Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 10: exotic materials and combining manufacturing processes 1

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 26, 2013

This is my tenth 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 1-9.)

I have been discussing nanotechnology -based materials in this series and particularly in its Part 8, and note in that regard that nanotechnology per se is all about manipulating materials at as fine-detailed a level as that of the individual atom to produce materials and structures that hold new and novel properties and that can carry out new functions. In a fundamental sense I continue that same discussion as to levels of control here, where I turn to consider production and use of special metals and alloys that are created in a form known as an amorphous metals or metallic glasses.

• Most more-conventionally processed metals and alloys are processed and produced as having within them, crystalline forms, and even when melted and cast with a goal of internal structural homogeneity. On fine-structure analysis, these pure metals and alloys are found to consist of tightly interconnected microcrystals where groups and clusters of same-element atoms are grouped together in a manner that is largely consistent with the unit cell structures that defines their usual large scale crystalline forms for the various elemental metals that they are formed from.
• Whether formed by ultra-rapid cooling, physical vapor deposition or other means, metallic glasses form as completely amorphous and homogeneously blended forms and without this type of internal microcrystalline organization. For metallic glass alloys, the different elemental metals that go into making them, are more homogeneously blended and a higher percentage of atoms bond directly to atoms of a different element than would ever be found in a more standard alloy product.

Together, these differences mean that metallic glasses can have very different properties than would be found in more granularly organized and structured, conventional metal alloys.

Note that like nanotechnology materials such as the carbon nanotubes and fullerenes of Part 8, metallic glasses are thought of, designed and produced on the basis of theoretical and applied models that are developed at the atomic level.

• It can be considered a defining trend in materials science, that new and emerging materials available for manufacturing, have been viewed and understood at a progressively finer-grained structural level of understanding, and both for their design and production and for understanding their ranges and areas of possible effective use.
• As of this writing, materials science and manufacturing materials production are largely defined and specified at the molecular and atomic levels. That is where their new and emerging properties arise, that make them significantly novel and useful new manufacturing materials. And that is the level that scientists and engineers create and develop them at.

To round out this part of this series’ larger discussion, in Part 8 and at the end of Part 9 I cited both metallic glasses and high temperature ceramic superconductors as new and emerging exotic manufacturing materials innovations. And I at least begin a discussion of this second new class of materials as a working example here, and with some empirically observable properties that hold practical value and interest.

• Superconducting materials do not exhibit resistance to electrical current flow and this complete absence of electrical resistance makes a great deal of new potential applications possible. They also and concomitantly exhibit very special and useful magnetic properties and resistance to the intrusion of outside magnet fields too (i.e. the Meisner effect). Finding cost-effective new ways for utilizing that capability more widely would open up a great many new product possibilities too.
• But the highest temperatures that conventional metals and alloys are found to superconduct at, that have ever been replicably observed are under 30°K (−243.2°C) where °Kelvin represents absolute temperature – the temperature above absolute zero, which is equivalent to -273.15°C or −459.67°F (see superconductivity.)
• This means as a practical matter, in order to reach a superconducting state with a conventional metal alloy, it is necessary to use the very expensive and difficult to work with cooling material: liquid helium.
• Liquid nitrogen is much easier and much, much more economical to produce and to store and to use. Under normal atmospheric pressure nitrogen is a liquid from 63°K to 77.2°K (-346°F and -320.44°F) and as of this writing, high temperature superconductors have been developed that replicably show superconducting behavior at as high as 133°K for a mercury barium calcium copper oxide (HgBa2Ca2Cu3O8) compound. With this, superconducting materials can be used well above the liquid nitrogen temperature and can be readily, easily maintained in a superconducting state with that as a refrigerant.
• A lot of work on these materials has been done since high temperature ceramic superconductors were first discovered in 1986 (by IBM researchers Karl Müller and Johannes Bednorz) but it is essentially certain that more will be discovered including new ceramic chemical formulations and manufacturing approaches that will push highest temperatures to superconduct still higher.
• Thinking ahead to what is now considered a holy grail goal in that, dry ice – frozen carbon dioxide forms at -78.5°C or approximately 194.65°K (-109.3°F) If a ceramic or other compound could be found that superconducts above 195°K, its properties in that state could be utilized in systems that only require high-end electrical refrigeration such as you find in standard low temperature laboratory freezers – basically a high-end elaboration of the type of refrigeration technology found in a household kitchen. And if such ultrahigh temperature superconductors are found, there will be a great deal of economic and profit-potential pressure to produce these refrigeration systems more compactly, more power-efficiently and more inexpensively.

This posting, and certainly this second half of it is about how discovery of new materials can and do allow for both development of new products and for mainstreaming products and functional capabilities by making them practical and economical, and at price points that the market will accept.

I ended Part 9 with what in retrospect was a grab bag of next issues to cover, and I will continue addressing and finishing that list in my next series installment, where I will “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.)” This, it turns out, serves as an effective example for how complexities can arise when tapping into new and exotic materials potentials and manufacturing approaches in trying to cost-effectively produce complex products with high quality control and at low cost.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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