There is a great untapped potential in already existing materials and technologies, but we need to improve at finding inspiration and solutions in the things that surround us.
The science fiction writer William Gibson said, “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” That could also be said about the many materials and technologies that are used in various industries, but are not widely known among designers and engineers. When presented with these exotic materials, designers and engineers often assume the materials are newly developed, even though the materials often have been on the market for decades.
“The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet” – William Gibson
We simply assume that the materials must be new, because we haven’t encountered them before. There is a large gap between how much we think we know and how much we actually know, and there is untapped potential in closing this gap of knowledge about existing materials – and then using these materials for new applications.
Cross-pollination in action
A good example of a technology that has found new use is wave springs, which is a spring design with a larger effective deflection than standard coil springs. These springs are used in mechanical designs mainly to save space. A shoe manufacturer named Spira has based its entire business on making running shoes with wave springs in the soles. The integrated springs supposedly give a better bounce, so you use less energy when running.
The idea of using wave springs instead of conventional foam or rubber in a shoe seems simple, but you need to know that wave springs exist before you can use the idea.
Another example is plasma electrolytic oxidation (PEO) or micro arc oxidation, which is a surface treatment for light metals such as aluminium, titanium, and magnesium. The process resembles conventional anodizing, but uses a much higher voltage, which creates a dense and hard ceramic surface layer on the metal. It has traditionally been used to extend the life of aluminium moulds for plastic injection moulding and for wear-resistant surfaces on bike cranks, winches on boats, and turbocharger rotors in the automotive industry. It is slowly being adapted in other industries, and a few weeks ago HTC launched the phone model HTC One S, in which plasma electrolytic oxidation is used to create a smooth, wear-resistant surface on the aluminum body. See HTC’s video of the process here:
In order to discover materials and solutions such as wave springs or plasma electrolytic oxidation, you need a broad knowledge of and interest in materials and technologies from industries that may seem unrelated to your current work. It is time-consuming to stay up to date, but it will pay off when you begin to use cross-pollination to get breakthrough ideas. One company that has understood the necessity of scouring for technologies in other industrial fields is the Danish company Coloplast, which makes medical devices for ostomy, urology, and continence. They have established a dedicated department for “Technology Scouting” with 5-6 employees who spend their work days digging through trade magazines, patents, newsletters, and blogs to find emerging technologies that could be of interest to Coloplast’s many R&D departments.
“It is time-consuming to stay up to date, but it will pay off when you begin to use cross-pollination to get breakthrough ideas”
Large companies like Coloplast are able to hire people to do nothing but look for new technologies, but smaller companies don’t have this luxury. Instead, they often rely on the materials and technologies that are marketed directly to them by the manufacturers.
The lack of broader marketing
The problem with relying on the manufacturers’ marketing is that many materials and technologies are not being actively marketed outside of their main markets. The manufacturer is understandably concentrating the sales and marketing efforts where they have the largest return, and you can therefore not expect to learn about these materials unless you read the industry-specific media or attend specialized trade fairs where the material is featured. A good example of a technology with a large potential that is hardly used outside a single industry is switchable magnets. These are powerful magnets that can be turned on and off mechanically. They have been used for many years to fasten equipment, such as work lights and tubes for cooling liquids, onto metal and woodworking machines. See them in action here:
I can imagine this technology could find use in the furniture industry to place coat hooks on surfaces or to fasten an iPad holder to a fridge. Both ideas are free – just take them!
A problem in education
One could argue that the designers and engineers should have a broader knowledge of materials and technologies from their education, where most if not all designers and engineers have courses in material science. In these we are taught about metals and their alloys, the basic plastics, ceramics, different types of wood, and the most common surface treatments. We also learn about the most widely used manufacturing methods, and in the end we have the knowledge required to specify suitable materials and processes for most design projects. The problem is that there are a very large number of materials, technologies, and processes that are not included in the curriculum.
A good example of a material with extraordinary properties that I have never seen mentioned in a materials science book is expending microspheres. The microspheres are tiny hollow polymer spheres filled with oil.
When the spheres are heated they soften, and at the same time the oil evaporates, causing the pressure in the spheres to increase. The internal pressure causes the spheres to stretch and expand to 3-4 times their original diameter, which equals 40 times their initial volume. They don’t shrink when cooled. The material is used as a filler in plastics, where it lowers the weight and makes the moulded components more flexible. The microspheres are now used by the Swedish sports equipment company Tretorn to fill pressure-less tennis balls, that will not lose performance with time.
(The Tretorn tennis balls ‘Micro X’ are on display at the ‘Hello Materials‘ exhibition at the Danish Design Centre)
The idea of filling a ball with expanding microspheres instead of air may seem obvious, but expanding microspheres were marketed from 1980 and the patent for a microsphere-filled tennis ball was filed in 2000. So it took 20 years for someone to get that idea.
My question: How can we speed up the spread of knowledge about the materials and technologies that are already here?
About Erik Haastrup Müller
Erik (M.Sc. Eng) is the founder of Futation, a Denmark-based company that helps engineers and designers to discover new materials, technologies, and processes.
> More about Erik Haastrup Müller
About the Hello Materials exhibition
Experience fascinating examples of present and future materials and gain an insight into what they will mean to society and the individual. Visit the exhibition between the 2nd of April and the 21st of September 2012.
> Visit ddc.dk for more information about the Hello Materials exhibition