Contact mechanics is the study of the deformation of solids that touch each other at one or more points. A central distinction in contact mechanics is between stresses acting perpendicular to the contacting bodies' surfaces (known as the normal direction) and frictional stresses acting tangentially between the surfaces. This page focuses mainly on the normal direction, i.e. on frictionless contact mechanics. Frictional contact mechanics is discussed separately. Normal stresses are caused by applied forces and by the adhesion present on surfaces in close contact even if they are clean and dry.
This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. (March 2011)
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Contact mechanics is part of mechanical engineering. The physical and mathematical formulation of the subject is built upon the mechanics of materials and continuum mechanics and focuses on computations involving elastic, viscoelastic, and plastic bodies in static or dynamic contact. Contact mechanics provides necessary information for the safe and energy efficient design of technical systems and for the study of tribology, contact stiffness, electrical contact resistance and indentation hardness. Principles of contacts mechanics are implemented towards applications such as locomotive wheel-rail contact, coupling devices, braking systems, tires, bearings, combustion engines, mechanical linkages, gasket seals, metalworking, metal forming, ultrasonic welding, electrical contacts, and many others. Current challenges faced in the field may include stress analysis of contact and coupling members and the influence of lubrication and material design on friction and wear. Applications of contact mechanics further extend into the micro- and nanotechnological realm.
The original work in contact mechanics dates back to 1881 with the publication of the paper "On the contact of elastic solids" ("Ueber die Berührung fester elastischer Körper") by Heinrich Hertz. Hertz was attempting to understand how the optical properties of multiple, stacked lenses might change with the force holding them together. Hertzian contact stress refers to the localized stresses that develop as two curved surfaces come in contact and deform slightly under the imposed loads. This amount of deformation is dependent on the modulus of elasticity of the material in contact. It gives the contact stress as a function of the normal contact force, the radii of curvature of both bodies and the modulus of elasticity of both bodies. Hertzian contact stress forms the foundation for the equations for load bearing capabilities and fatigue life in bearings, gears, and any other bodies where two surfaces are in contact.