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The capacity of metals to undergo large plastic strains (without fracturing) is one of their most important characteristics. It allows them to be formed into complex shapes. It also means that a component under mechanical load is likely to experience some (local) plasticity, rather than starting to crack or exhibit other kinds of damage that could impair its function. Metals are in general superior to other types of material in this respect. This has been known for millennia, but the reasons behind it, and the mechanisms involved in metal plasticity, only started to become clear less than a century ago and have been understood in real depth for just a few decades. Central to this understanding is the atomic scale structure of dislocations, and the ways in which they can move so as to cause plastic deformation, although there are also several other plasticity mechanisms that can be activated under certain circumstances. These are described in this chapter, together with information about how they tend to be affected by the metal microstructure. This term encompasses a complex range of features, including crystal structure, grain size, texture, alloying additions, impurities, phase constitution etc.
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