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.
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.
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.
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.
@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 kind of liked Rob's purple prose regarding metals, and since he meant the industry itself, not the materials, I tend to agree with him. A long-term incumbent, whether an individual or a group or an industry, tends to get blinders about its importance and standing, and then is surprised when things start changing. This is just human nature. It's also the nature of technological and market changes.
Agreed, Ann. The steel industry is particularly engaged in telling its story. As steel customers begin to consider lighter, stronger, and more environmentally friendly materials, the steel industry is screaming, "We can be lighter and stronger, and we're already environmentally friendly." It's a worthy cry.
I think you're right on the worthiness of the argument, Rob. There have been a ton of announcements and breakthroughs in composites since I started this beat, yet I've seen few on metals. One reason is no doubt because there are zillions of ways of making and even designing composites, as well as many materials to combine, whereas the number of metals and how they can be modified are more limited.
@Ann: I think you're deeply mistaken about the amount of variety in metals. Some people think steel is "just steel" and aluminum is "just aluminum." Nothing could be further from the truth. The wide variety of microstructures and resulting properties which can be obtained from steel by alloying, heat treatment, and mechanical processing help to explain why it has formed the basis for technological civilization for literally thousands of years.
I'm not sure that anyone can fully appreciate the tremendous diversity of metal microstructures without looking at them under a microscope. If you don't have a microscope handy, this website is a good start. But it's really just the tip of the iceberg.
And if you're not getting announcements about advances in metals, maybe you're not looking in the right places. ASM's Materials News Wire is a good place to look.
Thanks for your feedback, Dave, but you apparently misunderstood what I said. I wasn't talking about microstructures or what can be seen under a microscope, so much as products. And I wasn't talking about receiving announcements so much as what can be found by broad, general level searches on Google, for\ instance. The number of announcements regarding composites and possible composites has simply been huge. And that's not been the case for metals. I already have the ASM link, thanks, but please feel free to send more. I'm always looking for new sources.
@Ann: I guess I'm still not sure what you mean about there not being as much variation in steel products as plastics or composites. There is an entire universe of steels. Companies like QuesTek are expanding this universe. (That's something you could definitely write an article about).
But I think you're right that us metallurgists often tend to talk exclusively to each other in language that only we understand. This might explain why you have a hard time finding general information in a Google search.
Thanks for the info, Dave. Perhaps that's something you could tackle in a future blog post, how the variety of metals is still robust in the face of all the activity in plastics and composites, and how one shouldn't necessarily get seduced by the latest, but rather determine the right material (both appropriateness for app on a techical basis and cost) for the job.
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.
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