In this blog, Professor Allan Matthews highlights the importance of surface engineering in the development and sustainability of materials and sets out why surface engineering should remain part of the conversation in order to position Greater Manchester as a global leader in materials innovation.
- Surface engineering modifies the surface of what lies beneath, to make it perform better, last longer, or even achieve a different function entirely.
- It is a dynamic, vital and extremely high-value industry but it’s perhaps not as widely appreciated or understood as it should be.
- The impact of surface engineering can be seen in all industrial sectors and stands to achieve an even greater impact by embracing digital technologies.
As important as developing new materials is, it is often the changes to the surface of an existing material that achieves the greatest benefits to performance. Surface engineering is about modifying the surface of what lies beneath, to make it perform better, last longer, or even achieve a different function entirely. Surface coatings are no small matter. Aeroplanes, for example, can’t take off without protective coatings in their engines.
A route to sustainability
So, surfaces can prevent or control the main ‘life’- determining characteristics of materials (such as wear, corrosion and fatigue). But they can also have a huge impact on sustainability, for example by ensuring optimised use of scarce materials in mobile phones and by reducing energy losses due to friction in car engines.
A billion-pound industry
Given the widespread use, versatility and practical importance of coatings, it isn’t surprising that the coatings industry in the UK is worth over £11 billion each year, and that coatings are used in products worth over £140 billion. Surface engineering is a dynamic, vital and extremely high-value industry but it’s perhaps not as widely appreciated or understood as it should be.
The term ‘surface engineering’ has been in use since the 1980s, but outside of those who work in this field, many people probably don’t appreciate how much of a difference it makes to their everyday lives. For example, we tap on computers that operate thanks to the functional thin films in their memory devices and touch screens.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
The UK Government has, as part of its Industrial Strategy, made a joint commitment with industry to invest in the digitisation of manufacturing, paving the way for the UK to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. Surface engineering impacts all industrial sectors and stands to achieve an even greater impact by embracing digital technologies, not only in the coating processes but also in the coatings themselves as well as the products which incorporate the coatings.
Manchester’s pivotal role
The 2016 Greater Manchester and East Cheshire Science and Innovation Audit identified advance materials as a strength of the region – something that is attracting people, jobs and investment to the area. We need to maintain that impetus. Surface Engineering must be considered as a vital part of that broader picture, especially with the recent publication of the Local Industrial Strategy in June 2019 in which Greater Manchester cemented its position as a world-leading city-region in materials innovation.
Researchers like myself benefit greatly from the help of local policymakers. The Greater Manchester Independent Prosperity Review highlighted again that Manchester has a world-class strength in the form of advanced materials, and it is good to see that this high productivity sector was a focus for the Greater Manchester Local Industrial Strategy. Let’s make sure surface engineering continues to be a key part of that conversation.