In this blog Professor Phil Withers, Chief Scientist at the Henry Royce Institute calls for an ‘Internet of Materials’ to help the UK to innovate faster, smarter and with a more competitive edge.
- A new material or process can utterly transform a sector, or even our lifestyle.
- Failing fast in the lab and learning quickly is needed in developing products for market.
- The ‘Internet of Materials,’ a massive repository connecting data on different products and materials could help us to take advantage of our data-rich world and allow companies to prosper in the upcoming ‘data-driven’ era of industry.
- The UK must act fast if it is to maintain its world leading position in the development of new materials and a database of materials research could ‘change the world’.
New materials, or materials systems, expand the horizons of what we can achieve, but developing one is expensive and the time from lab to market is long. That development can be completely derailed by an unexpected problem, or a competitor can get to market first – meaning all the time and the money spent is completely wasted. Even if that time and money produces a superior product, it’s usually the first to arrive that takes the lion’s share of the market. For an SME the risks are high because being beaten to market might bring down the company.
Risks, costs, and rewards
It can take decades to go from initial experiments in a laboratory to seeing new materials in products on shop shelves. For example, bioglass – the first artificial material found to chemically bond with bone – was invented in the 1960s and only found widespread medical application in the 1980s. It is now widely used for implants and to treat bone injuries, among other uses. Furthermore accelerating a material to the market too early can have serious consequences. For example, engineering carbon fibres were developed in the 1950s, and by the early 1970s this innovation was considered for the fan blades in the revolutionary Rolls- Royce RB211 jet engine. Unfortunately poor impact damage resistance to large objects (eg flocking birds) and spiralling costs, nearly brought down the company. Fortunately, because of its strategic importance, it was saved by the government of Edward Health and nationalised. Now, more than 60 years after carbon fibres were first developed, RollsRoyce are again considering composite fan blades.
While the costs and risks can be very high, so are the potential rewards. A new material or process can utterly transform a sector, or even our lifestyle. Chances are you’re wearing something containing one type of plastic, about to eat your lunch using something made of another, or reading this on a device, predominantly made of plastics. And maybe this afternoon you’ve got a to-do list on a Post-it Note? Discovered in the late ’60s by Spencer Silver at 3M, Silver was initially tasked with creating a super strong adhesive. He failed, but out of failure temporary ‘sticky notes’ were born and now infest offices and team away-days around the world.
Harnessing big data
What are the options for speeding up this timeline, to reduce costs and allow smaller companies to innovate? We need to accelerate the design, make, test, characterise and iterate cycle (in other words the whole product development process), and couple this to advances in machine learning. We need to fail fast in the lab and learn quickly.
First, we need to be able to make and process many variations (designs) of a material quickly and cheaply in small quantities, then we need to quickly characterise all the variants to identify the most promising ones on which to focus the next iterations. In this respect, our ability to characterise materials has expanded greatly over recent years – a plethora of techniques are available to help us uncover the structure and chemical composition of a material – so there is inevitably a huge amount of data collected. But there’s a problem: most of the time that data isn’t as accessible as it could be, either because it is commercial property or because it isn’t digitally accessible.
The advantages of an ‘Internet of Materials’
Imagine a world where all the information obtained from analysing different materials is kept, stored and available. If you were a company looking to develop a new material, a quick search of this massive repository could potentially save you years of expensive R&D. This ‘Internet of Materials’ concept has been suggested to take advantage of our data-rich world and allow companies to prosper in the upcoming ‘data-driven’ era of industry. At the same time we need to refine manufacturing processes to control and optimise material functionality. This requires a much better knowledge of the manufacturing process and its effects through the automation, information from sensors and data exchange (the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution of digitisation (Industry 4.0).
With such an enormous amount of data, it is possible to create a ‘digital twin’ of a component or system and its properties. This is already happening to some extent in the aerospace industry where developers are using data to create digital twins of the turbine blades in real engines to follow how and where they are being flown across the world. In this way, the engine manufacturer can, for example, predict the health of their blades as a function of their flight history. By following the state of the virtual digital twin the manufacturer can remotely ensure the real blades are flown within safe limits, inspected when necessary and safely withdrawn from service as it approaches the end of their operational ‘life’.
Where could all this lead to in the future? Our horizons have always been limited by the materials we have to hand, from the Stone Age to the approaching carbon age. However, I’d argue that materials science has never been so important; 21st century global challenges such as food and water security, global warming, dwindling supplies of critical elements and our burgeoning energy needs – all require new materials and require them quickly.
If we can accelerate the materials development cycle we could look forward to: biomaterials that help our bodies repair themselves before harmlessly dissolving away; tough ceramics able to withstand the harshest environments; ‘super-batteries’ that last much, much longer; membranes for water purification; devices able to harness energy from waste heat to run themselves; graphene-based neural interfaces to repair the nervous system; metals that actively inhibit rusting or smart clothing that responds to the environment or senses well-being. There’s no limit to what might be possible if we put our minds to it aided by the explosion in big data and machine learning.
Whatever happens, materials design needs to prioritise the sustainable use of materials, minimising waste and finding solutions to materials in critically short supply. We must develop plastics that can be reused, recycled, or biodegraded.
The establishment of the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials is a response to these challenges. It has its £200 million hub at The University of Manchester it spans nine leading institutions – the universities of Cambridge, Imperial College London, Liverpool, Leeds, Oxford, the National Nuclear Laboratory and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Working with UK academia and industry it aims to accelerate the invention and take up of new materials systems that will meet global challenges, to enhance industrial productivity and competitiveness, and help positively shape the world around us.
There is much to do if the UK is to maintain its world leading position in the development of new materials. We must look at ways to innovate faster and smarter with a more competitive edge and an eye on sustainability including:
- Develop small scale make test- characterise capabilities to speed up development across the full spectrum of materials, from large components to nanoscale
- Give SMEs access to the same level of research, facilities and expertise that would be available to a major multinational company
- Agree more standard industry academia contract arrangements to accelerate engagement of industry with single or multiple universities
- Get greater involvement of mathematicians to support the evolution of data within materials manufacturing
- Design methods and calculators that can provide sustainability information from the outset
Last, but not least, we need to exploit big data approaches and this means we urgently need to develop frameworks for the storing and sharing of all kinds of materials data.
An ‘Internet of Materials’ could, literally, change the world.