The Economist's New Materials for Manufacturing covers what it calls the "golden age" of materials. Key quote on what this means:
New, high-performing substances such as exotic alloys and superstrong composites are emerging; “smart” materials can remember their shape, repair themselves or assemble themselves into components. Little structures that change the way something responds to light or sound can be used to turn a material into a “metamaterial” with very different properties ... The result is a flood of new substances and new ideas for ways of using them to make old things better—and new things which have never been made before.
Most of these materials are developed using some form of nanotechnology, which is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale - generally defined as sizes ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers.
This, of course, raises the question "what is a nanometer?".
The answer is one nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or 10-9 of a meter. Examples:
- There are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch
- A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
What makes working with nanoscale materials so exciting is the properties of the materials change significantly from those at larger scales.
At nanoscale, quantum effects rule the behavior and properties of materials. This gives many nano materials unique and useful physical, chemical, mechanical or optical characteristics (see How Nanotechnology Works for a fairly simple explanation).
A good example is the composite material carbon fiber. The Economist nicely describes how this is made.
The material is made from thin filaments of carbon woven into a cloth. This is cut and pressed into the shape of a part and the fibres bound together with a plastic resin, cured by heat and pressure. The molecular structure of carbon compounds produces strong chemical bonds, much like those in diamonds, and by aligning the fibres at different angles the strength of a component can be reinforced exactly where needed.
The result is a material that is stronger than steel, yet 50% lighter. It also doesn't corrode.
Carbon fiber is already widely used in newer aircraft. For example, it makes up about half the weight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. But the cost and time required to make carbon fiber has limited its use until recently.
New manufacturing methods have cut the costs and it's now starting to be widely used in cars and other applications. As the article chart below shows, auto industry use of carbon fiber is expected to grow quite rapidly over the next couple of years.
NPR also covers some interesting applications of nanotechology and nano materials in their article The Future Of Nanotechnology And Computers So Small You Can Swallow Them.
A wide range of technologies are fundamentally changing manufacturing. We'll be diving deeper on this topic in the new year with a focus on what this means for small manufacturing firms.