Strength is defined as load divided by cross-sectional area. In a tensile test, the choice of when the cross-sectional area is measured influences the results.

It is easiest to measure the width and thickness of the test sample before starting the pull. At any load, the engineering stress is the load divided by this initial cross-sectional area. Engineering stress reaches a maximum at the Tensile Strength, which occurs at an engineering strain equal to Uniform Elongation. After that point, engineering stress decreases with increasing strain, progressing until the sample fractures.

However, metals get stronger with deformation through a process known as strain hardening or work hardening. As a tensile test progresses, additional load must be applied to achieve further deformation, even after the “ultimate” tensile strength is reached. Understanding true stress and true strain helps to address the need for additional load after the peak strength is reached.

During the tensile test, the width and thickness shrink as the length of the test sample increases. Although these dimensional changes are not considered in determining the engineering stress, they are of primary importance when determining true stress. At any load, the true stress is the load divided by the cross-sectional area at that instant.

The true stress – true strain curve gives an accurate view of the stress-strain relationship, one where the stress is not dropping after exceeding the tensile strength stress level.

• True stress is determined by dividing the tensile load by the instantaneous area.
• True strain is the natural logarithm of the ratio of the instantaneous gauge length to the original gauge length.

True stress – true strain curves of low carbon steel can be approximated by the Holloman relationship:

σ = Kεn

where true stress = σ; true strain = ε, n is the n-value (work hardening exponent or strain hardening exponent), and the K-value is the true stress at a true strain value of 1.0 (called the Strength Coefficient).

True stress-strain curves obtained from tensile bars are valid only through uniform elongation due to the effects of necking and the associated strain state on the calculations. Inaccuracies are introduced if the true stress-true strain curve is extrapolated beyond uniform strain, and as such a different test is needed. Biaxial bulge testing has been used to determine stress-strain curves beyond uniform elongation. Optical measuring systems based on the principles of Digital Image Correlation (DIC) are used to measure strains. The method by which this test is performed is covered in ISO 16808.I-12

Stress-strain curves and associated parameters historically were based on engineering units, since starting dimensions are easily measured and incorporated into the calculations. True stress and true strain provide a much better representation of how the material behaves as it is being deformed, which explains its use in computer forming and crash simulations. Although sample dimensions are challenging to measure during a tensile test, there are equations that relate engineering units to true units. Conventional stress-strain curves generated in engineering units can be converted to true units for inclusion in simulation software packages.

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