More Advanced Materials = More Advanced Manufacturing
In the world of advanced manufacturing, new processes often get the spotlight, whether you’re talking about 3D printing or new subtractive techniques like 5-axis milling. But the materials we use to manufacture matter just as much, and they’re evolving just as rapidly—if not faster.
From original composites to high-performance polymers, from technical ceramics to new metal alloys, innovators continue to create new possibilities in manufacturing by creating new materials that are heat-resistant, lightweight, strong, and versatile.
Let’s examine a few of the latest advanced materials and take a look at what researchers are working on next.
In many ways, our use of metals has defined our civilization and our society—from the Bronze Age in the fourth millennium to the Iron Age two thousand years later. Each advance brought new possibilities to our tools—what we make and how.
Traditionally, an alloy involves taking a base metal and adding a small amount of one or two other elements by melting and mixing them, then letting it harden to form a new solid material. Add a fraction of carbon to iron, for example, and you get steel—something harder and less susceptible to corrosion than iron alone will ever be. Over the last 25 years, powder metallurgy has become another important way to create new alloys such as tungsten carbide.
Another important way to innovate the process is to use computers. A new field called Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME) has emerged, which enables the exploration of new combinations of metallic elements that were previously undiscovered. Using AI and machine learning, researchers can screen thousands of new combinations of metals at varying percentages. With ICME, we can screen for specific properties we want to increase—like density, heat resistance, and corrosion resistance. The takeaway? As our computing power increases, so will our ability to explore new alloys with dozens of elements at varying percentages.
People have used ceramics for at least as far back as 24,000 BC—and that’s just the earliest date that we have archeological evidence for. And while today’s advanced ceramics and technical processes bear little relation to what your Upper Paleolithic ancestor created or your grandmother’s fine china, they remain highly relevant in manufacturing today.
Ceramics are broadly defined as inorganic, non-metallic solids that have been shaped and hardened by heating at high temperatures. Technical or advanced ceramics are the group of ceramics that have the highest performing mechanical, electrical, and/or thermal properties. Technical ceramics are differentiated from traditional by the materials that make them up, as well as their manufacturing process, structure, and purpose. They excel in specified attributes—things like superconductivity or heat resistance. The focus is often on microstructural design and process control.
From the Space Shuttle to body armor to knee replacements, advanced ceramics are finding a home in many industries, including defense, medicine, and telecommunications. The largest market for ceramics however is in electronics, where they shine as semiconductors, insulators, and resistors.
As technologists, we have a lot to learn from nature. In many ways, we’re often just imitating nature’s approach to design in the new materials we create. Carbohydrates, proteins, and even DNA—are all nature’s original polymers.
Polymers are any substance with a molecular structure made up of smaller units bonded together. Today’s high-performance polymers are defined as a group of materials that retain their mechanical, thermal, and chemical properties when subjected to high temperature or pressure, corrosive chemicals, or other harsh conditions. High-performance polymers represent only about 0.2% of all man-made polymers. They are quite difficult to produce, but the harder the polymer is to make, the better the performance tends to be.
At the top of the list for high-performance polymers is PolyEtherEtherKetone, known as PEEK. PEEK polymer is lightweight and strong, extending the life cycle of a product, boosting safety and fuel efficiency, and allowing for more design freedom.
High-performance polymers are just about everywhere. Brake components in cars, airplane brackets, and clamps, speakers on mobile devices—you’ll even find them inside the human body. It’s considered an advanced biomaterial, used in the form of dental implants and spinal fusion devices.
You know the phrase “The whole is better than the sum of its parts?” That’s what composites are about. Composites are a combination of distinct materials with complementary physical properties. Think of the earliest bricks–they were made of mud and straw. Today, we’re talking about things like fiberglass and carbon fiber.
Composites often combine high strength with low weight and are frequently used for lightweight transportation. Their other benefits include durability, design flexibility, and resistance to corrosion.
In advanced manufacturing, composites often consist of a protective matrix with fiber inside. The fiber might be a natural or man-made material like carbon or glass, and the matrix might be a polymer, sometimes referred to as resin. The matrix works as a shield for the fiber, protecting it from external forces, while the fiber provides strength and stiffness, which reinforces the matrix and prevents cracking.
With a focus on ultra-stiff, super-strong fiber reinforcement and high-performance resin systems, advanced composites have found a home in the aerospace industry, being used in both military and commercial aircraft. Drones are made of carbon fiber thanks to their reduced weight, and stealth aircraft employ carbon fiber because of the increased radar transparency provided. Just last year, researchers announced a new carbon fiber skin for a stealth jet. Because composites do an impressive job absorbing projectiles and are used in the blast and ballistic protection.
Looking to the Future of Advanced Materials in Manufacturing
So what’s the next step in the innovation of materials for advanced manufacturing? What are the university research labs working on now?
In metals, researchers at the University of Hong Kong have gone into the molecular structure of steel and tinkered with how it handles stress damage, then used a process that adds plasticity to the material. The result is a stronger, more flexible, and more affordable steel alloy.
Then there’s 4D printing. With additive approaches, you can design material like you might design a part or product, adding new properties—from metal that shrinks when you heat it to self-folding strands. Soon, we could be designing minimally invasive implants that change shape many times depending on what the body needs.
Nanotechnology could also change many aspects of manufacturing—it’s already used to create aerospace components and sailboat hulls.
Whatever the future holds, we can be sure that the advanced materials we use to make and build will always be as important as the processes we use to do the work.