Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 9: adding in exotic materials as enablers for disruptive innovation 3

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 18, 2013

This is my ninth installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 363 and loosely following for Parts 1-8.) And my focus here is on exotic materials, as a continuation of a discussion that I began with Part 7 and continued with Part 8.

Towards the end of Part 7, I cited how one of the most singularly exotic raw materials on Earth: the man-made element americium (isotope 242 of element 95 on the periodic table), has come to be mainstreamed into the manufacturing of every-day household and business site items: standard, common smoke detectors used to monitor for possible fire danger. I begin this posting with consideration of an equally novel raw material that is also never found in nature, at least on Earth: carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes, as noted in Part 8, are one of the more widely recognized early generation products coming out of nanotechnology. They are increasingly being used in a range of products that go from:

• High end golf club shafts, where their strength and light weight means that the vast majority of the club weight can be in the club head, to
Stealth technology military aircraft construction, where they are used for assembling ultra-light weight, super high tensile strength wings and other airframe components that do not significantly reflect detection signals from enemy radar systems.

Golf clubs, like smoke detectors are ever-day items, and golf clubs, like the game they are used for play in, go back a great many generations, and both for players and for club design. New materials and new manufacturing processes that use them, and manufacturing systems improvements that make more effective use of already standard materials have progressively changed the game, giving players more effective club swings and shot accuracy, and allowing them to hit balls farther and straighter with the same strength and skills levels. And while new technology inclusion always starts out as a high-end, high price point consumer option, with time any given novel innovation becomes standard and basic and it diffuses down into the lower-end, more modest price point market too. That type of mainstreaming process is already beginning to take place for once high priced-only carbon filament golf clubs, as carbon nanotube filaments that would go into them drop in price and as manufacturing using them becomes more standardized and economical and mainstreamed too.

Military aircraft production, and in fact a great deal of military-oriented manufacturing, marketing and sales in general follow a different business model. There is a much greater premium on building for the high end, than for building for a general market and with progressively lower and lower prices per unit, and certainly for products that have limited production runs such as high performance aircraft. But exotic materials and the new performance capabilities that they enable keep entering into high end production and cutting edge, new design capability at a steady rate, as a part of the real world arms races that nations enter into in their attempts to keep their military sufficiently effective so as to deter any possible outside aggression – or to respond effectively if so challenged.

I cited a second type of nanotechnology product in Part 8 with buckyballs and related fullerenes and will turn next in this posting to consider these and related cage-structured molecular assemblies. And I will begin that by noting a class of compounds that I used early in my professional life while still working in laboratories: cyclodextrins. These are ring shaped molecules that can partly enclose other molecules as if in a cage. And one of the consequences of this is that a hydrophobic compound (one that is not soluble in water) can be made to act as if it were water soluble in being dispersed and dissolved in it.

This is all about chemistry and the physical chemistry of compounds and substances that are mixed with and that interact with these ring structure molecules. And now I add in the wider range of options and tools for developing these types of helper molecules that arise when fullerenes are produced and added in. Fullerenes can enhance end products or enhance or create new manufacturing processes for cost-effectively producing them. They can do these by, for example, increasing access of catalysts in a manufactured product to the substrate molecules that they are intended to act upon, improving the rates of chemical reactions they are supposed to carry out. They can broaden or shift the pH (acidity/alkalinity) range that such a catalyst can operate under. And they can serve to effectively increase the concentrations of input compounds that would be acted upon and facilitate bringing catalyst and substrates together through that.

All of these and more functional effects and functionalities can be developed for creating or improving chemically active end products. All of these and more functional effects and functionalities can be developed into new and improved manufacturing processes too. And we have only seen the early stages for how this or any category of nanotechnology product can be used.

I cited metallic glass and high temperature ceramic superconductors as new and emerging categories of exotic materials for manufacturing in Part 8, and will at least briefly discuss them in my next series installment, where I will turn back to reconsider 3-D printing and the challenge of incorporating electronic circuitry into products manufactured through those systems (see Part 6 for its discussion of 3-D printing manufacturing.) Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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