If It Ain’t Broke, Improve It

The technology needed to expand the use of new materials is at a tipping point in many industries.

JamieIt never fails. Just when I have reached full-blown master guru level with a piece of complicated software, the vendor releases an update intended to make my workflow more efficient. In the long run, I know it will. The run might not even be that long. Still, part of me is reluctant to hit that update button. Whether it’s a fear of the unknown, the comfort of complacency or feeling like I don’t have enough time to learn one more new thing, I hesitate.

I’m not alone. The more design engineers I talk to, the more I realize how hard it is to escape the status quo. On a personal level, their reasons seem justified. Maybe they’re approaching a certain age or point in their career where they’d rather be the technology expert than the amateur. Maybe they blame internal politics for a lack of investment in new technology. Or maybe they think they’ve got it all figured out—that their work is good enough.

On a higher level, those reasons sound a lot more like excuses for why an organization is falling behind the technology curve. The reticence to try something new applies to all types of new technologies. If it isn’t conquered, it can stifle innovation and put an entire organization at a competitive disadvantage.

A Material Matter

Our focus in this issue is a perfect example of a cultural conversion challenge for many organizations: materials. The very essence of the products you engineer—whether end users describe them as cheap, durable, flimsy or light—depends largely on the materials from which they’re made. Changing materials is not a decision to be taken lightly. It affects how a product is designed, simulated and tested. It can have a dramatic impact on costs, manufacturing time and techniques, and the greater supply chain. In short, the decision to move away from tried-and-true materials to something new could affect every stage of a product’s development and lifecycle.

That’s a scary thought for anyone, which is why you should consider it. Being the first to roll out a lighter, stronger, more durable product via the use of new materials is a considerable barrier for your competitors to overcome. For evidence, look no further than the aerospace industry’s recent rush to 3D-printed parts, or the automotive industry’s move to lighter materials like aluminum and composites. Customer demands and government regulations for fuel economy, plus cost savings associated with consolidating assemblies into fewer parts add up to using materials in new ways and forcing competitors to do the same.

As leading industries blaze the trail in new material uses, the associated technologies to simulate, test and manufacture products using those materials continue to advance. The level of knowledge and technological infrastructure needed to expand the use of new 3D printing materials, and to use composites and high-strength alloys in new ways is reaching a tipping point in many industries.

Lessons Learned

If you’re playing catch up on the materials front, you can fast track your education by joining the new public-private partnerships that are part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). Several deal with materials, including America Makes, which focuses on 3D printing; the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation; Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow, which focuses on lightweight metal manufacturing; and the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Each of these institutes receive federal funding via NNMI and are aligned with academia. They share the goal of bringing research to practical industry applications.

Other new material resources include industry trade associations like WorldAutoSteel, The Aluminum Association and the American Composites Manufacturers Association; other government agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Material Research; and universities. There is a lot of momentum behind the application of new materials.

DE is bringing some of the leaders of that momentum together Oct. 27 for an online discussion of the challenges involved in simulating and manufacturing advanced materials, 3D printing metals and composite parts, and new methods for bonding different materials. DE Senior Editor Kenneth Wong will moderate a panel of experts from the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory: Metal Additive Manufacturing, and the Automotive Composites Alliance. Visit here to register for the webcast. Think of it as your opportunity to break out of the status quo and overcome any reticence to trying new technologies.

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About the Author

Jamie Gooch's avatar
Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

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