The five most important materials trends of this coming year, like the top five for 2011, will enable volume manufacturing. They are concerned mostly with new, alternative materials or processes, along with developments in current ones. Once again, the materials or processes are those likely to prompt high growth.
1. Additive Manufacturing (AM). The most important developments will likely involve new materials. One will be the static-dissipative ABS described in Stratasys Develops Static-Dissipative ABS. In addition to rapid prototypes and low-volume production components, AM can create custom jigs and manufacturing fixtures, such as those for electronics manufacturing. A big problem has been the static electricity produced by most thermoplastics. The Stratasys ABS-ESD7 material, used with the company's Fortus Fused Deposition Modeling machines, prevents static electricity buildup and eliminates buildup of particulates from dust and powders. Today much of the electronics market consists of consumer devices, so once a component or material becomes part of this manufacturing flow, it's practically assured a high-volume future. Other AM materials will likely include biocompatibles for medical and dental applications and stronger, high-performance formulations for low-volume aerospace and automotive production.
Some of the most important developments of 2012 will likely be new materials, one of which will be Fortus's static-dissipative ABS-ESD7 thermoplastic.
2. Plastics. The most significant breakthroughs will be thermoplastics that are good enough for automotive uses. That means high enough performance (whether structural or not, interior or exterior), low enough cost, and the ability to lend itself to high-volume automated manufacturing. Finally We Get Some Truth on Plastic Body Panels discusses the search for engineering-grade thermoplastics good enough in all these senses for automotive body panels, starting with fiberglass, one of the best known fiber-reinforced plastics. FRP manufacturing is a slow process, and to date it's been too slow for high-volume, mainstream car production. Other problems have included the higher coefficients of thermal expansion for thermoplastics than for steel, which make it difficult to design body panels (and cars) with clean lines. The thermoplastic manufacturer that solves these problems will be an Arthur pulling the sword from the stone for the automotive industry.
3. Automotive Composites. Composite manufacturing has suffered from laydown speeds too slow for automated production. Major changes here will include things such as Teijin's thermoplastic molding technology, which speeds up carbon FRP manufacturing by 500 percent. Composite Processing Speeds Up discusses this and other technologies Teijin has developed for welding thermoplastic carbon FRP parts together and bonding them with other materials, increasing throughput in automotive assembly. Teijin intends to develop mass production applications for carbon FRPs in other industries requiring high amounts of structural strength, such as machine and industrial tools.
It is pretty amazing the progress the industry is making on the materials front in terms of providing so many more highly durable, cost effective options for additive manufacturing. Has this wider range of materials options expanded the use of additive manufacturing procedures for manufacturers in any significant way? Are there any general guidelines governing when this route is preferable vs. more traditional manufacturing methods?
I don't think there are any general guidelines yet. At this point, it seems to be if it works, do it. But as we've noted elsewhere, medical and dental appliances and implants are pretty big, as are "bridge" parts--a small run of regular parts made while waiting for the larger order that has been delayed--or on-the-spot customized replacements, especially in aerospace and remote locations.
Ann, thanks for mentioning aluminum and steel. Aluminum and steel technologies are hardly standing still, and they offer a lot of big advantages which are hard to beat. As Chuck's article about the Cadillac ATS shows, steel can be an important part of lightweighting strategy. People often forget about the "strength" part of "strength-to-weight ratio," but there's a lot to be said for the strength and stiffness of steel. And new aluminum alloys are giving composites a run for their money. Let's not forget about metal-matrix composites, either.
With regard to your last item, it's important to remember that biodegradable and recyclable are two very different things. Often, biodegradable plastics can't be recycled, and are intended to be landfilled or composted.
Dave, thanks for your links and comments on metals. I plan to start covering them more in the months ahead. The number of breakthroughs and advancements in composites over the last couple of months has been spectacular.
Regarding bioplastics, it's usually--but not always--the single-use kinds that tend to be biodegradable. The durables usually--but not always--are not biodegradable, but can sometimes be recycled. Look for an upcoming feature on bioplastics in March.
I agree, Dave. Steel and aluminum are fighting for their lives as industry looks for lighter, stronger, more environmentally friendly materials. The steel and aluminum industries are working hard to deliver the same -- or superior -- qualities that make composites and plastics attractive.
This may be a pedestrian observation, but it strikes me, from reading your coverage over the past several months, that materials is amid the biggest wave of innovation in years. Bioplastics and composites are just two of the areas which are advancing at an incredible pace. Additive manufacturing similarly made big strides in 2011. Sounds like there's going to be a lot of interesting stuff to write about this year.
Good point about the Cadillac ATS, Dave. With high-strength steel offering much more strength than convntional steel, and with ultra-high-strength offer another big bump up, structural applications can do a lot of lightweighting.
@Rob: To say that steel and aluminum are "fighting for their lives" is a poor choice of words. I don't think anyone is under the impression that steel and aluminum are going away anytime soon. They simply provide a combination of properties (high strength, high toughness, low cost, etc.) which is extremely difficult to beat. And when it comes to being environmentally friendly, a very strong case can be made that steel and aluminum outperform plastics or composites.
Yes, perhaps my word choice was a bit excessive. But those industries have already gone to work to argue their relative strength as environmentally friendly materials. The arguement is that they produce less carbon than composites as they are produced, and that they are far easier to recycle.
I'm getting the same impression. I've been following where the news leads me, and the materials announcements just in the last three months on this beat have been spectacular and mind-blowing. I think you've accurately identified the three areas that seem to be undergoing the most change and the most innovation. I would never have guessed when I started that there's so much going on, and can hardly wait to find out what's next.
The amount of plastic clogging the ocean continues to grow. Some startling, not-so-good news has come out recently about the roles plastic is playing in the ocean, as well as more heartening news about efforts to collect and reuse it.
Some of our culture's most enduring robots appeared in the 80s. The Aliens series produced another evil android, and we saw light robot fare in the form of Short Circuit. Two of the great robots of all time also showed up: The Terminator and RoboCop.
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