A recent article in article in The Economist takes a look ways certain manufacturers that depend on innovation have figured out that the best, cheapest and quickest results come from having materials scientists, design engineers and production engineers within spitting distance of each other. It used to be that these functions were separated, sometimes by large distances, perhaps even by countries. The article quotes Hamid Mughal, Rolls-Royce head of manufacturing engineering, saying, “Product technology is the key to survival, and manufacturing excellence provides one of the biggest opportunities in the future. … Incremental increases won’t do it.”
Companies are realizing that materials engineers need to be part of those teams. The article gives examples such as GE’s development of a “nickel-and-salt” battery for a hybrid locomotive engine application. Another example is the development of carbon fiber composites for fan blades, aircraft fuselages and wings and even race cars.
The article goes on to highlight a few products that are still in the prototype stages, like building blocks made from recycled PET and concrete bonding agents extracted from rice husks.
Back-peddling a little more, the article finds its way to university-level research, focusing on MIT. There, the author found interesting work on superhydrophobic coatings (Kripa Varanasi), genetic engineering of viruses to synthesize batteries (Angela Belcher) and computational discovery of new materials (Gerbrand Ceder, who first coined the term “materials genome”).
The article is clearly written by a non-scientist and is intended for non-scientists, too. But, it’s interesting to see how laymen translate our world into theirs.
The article appeared in the print April 21 issue, which had a series of articles on manufacturing and innovation.