How new, 'super' materials are influencing product design

In the past, designers had product ideas and then sought materials to make them. From viruses to flexible fibers, new and unusual materials are increasingly the starting point for innovative designs.

Ultra-light, ultra-durable, or otherwise ultra-efficient materials are increasingly influencing product design. Some companies, such as Rolls Royce, are mixing teams of designers, engineers, and production staff so that they can work efficiently together as they research an innovative new compounds and substances, such as a nickel-based "super-alloy" that resists damage.

So reports The Economist in a piece titled "Forging Ahead," featured in the magazine's special report on manufacturing and innovation (in the April 21-27 print edition). The story offers a number of brief narratives of how companies are designing (and designing with) new materials as the starting point for product invention. In the past, The Economist observes, designers would have ideas and then find the appropriate chemicals, metals, plastics, and other substances to make them real. Now, companies are increasingly developing designs alongside the actual creation or tweaking of materials themselves.

The magazine's report casts a very wide net to make this point. In my opinion, here are a few of the most interesting (and useful) tidbits:

- Airlines, industrial manufacturers, and car companies alike are experimenting with and implementing new designs inspired by lightweight carbon fibers. Airbus and Boeing are creating lighter planes with it. These vehicles are constructed of fewer, but larger sections (instead of wings and plane bodies made of multiple parts). General Electric's industrial fan blades can be easily tailored for precise strengths and sizes, thanks to carbon fiber's flexibility. And BMW will launch a small electric car made with carbon fiber next year, which should get excellent mileage because of its lack of weight.

- Engineers are increasingly looking at how (harmless) physical viruses can be used as a design element in a slew of new products--from batteries to transparent coatings of device screens to solar cells. Labs are observing the properties of genetically engineered viruses, such as how they interact powerfully with other materials, say, to bind with them effectively. The act of designing with viruses is "cheap, uses non-toxic materials, and is environmentally friendly," The Economist reports.

- A relatively new (launched at the end of 2011) free online service, Material Project, may help scientists and inventors design potential new materials by aggregating information on 20,000 compounds and how they might interact. The site was created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gerbrand Ceder (who heads a group with an acronym that matches his name: the Computational and Experimental Design of Emerging Materials Research Group, or CEDER), in conjunction with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Images: polymer-coated carbon nanotubes, EMSL/Flickr

[Via The Economist]

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