Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 8: adding in exotic materials as enablers for disruptive innovation 2

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 13, 2013

This is my eighth installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 364 and loosely following for Parts 1-7.) And my focus here is on exotic materials.

When exotic materials are invoked per se, the usual assumption is that discussion will focus entirely on new materials that have at most rarely been used at all, and on new types of materials that have never even existed before, at least as naturally occurring resources. Nanotechnology products such as buckyballs and related fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, metallic glass and high temperature ceramic superconductors come immediately to mind in this context and I will look into new and novel materials such as them, and the issues and opportunities they bring with them. But I begin at a very different starting point in this discussion and with an innovation that in fact goes back most of 50 years as of this writing: the invention and development of a ceramic stove top that could be offered at competitive home-owner consumer prices (see glass-ceramic article section on cooktops.)

A building material can be truly exotic for any of at least three fundamental reasons:

• It might be novel and even disruptively so for being used in manufacturing some specific type of object or tool,
• It might be novel and even disruptively so for being used in some specific manufacturing process, where even if it has been used in some way before it has not been used in that process successfully, or
• As per my set of examples above, it might actually be a completely new and novel raw material and for any use and for use in any manufacturing process.

I would argue that all three of these visions of the exotic and novel are important and that in the right contexts each can at least situationally be the most dramatically important. I begin explaining that, with the initial development of the ceramic stove top, and as a marvel in manufacturing technology and in materials innovation and certainly when these cooking surfaces first came out with the first commercial model that I know of at least, appearing in 1968.

Glass and ceramics have been manufactured and used essentially as far back as the historical record goes, and for some cultures and societies to well before any still existing records would cover. Invention and development of a commercially viable, glass-ceramic cooking surface required development of low-cost, high production quality glass ceramics with very particular properties. They had to have very low heat conduction coefficients so if one area of the cook top were heated at one designated stove-top burner area, the rest of that overall surface would remain cool. They had to exhibit very low coefficients of thermal expansion so that localized expansion taking place in a locally heated cooking area would not crack or shatter the cook-top surface as a whole. They had to be at least very close to being fully to transparent to infrared radiation, as generated by the electromagnetic induction heating elements embedded in the stove-top (e.g. radiant heating coils or infrared halogen lamps.) They had to be sturdy – resistant to damage from routine wear and tear from repeated and long-term maintenance and use. And they had to be readily and inexpensively formable into shaped components such as full stove-tops, and so they could be functionally connected to everything else in these stoves to create fully functional units. And this all only became possible with the commercially inexpensive development of high quality, low defect rate, glass-ceramics of a class that collectively follow the generic chemical formulation: Li2O x Al2O3 x nSiO2 – the LAS-System glass-ceramics.

Many and in fact virtually all of the materials we use in our manufactured products every day were once exotic – until ways were developed to produce them cost-effectively and to a sufficiently low price point to make their wider use practical and possible. Aluminum as a refined, high purity metal comes immediately to mind as a second working example here, that most people in most countries have come to take for granted in their day to day lives. Until the near simultaneous development of the Hall-Héroult process in 1886 by Charles Martin Hall and 1888 by Paul Héroult, aluminum as a pure, refined metal was considered more valuable than gold, and it was more expensive too. Some of the British crown jewels were in fact set in aluminum as a costlier and much rarer alternative to the gold that other nation’s crown jewels were displayed in, before the first electrolytic processes were developed for refining aluminum ore to purer metal. Cheap, plentiful aluminum made a tremendous new range of product and manufacturing process possibilities a reality – and made those royal jewel settings seem quaint and curious and little more than a point of historical trivia.

And this brings up a crucial set of points:

• When I write here and in this series of “exotic” materials, I explicitly mean “as they are developed as manufacturing options to the point where they become new standards of routine and even basic.”
• That is when it becomes possible to develop and innovate around them, and both for their inclusion in specific new products and product designs, and in developing manufacturing processes that can cost-effectively incorporate them as basic working raw materials.

And with that, I have laid out enough of a background foundation for further discussion so that I am ready to start discussing current new exotic materials (e.g. nanotechnology materials and so on as briefly noted towards the top of this posting.) And I will turn to that in my next series installment where I will at least begin a discussion of their use and mainstreaming in product design and implementation, and in manufacturing and both through mass production and customized, personalized production channels. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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