworking processes that intentionally induce plastic deformation to exact a shape change. These processes are known as cold working or cold forming processes. They are characterized by shaping the workpiece at a temperature below its recrystallization temperature, usually at ambient temperature. [5] Cold forming techniques are usually classified into four major groups: squeezing, bending, drawing, and shearing. Applications include the heading of bolts and cap screws and the finishing of cold rolled steel. In cold forming, metal is formed at high speed and high pressure using tool steel or carbide dies. The cold working of the metal increases the hardness, yield strength, and tensile strength. [6]


Before work hardening, the lattice of the material exhibits a regular, nearly defect-free pattern (almost no dislocations). The defect-free lattice can be created or restored at any time by annealing. As the material is work hardened it becomes increasingly saturated with new dislocations, and more dislocations are prevented from nucleating (a resistance to dislocation-formation develops). This resistance to dislocation-formation manifests itself as a resistance to plastic deformation; hence, the observed strengthening.

In metallic crystals, this is a reversible process and is usually carried out on a microscopic scale by defects called dislocations, which are created by fluctuations in local stress fields within the material culminating in a lattice rearrangement as the dislocations propagate through the lattice. At normal temperatures the dislocations are not annihilated by annealing. Instead, the dislocations accumulate, interact with one another, and serve as pinning points or obstacles that significantly impede their motion. This leads to an increase in the yield strength of the material and a subsequent decrease in ductility.

Such deformation increases the concentration of dislocations which may subsequently form low-angle grain boundaries surrounding sub-grains. Cold working generally results in a higher yield strength as a result of the increased number of dislocations and the Hall–Petch effect of the sub-grains, and a decrease in ductility. The effects of cold working may be reversed by annealing the material at high temperatures where recovery and recrystallization reduce the dislocation density.

A material's work hardenability can be predicted by analyzing a stress–strain curve, or studied in context by performing hardness tests before and after a process. [7] [8]

Elastic and plastic deformation

Work hardening is a consequence of plastic deformation, a permanent change in shape. This is distinct from elastic deformation, which is reversible. Most materials do not exhibit only one or the other, but rather a combination of the two. The following discussion mostly applies to metals, especially steels, which are well studied. Work hardening occurs most notably for ductile materials such as metals. Ductility is the ability of a material to undergo plastic deformations before fracture (for example, bending a steel rod until it finally breaks).

The tensile test is widely used to study deformation mechanisms. This is because under compression, most materials will experience trivial (lattice mismatch) and non-trivial (buckling) events before plastic deformation or fracture occur. Hence the intermediate processes that occur to the material under uniaxial compression before the incidence of plastic deformation make the compressive test fraught with difficulties.

A material generally deforms elastically under the influence of small forces; the material returns quickly to its original shape when the deforming force is removed. This phenomenon is called elastic deformation. This behavior in materials is described by Hooke's Law. Materials behave elastically until the deforming force increases beyond the elastic limit, which is also known as the yield stress. At that point, the material is permanently deformed and fails to return to its original shape when the force is removed. This phenomenon is called plastic deformation. For example, if one stretches a coil spring up to a certain point, it will return to its original shape, but once it is stretched beyond the elastic limit, it will remain deformed and won't return to its original state.

Elastic deformation stretches the bonds between atoms away from their equilibrium radius of separation, without applying enough energy to break the inter-atomic bonds. Plastic deformation, on the other hand, breaks inter-atomic bonds, and therefore involves the rearrangement of atoms in a solid material.

Dislocations and lattice strain fields

In materials science parlance, dislocations are defined as line defects in a material's crystal structure. The bonds surrounding the dislocation are already elastically strained by the defect compared to the bonds between the constituents of the regular crystal lattice. Therefore, these bonds break at relatively lower stresses, leading to plastic deformation.

The strained bonds around a dislocation are characterized by lattice strain fields. For example, there are compressively strained bonds directly next to an edge dislocation and tensilely strained bonds beyond the end of an edge dislocation. These form compressive strain fields and tensile strain fields, respectively. Strain fields are analogous to electric fields in certain ways. Specifically, the strain fields of dislocations obey similar laws of attraction and repulsion; in order to reduce overall strain, compressive strains are attracted to tensile strains, and vice versa.

The visible (macroscopic) results of plastic deformation are the result of microscopic dislocation motion. For example, the stretching of a steel rod in a tensile tester is accommodated through dislocation motion on the atomic scale.

Increase of dislocations and work hardening

Figure 1: The yield stress of an ordered material has a half-root dependency on the number of dislocations present. Work HArd.png
Figure 1: The yield stress of an ordered material has a half-root dependency on the number of dislocations present.

Increase in the number of dislocations is a quantification of work hardening. Plastic deformation occurs as a consequence of work being done on a material; energy is added to the material. In addition, the energy is almost always applied fast enough and in large enough magnitude to not only move existing dislocations, but also to produce a great number of new dislocations by jarring or working the material sufficiently enough. New dislocations are generated in proximity to a Frank–Read source.

Yield strength is increased in a cold-worked material. Using lattice strain fields, it can be shown that an environment filled with dislocations will hinder the movement of any one dislocation. Because dislocation motion is hindered, plastic deformation cannot occur at normal stresses. Upon application of stresses just beyond the yield strength of the non-cold-worked material, a cold-worked material will continue to deform using the only mechanism available: elastic deformation, the regular scheme of stretching or compressing of electrical bonds (without dislocation motion) continues to occur, and the modulus of elasticity is unchanged. Eventually the stress is great enough to overcome the strain-field interactions and plastic deformation resumes.

However, ductility of a work-hardened material is decreased. Ductility is the extent to which a material can undergo plastic deformation, that is, it is how far a material can be plastically deformed before fracture. A cold-worked material is, in effect, a normal (brittle) material that has already been extended through part of its allowed plastic deformation. If dislocation motion and plastic deformation have been hindered enough by dislocation accumulation, and stretching of electronic bonds and elastic deformation have reached their limit, a third mode of deformation occurs: fracture.

Quantification of work hardening

The strength, , of dislocation is dependent on the shear modulus, G, the magnitude of the Burgers vector, b, and the dislocation density, :

where is the intrinsic strength of the material with low dislocation density and is a correction factor specific to the material.

As shown in Figure 1 and the equation above, work hardening has a half root dependency on the number of dislocations. The material exhibits high strength if there are either high levels of dislocations (greater than 1014 dislocations per m2) or no dislocations. A moderate number of dislocations (between 107 and 109 dislocations per m2) typically results in low strength.


For an extreme example, in a tensile test a bar of steel is strained to just before the length at which it usually fractures. The load is released smoothly and the material relieves some of its strain by decreasing in length. The decrease in length is called the elastic recovery, and the end result is a work-hardened steel bar. The fraction of length recovered (length recovered/original length) is equal to the yield-stress divided by the modulus of elasticity. (Here we discuss true stress in order to account for the drastic decrease in diameter in this tensile test.) The length recovered after removing a load from a material just before it breaks is equal to the length recovered after removing a load just before it enters plastic deformation.

The work-hardened steel bar has a large enough number of dislocations that the strain field interaction prevents all plastic deformation. Subsequent deformation requires a stress that varies linearly with the strain observed, the slope of the graph of stress vs. strain is the modulus of elasticity, as usual.

The work-hardened steel bar fractures when the applied stress exceeds the usual fracture stress and the strain exceeds usual fracture strain. This may be considered to be the elastic limit and the yield stress is now equal to the fracture toughness, which is much higher than a non-work-hardened steel yield stress.

The amount of plastic deformation possible is zero, which is less than the amount of plastic deformation possible for a non-work-hardened material. Thus, the ductility of the cold-worked bar is reduced.

Substantial and prolonged cavitation can also produce strain hardening.

Empirical relations

There are two common mathematical descriptions of the work hardening phenomenon. Hollomon's equation is a power law relationship between the stress and the amount of plastic strain: [9]

where σ is the stress, K is the strength index or strength coefficient, εp is the plastic strain and n is the strain hardening exponent. Ludwik's equation is similar but includes the yield stress:

If a material has been subjected to prior deformation (at low temperature) then the yield stress will be increased by a factor depending on the amount of prior plastic strain ε0:

The constant K is structure dependent and is influenced by processing while n is a material property normally lying in the range 0.2–0.5. The strain hardening index can be described by:

This equation can be evaluated from the slope of a log(σ) – log(ε) plot. Rearranging allows a determination of the rate of strain hardening at a given stress and strain:

Work hardening in specific materials


Copper was the first metal in common use for tools and containers since it is one of the few metals available in non-oxidized form, not requiring the smelting of an ore. Copper is easily softened by heating and then cooling (it does not harden by quenching, e.g., quenching in cool water). In this annealed state it may then be hammered, stretched and otherwise formed, progressing toward the desired final shape but becoming harder and less ductile as work progresses. If work continues beyond a certain hardness the metal will tend to fracture when worked and so it may be re-annealed periodically as shaping continues. Annealing is stopped when the workpiece is near its final desired shape, and so the final product will have a desired stiffness and hardness. The technique of repoussé exploits these properties of copper, enabling the construction of durable jewelry articles and sculptures (such as the Statue of Liberty).

Gold and other precious metals

Much gold jewelry is produced by casting, with little or no cold working; which, depending on the alloy grade, may leave the metal relatively soft and bendable. However, a Jeweler may intentionally use work hardening to strengthen wearable objects that are exposed to stress, such as rings.


Devices made from aluminum and its alloys, such as aircraft, must be carefully designed to minimize or evenly distribute flexure, which can lead to work hardening and, in turn, stress cracking, possibly causing catastrophic failure. For this reason modern aluminum aircraft will have an imposed working lifetime (dependent upon the type of loads encountered), after which the aircraft must be retired.

Related Research Articles

Structural geology Science of the description and interpretation of deformation in the Earths crust

Structural geology is the study of the three-dimensional distribution of rock units with respect to their deformational histories. The primary goal of structural geology is to use measurements of present-day rock geometries to uncover information about the history of deformation (strain) in the rocks, and ultimately, to understand the stress field that resulted in the observed strain and geometries. This understanding of the dynamics of the stress field can be linked to important events in the geologic past; a common goal is to understand the structural evolution of a particular area with respect to regionally widespread patterns of rock deformation due to plate tectonics.

Ductility Material ability to undergo significant plastic deformation before rupture

Ductility is a mechanical property commonly described as a material's amenability to drawing. In materials science, ductility is defined by the degree to which a material can sustain plastic deformation under tensile stress before failure. Ductility is an important consideration in engineering and manufacturing, defining a material's suitability for certain manufacturing operations and its capacity to absorb mechanical overload. Materials that are generally described as ductile include gold and copper.

In engineering, deformation refers to the change in size or shape of an object. Displacements are the absolute change in position of a point on the object. Deflection is the relative change in external displacements on an object. Strain is the relative internal change in shape of an infinitesimally small cube of material and can be expressed as a non-dimensional change in length or angle of distortion of the cube. Strains are related to the forces acting on the cube, which are known as stress, by a stress-strain curve. The relationship between stress and strain is generally linear and reversible up until the yield point and the deformation is elastic. The linear relationship for a material is known as Young's modulus. Above the yield point, some degree of permanent distortion remains after unloading and is termed plastic deformation. The determination of the stress and strain throughout a solid object is given by the field of strength of materials and for a structure by structural analysis.

Plasticity (physics) The deformation of a solid material undergoing non-reversible changes of shape in response to applied forces

In physics and materials science, plasticity, also known as plastic deformation, is the ability of a solid material to undergo permanent deformation, a non-reversible change of shape in response to applied forces. For example, a solid piece of metal being bent or pounded into a new shape displays plasticity as permanent changes occur within the material itself. In engineering, the transition from elastic behavior to plastic behavior is known as yielding.

Stress–strain curve

In engineering and materials science, a stress–strain curve for a material gives the relationship between stress and strain. It is obtained by gradually applying load to a test coupon and measuring the deformation, from which the stress and strain can be determined. These curves reveal many of the properties of a material, such as the Young's modulus, the yield strength and the ultimate tensile strength.

Compressive strength

Compressive strength or compression strength is the capacity of a material or structure to withstand loads tending to reduce size, as opposed to Tensile strength which withstands loads tending to elongate. In other words, compressive strength resists being pushed together, whereas tensile strength resists tension. In the study of strength of materials, tensile strength, compressive strength, and shear strength can be analyzed independently.

Creep (deformation) Tendency of a solid material to move slowly or deform permanently under mechanical stress

In materials science, creep is the tendency of a solid material to move slowly or deform permanently under the influence of persistent mechanical stresses. It can occur as a result of long-term exposure to high levels of stress that are still below the yield strength of the material. Creep is more severe in materials that are subjected to heat for long periods and generally increases as they near their melting point.

Toughness Material ability to absorb energy and plastically deform without fracturing

In materials science and metallurgy, toughness is the ability of a material to absorb energy and plastically deform without fracturing. One definition of material toughness is the amount of energy per unit volume that a material can absorb before rupturing. This measure of toughness is different from that used for fracture toughness, which describes load bearing capabilities of materials with flaws. It is also defined as a material's resistance to fracture when stressed.

Dislocation Linear crystallographic defect or irregularity

In materials science, a dislocation or Taylor's dislocation is a linear crystallographic defect or irregularity within a crystal structure that contains an abrupt change in the arrangement of atoms. The movement of dislocations allow atoms to slide over each other at low stress levels and is known as glide or slip. The crystalline order is restored on either side of a glide dislocation but the atoms on one side have moved by one position. The crystalline order is not fully restored with a partial dislocation. A dislocation defines the boundary between slipped and unslipped regions of material and as a result, must either form a complete loop, intersect other dislocations or defects, or extend to the edges of the crystal. A dislocation can be characterised by the distance and direction of movement it causes to atoms which is defined by the Burgers vector. Plastic deformation of a material occurs by the creation and movement of many dislocations. The number and arrangement of dislocations influences many of the properties of materials.

Fracture mechanics Field of mechanics concerned with the study of the propagation of cracks in materials

Fracture mechanics is the field of mechanics concerned with the study of the propagation of cracks in materials. It uses methods of analytical solid mechanics to calculate the driving force on a crack and those of experimental solid mechanics to characterize the material's resistance to fracture.

Yield (engineering) Phenomenon of deformation due to structural stress

In materials science and engineering, the yield point is the point on a stress-strain curve that indicates the limit of elastic behavior and the beginning of plastic behavior. Below the yield point, a material will deform elastically and will return to its original shape when the applied stress is removed. Once the yield point is passed, some fraction of the deformation will be permanent and non-reversible and is known as plastic deformation.

The strain hardening exponent, usually denoted , a constant often used in calculations relating to stress–strain behavior in work hardening. It occurs in the formula known as Hollomon's equation who originally posited it as

The Ramberg–Osgood equation was created to describe the non linear relationship between stress and strain—that is, the stress–strain curve—in materials near their yield points. It is especially applicable to metals that harden with plastic deformation, showing a smooth elastic-plastic transition. As it is an phenomenological model, it is it important to check the fit of the model with actual experimental data for the particular material of interest.

Solid solution strengthening is a type of alloying that can be used to improve the strength of a pure metal. The technique works by adding atoms of one element to the crystalline lattice of another element, forming a solid solution. The local nonuniformity in the lattice due to the alloying element makes plastic deformation more difficult by impeding dislocation motion through stress fields. In contrast, alloying beyond the solubility limit can form a second phase, leading to strengthening via other mechanisms.

Methods have been devised to modify the yield strength, ductility, and toughness of both crystalline and amorphous materials. These strengthening mechanisms give engineers the ability to tailor the mechanical properties of materials to suit a variety of different applications. For example, the favorable properties of steel result from interstitial incorporation of carbon into the iron lattice. Brass, a binary alloy of copper and zinc, has superior mechanical properties compared to its constituent metals due to solution strengthening. Work hardening has also been used for centuries by blacksmiths to introduce dislocations into materials, increasing their yield strengths.

Viscoplasticity Theory in continuum mechanics

Viscoplasticity is a theory in continuum mechanics that describes the rate-dependent inelastic behavior of solids. Rate-dependence in this context means that the deformation of the material depends on the rate at which loads are applied. The inelastic behavior that is the subject of viscoplasticity is plastic deformation which means that the material undergoes unrecoverable deformations when a load level is reached. Rate-dependent plasticity is important for transient plasticity calculations. The main difference between rate-independent plastic and viscoplastic material models is that the latter exhibit not only permanent deformations after the application of loads but continue to undergo a creep flow as a function of time under the influence of the applied load.

Material failure theory is the science of predicting the conditions under which solid materials fail under the action of external loads. The failure of a material is usually classified into brittle failure (fracture) or ductile failure (yield). Depending on the conditions most materials can fail in a brittle or ductile manner or both. However, for most practical situations, a material may be classified as either brittle or ductile.

Ductility (Earth science)

In Earth science, as opposed to Materials Science, Ductility refers to the capacity of a rock to deform to large strains without macroscopic fracturing. Such behavior may occur in unlithified or poorly lithified sediments, in weak materials such as halite or at greater depths in all rock types where higher temperatures promote crystal plasticity and higher confining pressures suppress brittle fracture. In addition, when a material is behaving ductilely, it exhibits a linear stress vs strain relationship past the elastic limit.

Rock mass plasticity

Plasticity theory for rocks is concerned with the response of rocks to loads beyond the elastic limit. Historically, conventional wisdom has it that rock is brittle and fails by fracture while plasticity is identified with ductile materials. In field scale rock masses, structural discontinuities exist in the rock indicating that failure has taken place. Since the rock has not fallen apart, contrary to expectation of brittle behavior, clearly elasticity theory is not the last work.

Toughening is the improvement of the fracture resistance of a given material. The material's toughness is described by irreversible work accompanying crack propagation. Designing against this crack propagation leads to toughening the material.


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