The five most important materials trends of this past year enable volume manufacturing. They are concerned mostly with new alternative materials or processes. Volume may start out small, but the material or processes will likely spur high growth. The five areas I look at are additive manufacturing (AM), plastics, composites, metals, and recycling.
Of course, high-volume manufacturing is not the only important kind. Several major developments affected applications and engineering designs for products made in smaller lots. In AM, for example, there were important breakthroughs affecting small runs and rapid prototyping.
Additive manufacturing was a big materials breakthrough in enabling short production runs with 3D printers,
which made this Urbee two-passenger hybrid car.
But it's high volumes of a product, or the techniques and processes that enable those high volumes, that can shake up an industry and even restructure it permanently. Several trends concern automotive manufacturing. Here, new materials and processes must not only meet regulations and cost objectives, but also must fit smoothly and easily into highly automated manufacturing processes without compromising them or slowing them down.
The most important development was the big burst of new materials, discussed succinctly in Materials Broaden Reach of Additive Manufacturing. One example is a scale model of the Urbee, the first car body prototype made with a 3D printer using Stratasys' Fused Deposition Modeling machines. The car's body panels were then built at full size. Most of the other examples in this article involve medical and dental applications, including customized silicone or photopolymer resin hearing aids and FDA-approved, biocompatible plastics and metal alloys for implants.
Aside from these medical-grade plastics, the most significant plastics breakthrough this year was bioplastics. Resin Producers Forge Ahead on Bioplastics looks at work on the development of engineering-grade plastics made from renewable resources, instead of hydrocarbons such as natural gas or oil. For example, Solvay is partnering with Avantium to develop high-performance polyamides, or nylons. DuPont is working on what has been a Holy Grail of bioplastics for several years: corn-based feedstocks. Past attempts were plagued with material defects -- they fell apart easily and quickly lost rigidity and strength in moist environments, such as landfills. My bet is on DuPont to figure out how to make this one work.
Demand is growing for several different types, primarily carbon and glass fiber. Carbon Composite Processes Eye Auto Production discusses this trend, as well as some breakthrough processes that compete with sheet metal for fabricating large structural automobile components. The most significant is Teijin's compression molding technology that cuts carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic molding times to under a minute, due to thermoplastic resins, which don't need curing time.
Steel and recycling.
The steel industry isn't taking this composites trend lying down. In Steel Fights Back Against Alternative Auto Materials, we learn that the lifecycle of electric vehicle production can contain hidden emissions, especially in the manufacture of composite and other alternative materials. The steel industry contends that those emissions are much lower for steel production, and that steel is fully recyclable, unlike alternatives. The industry also contends that newer lightweight, high-strength steel can give composites a run for their money when it comes to strength. The fact that alternative materials have provoked the steel industry into coming up with more lightweight materials sounds like at least one instance where the competition of the marketplace is working.
Composites and recycling.
The last major trend may fix one of the steel industry's complaints about composites. Boeing's celebrated launch of its composite-heavy 787 Dreamliner is one indication that carbon-fiber composites could be plentiful in landfills when they eventually wear out. The company's decision to help fund research on how to recycle those materials, detailed in Boeing to Recycle Dreamliner Composites, may presage or spark further work in this area, which could also affect the growing amount of plastics used in automotive and medical applications.
Dave, thanks for your comments about bioplastics. I'm working on a March feature that will focus on this topic, and it's been heartening to find that there's a lot of research on non-food source plant-derived feedstocks. I think much of it looks promising. So far, it appears that renewably sourced bioplastics tough enough for engineering uses in automotive, aerospace and industrial apps are not also recyclable/compostable at the end of their lives. I'm looking into why that might be true. Stay tuned!
Tool_maker, the composites are primarily carbon fiber reinforced plastic/polymer (CFRP or carbon FRP), and some are glass fiber reinforced. The fibers are joined to a matrix material, usually made of a polymer, usually an epoxy. But other polymer matrix materials such as nylon or polyester may be used.
What an interesting observation, Tool Maker. I would imagine large manufacturing such as automotive has adjusted to new steel, but on the tool side, I can understand how products are not keeping up with advances in the materials. Composites seem to be ahead of themselves as well, particularly in aerospace. Ann discusses in Composite Aircraft Repair Advances.
There is no doubt the steel industry is taking a serious look at competing technologies, with so much of new products, particularly automotive, being made from the ultra strength steel. I deal with it on a daily basis and since I make my living by forming, punching and stamping steel, it is cool to see the inovation that is taking place, but I sure do wish it was easier to work with. Part of the problem is that the steel fabrication is evolving faster than the tool steel. So we can arrive at a point where the fabricated product is lighter,stronger and more economic to use, but the production tooling takes such a beating that tool maintainence rises and steals part of the economic benefit. But we are learning.
A question: what is the raw materials bank from which all of these composites are made? I have no idea, but is it possible we are aiming our future at a raw material that will become scarce in the next say 50 years. I'm just asking.
I agree about AM hype, Alex. The low-volume production manufacturing I've heard about is in very small quantities, often for "bridge" parts. But none of the vendors I spoke to visualize AM as taking over or replacing high-volume mainstream manufacturing, at least not anytime soon.
And Chuck, I think you nailed it regarding composites. The big challenge there is getting the price down. Of course, that depends on volumes, which depends on price and manufacturability, and so it goes.
I think Dave is getting to the heart of the issue regarding additive manufacturing. On the one hand, it's an extremely promising and versatile technology. OTOH, as he writes: "there has been a little too much emphasis on the idea that you can manufacture production quantities of parts using additive manufacturing techniques, or that additive manufacturing is poised to displace other manufacturing techniques such as casting or forging." Additive manufacturing is currently a niche technology with broad potential, especially for complex designs, but is not going to displace these others, because of cost considerations.
Yes, the steel industry has been very aggressive in the face of potential competition from composites. Steel is fighting for its marketshare on two fronts -- one, as Ann mentioned, in making product that works to match the advantages of composites, and two, to instruct the industry that steel produces lower emissions in the manufacturing process and is easy to recycle.
Thanks for your comments, Dave. It's true that bioplastics have not lived up to earlier hype. But engineering-grade bioplastics are getting a lot closer to reality.
Regarding low volumes of production manufacturing using AM, including high-performance laser sintering processes, and replacement of some casting, those are also a reality. These are showing up in aerospace and even some high-end automotive applications, as detailed in an upcoming December feature on this subject.
I agree with you and Rob that metals aren't going away anytime soon, and that's why I included them in the top five. I think we'll see some interesting developments here next year, too.
Only time will tell whether any of these "trends" is more than hype. Biopolymers, in particular, are something which I view with extreme skepticism. The fact that they don't use petroleum-based feedstocks does not necessarily mean that they are environmentally friendly or sustainable - as the steel recycling article points out, the entire product lifecycle needs to be taken into account. I also think that the use of food crops to produce disposable plastic packaging in the midst of a global food crisis is morally unacceptable. There may be a role in the future for some biopolymers which are not derived from food crops, but this remains to be seen.
Additive manufacturing is a technology which is unquestionably going to play a bigger role in the future. Personally, I think there has been a little too much emphasis on the idea that you can manufacture production quantities of parts using additive manufacturing techniques, or that additive manufacturing is poised to displace other manufacturing techniques such as casting or forging. Quite frankly, I don't think the technology is there yet - and it may never get there. However, additive manufacturing is a good way to make patterns for castings, and this topic ought to be receiving more attention.
Composites have supposedly been about to replace metals on a mass scale for the past 30 years, but with a few notable exceptions, this hasn't happened. In reality, adoption has been slow and steady, and relatively limited in terms of applications. I think there is a real trend towards increased use of composites, but it is proceeding at a much slower pace than some people seem to think it ought to. I also think that there are many applications where metals are simply better, and always will be.
Dow Chemical and several other companies have launched a program in Omaha, Neb. to divert about 36 tons of plastics from landfills in its first phase, and convert it into energy used for cement production.
Both traditional automation companies and startups are developing technologies to improve processes on the factory floor, while smart sensors and other IoT-related technologies are improving how products are handled during transport and across the supply chain.
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