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Discontinuous carbon fiber composites have been reported to be damage tolerant materials with insensitivity to notches and defects. Meso-scale damage mechanisms and crack arresting are responsible for high apparent fracture toughness and pseudo-ductility. This work studies the effect of manufacturing and structure formation on the mechanical behavior of stochastic carbon fiber sheet molding compounds based on thermosetting prepreg platelets with a fiber length of 50 mm. The process–structure–property–performance relationship is analyzed by non-destructive characterization and mechanical bending tests on the component level. Model components of various preform and stack placement scenarios were compression molded to investigate different flow conditions, weld lines and artificially introduced defects. The experimental findings revealed a process-induced failure mode transition from pseudo-ductile to brittle failure behavior. Low-flow scenarios showed a highly non-linear response with large deflection values and high energy absorption. Higher in-mold material flow and weld lines caused brittle failure at significantly lower deflections with a considerable reduction of energy absorbing capacity. Increased material flow also reduced component stiffness and maximum load values. Weld lines exhibited major strength reduction compared to the pristine material configuration. Full-scale and high-resolution X-ray computed tomography scans revealed differences in local fiber orientation state, increased levels of fiber waviness and porosity, as well as asymmetric distribution of defects.
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