One of the weirder materials developments from the economic slowdown is a shortage of sawdust. Prices are up some 25 percent in the past two years, if you can get it. Sawdust is not normally considered an engineering material, but it’s often used as an additive for plastic compounds that cover steering wheels and dashboards. Demand for wood plastic composites has grown dramatically and is close to a billion pounds this year, mostly for construction applications. Composites are typically close to half wood flour and high-density polyethylene, with a smattering of other additives such as stabilizers and pigments. Wood plastic composites are favored for automotive applications because they have a lower specific gravity than compounds made with other inorganic materials. They also give an “organic” look and are considered environmentally friendly. The new economics, however, surely will slow penetration. The reason is the slowdown in house construction, which is slowing timber operations. The weakness of the US dollar versus the Canadian dollar also is having an impact.
Alcoa has unveiled a new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet, aimed especially at automotive, industrial, and packaging applications. If all its claims are true, this is a major breakthrough, and may convince more automotive engineers to use aluminum.
NASA has just installed a giant robot to help in its research on composite aerospace materials, like those used for the Orion spacecraft. The agency wants to shave the time it takes to get composites through design, test, and manufacturing stages.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with architects Foster + Partners to test the possibility of using lunar regolith, or moon rocks, and 3D printing to make structures for use on the moon. A new video shows some cool animations of a hypothetical lunar mission that carries out this vision.
If there's one thing 3D printing's good for, it's customization. New Balance Athletic Shoe Company has begun using 3D printing to make customized spike plates for its running shoes made for members of its Team New Balance runners. They provide better traction and shave off a tiny bit of weight.
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