Design engineers play a big role in selecting both the suppliers and the materials for their designs. The results of our most recent Design News Materials Survey say they continue to be highly involved, in some ways even more than the last time we asked to peek inside their cubicles.
Because of their involvement, today's engineers are setting the parameters of many new as well as existing designs. The percentage of this year's survey respondents that say they recommend specific brands and/or vendors is 61%, about the same as the previous survey in 2012, followed closely by 59% who determine the type of solution needed. Half of them evaluate products and the same number prototype and/or test products, and also select the materials to be used in their products.
After adhesives and coatings at 48%, the latest Design News Materials Survey says design engineers are buying more metals than any plastics, including specialty alloys, lightweight alloys, and ferrous alloys. Although fewer are buying die casting services, there are efforts to improve that. A Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) consortium project looks to redesign die casting and heat-treating of aluminum parts to cut both weight and costs. This aluminum airplane wing access cover has been produced using a high-speed, vacuum-aided, aluminum die-casting process.
(Source: Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow)
This year, even more make the final decision on choosing brands and suppliers, at 52%, and selecting specific materials and products, at 56%. Overall, a whopping 91% are involved in some way in materials purchasing compared to 80% the last time. More engineers' companies are using an approved vendor list (AVL) than reported in the previous survey. But somewhat fewer of this year's respondents, at 43%, are involved in getting vendors on that AVL.
The top three criteria for putting a vendor on the list are the same as last time: quality, performance, and reliability. Cost is still the sixth most important reason, after the fourth, delivery, and one more. There's been a change that may be significant: last time, that fifth criterion was previous experience, but that's been edged down below price. What's replaced it in fifth place this time is engineering technical support.
Ninety percent of Design News Materials Survey respondents want materials that give high reliability, cost reduction, and ruggedization for industrial or harsh environments. Materials used for automotive exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) modules in Europe must withstand high thermal, mechanical and chemical loads, and therefore highly resistant to creep and corrosion. The grade of BASF's polybutylene terephthalat (PBT) Ultradur HR used in this gearbox redesign is especially resistant to hydrolysis in damp-warm environments. This extends component service life and tightness, especially in the -40 to 140C temperature range demanded by automotive manufacturers for ever-more compact engine compartment and EGR designs. It's also highly resistant to alkaline media, which trigger stress corrosion cracking.
Those emphases may be directly related to some other trends our survey shows: an increase in the use of materials for many demanding application areas where quality, performance, and reliability are musts, and where tech support can be vital. These include industrial control and automation, medical and healthcare, instruments and scientific equipment, automotive and trucking, robotic systems, and military/defense. The use of materials in all these areas, and several others, has increased since the last survey. But the biggest jump in materials use is for machine builders and machine tooling: 9% of respondents mentioned this last time but this year 29% did.
A lot of engineers will be considering a lot of new materials and new suppliers, although there's less of an emphasis this time on expanding the different materials categories. In every type of material and process we asked about, most engineers expect to remain the same in their anticipated use, even more than in the last survey. But in some categories a sizable percentage expect to expand use. Here, the top four are 3D printing services, rapid prototyping services, injection molders, and adhesives and coatings. For ceramics, powder metals, foundries, and die casters, more respondents expect to decrease use than increase it.
What materials and services are engineers involved in buying? The biggest percentage reported was adhesives and coatings at 48%, followed by specialty alloys (38%), lightweight alloys (38%), ferrous alloys (37%), 3D printing services (32%), rapid prototyping services (30%), standard polymers (29%), injection molding (29%), engineering polymers (27%), high-performance polymers (26%), elastomers (24%), and composites (24%). Forming, stamping, ceramics, die casting, powder metals, and foundries came in at under 20% each.
What do design engineers look for when they incorporate materials into their designs? For all the talk of lightweighting, size reduction, energy efficiency, or even thermal management, those concerns are at the bottom of the list. A whopping 90% of respondents want materials that give high reliability. Cost reduction comes in second at 72%, and ruggedization for industrial or harsh environments is third at 58%.
Design News Materials Survey respondents are using more materials for demanding application areas where quality, performance, and reliability are musts, and where engineering tech support can be vital, such as automotive. This strut mount developed by ContiTech Vibration Control uses fiberglass-reinforced BASF Ultramid polyamide as the primary structural component in both the front and rear axle of the Cadillac CT6. Compared to traditional variants made from steel or aluminum it reduces weight around 25% and has a longer service life. This new design can withstand shock loading as high as 75 kN, and ensures that only minimal countertorque acts on the shock absorber.
Today's engineers have expertise that crosses multiple disciplines. For instance, 28% of respondents list mechanical engineering as their primary engineering discipline, and another 55% say it's a secondary area of expertise, a reversal of what the survey previously found. At 21%, slightly more than last time's 13% list manufacturing engineering as their primary discipline, but about the same (55%) as last time (52%) say it's a secondary discipline. Electronic/electrical engineering came in third at 17% primary and 43% secondary, both higher than last time. Following was materials engineering, with 5% listing it as a primary discipline and 42% as a secondary area, about the same as last time.
Materials buyers are also involved in multiple job functions. Secondary job functions are a big part of the design engineer's work environment. In addition to product or system design, nearly half of respondents are also involved in R&D and project management, with slightly less in testing & evaluation and manufacturing engineering. About a quarter are also involved in designing equipment for internal use, or quality control.
Engineers are writing design specifications, determining what type of solution they want, evaluating different products, brands and vendors, and testing materials. Today's design engineers have a strong voice in selecting not only the materials but the products and the vendors they want to use for turning their designs into reality.
If you'd like to check out the entire study, you can find it here.
Ann R. Thryft is senior technical editor, materials & assembly, for Design News. She's been writing about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for 28 years, covering manufacturing materials & processes, alternative energy, machine vision, and all kinds of communications.