According to Dr. Andrew Dent of Materials ConneXion, a global materials consultancy with the world’s largest library of advanced, innovative and sustainable materials and processes, the beginning stages of a project are the most important for innovation.
HOW DOES MATERIAL SELECTION AFFECT INNOVATION?
Your materials selection in any innovation process needs to happen right at the beginning. It’s a mistake to design a product first and then decide what material to choose. Rather, you need to be thinking about what material might be suitable for that application before you even think about what it’s going to look like. To do that, it’s good to work with the material manufacturer in order to understand what limitations exist.
For example, with fabric, you need to understand whether that material can do what you want it to do—can it be stretched or formed, can it be easily printed? Once you understand the limitations and attributes of that fabric, you can start designing around the material. And that’s when you get true innovation through material selection.
WHAT IS MATERIALS SUBSTITUTION AND HOW DO COMPANIES USE IT TO CREATE INNOVATIVE NEW PRODUCTS?
Typically, materials substitution is done for reasons of cost, performance and weight; companies are constantly looking for ways to make products lighter. Usually, a company would move from a metal to a plastic—the automotive industry has been doing this for years—but companies can also substitute materials that are produced using a different process.
For example, because the automotive industry has been moving from heavy steel to lighter plastic, the steel industry realized it needed to counteract this trend. So they developed a full range of new steels that, when produced in the right way, reduce the weight even further. Therefore, innovation can come from substituting material A for material B, or by taking material A and rethinking it and reprocessing it to achieve the specific improvements that are needed.
HOW CAN BUSINESSES USE INNOVATIONS FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES TO PROPEL NEW PRODUCTS WITHIN THEIR CURRENT INDUSTRY?
There is a lot of innovation out there in other industries that is often overlooked. Businesses can solve a lot of performance problems by borrowing innovation that has already been researched and developed by other industries and applying it to their specific industry or product.
For example, we were challenged to find materials for a new fabric cover for an iPad accessory that also had a keyboard. We ended up taking three different materials solutions from other industries: one was from backpacks, the second was from the inside lining of outdoor jackets and the third was actually a 3D-printing process used for sneakers. Instead of reinventing the wheel and rethinking every aspect of the new iPad accessory, we were simply able to use developed materials and processes and apply them to the specific product.
WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE FUTURE OF MATERIALS INNOVATION?
Biological innovation is one area that I am particularly excited about. This includes materials that are grown and harvested annually such as crops, or grown over longer periods, such as wood. There is a lot of value in taking industrial processes and applying them to natural materials. An example is algae: they can be made into plastics, photovoltaic cells, batteries and fabrics, but in order to use it in these ways, you have to produce it on an industrial scale. An advantage algae have over other crop-based materials is that it can be grown in vats that don’t take up arable land.
Nature has developed over millions of years to be a highly efficient system. It has zero waste and every inefficient part of it died. So, what you have in nature is an incredibly efficient manufacturing process. If we can mimic that, either through our industrial processes or through use of natural materials, we can discover incredible new material properties. There are so many new things we can learn through nature rather than fighting against it, we have to work with it and with its own natural processes in order to get the best results.