With the vast selection of materials available today, there are several challenges in selecting the best materials for modern products. Given the improvements in technology and overall technical know-how, there are more possibilities than ever for which products can be created and which types of materials can be used.
Selecting the best materials to use is a crucial step in creating modern products. In the past, challenges were centred more around sourcing materials – especially affordable ones – and technical limitations from a design standpoint.
Nevertheless, modern builders, contractors, and designers are tasked with finding the best materials in an incredibly competitive market. Selecting the wrong materials could result in irrecoverable losses on so many levels.
Here are five questions that product designers and builders should ask when searching for promising – and competitive – materials solutions.
1. Is the material lightweight yet strong?
Strength is a valuable trait in many products. There are very few situations where you would want something designed to be weak on purpose. However, strength has traditionally come with added weight as stronger materials usually required more mass.
In today’s world, this is no longer the norm. Materials such as aluminium, titanium and magnesium alloys all have high strength-to-weight ratios, which makes them the right materials for high-speed trains, consumer vehicles, aircraft, and spacecraft.
Aluminium has a tensile strength of 90 MPa with a density of only 2.7 g/cm³ at 20 °C. These properties, in combination with its abundance and low cost, make it one of the best materials for a wide range of applications, including aircraft parts, heat sinks, window frames, and construction.
The future will undoubtedly see more uses of these metals, as well as new and improved alloy combinations.
Recently, an international team of researchers from North Carolina State University in the United States and Qatar University created a new material. They combined lithium, magnesium, titanium, aluminium and scandium to make a nanocrystalline alloy that has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than any other known material on the planet. If this alloy can become readily available at a cost-competitive price, it could be the foundation for a new generation of products used for land, sea, and space travel, as well as many other useful applications.
2. Is the material ecologically acceptable?
In the era of climate change and elevated environmental degradation, using materials that are acceptable from an ecological and sustainable perspective are becoming increasingly important. Fortunately, there are several “eco-friendly” or “green” materials, all of which harbour favourable traits.
Materials such as graphene, aluminium, and borosilicate glass are all ecologically desirable due to their recyclability and low-impact on the environment over their product-use lifespan. These and other “green” materials will likely become even more common if the world shifts towards a circular economy, as many governments have indicated their intention to pursue that.
This shift towards more sustainable materials and ensuing products represents a new challenge in the selection of materials for modern products, but it is a considerable and fundamental challenge that will become more and more important going forward.
3. Will the material perform without compromising style?
Products made from materials that are lightweight, strong, and reliable are sometimes only valuable if they fit modern style trends. This usually is not the case for industrial applications, as warehouses and power plants have little need for aesthetically pleasing construction and machines.
However, anything manufactured for consumers will likely need to pass the eye test as much as tensile and hardness tests. Home appliances, vehicles, electronics, and other products will most likely not sell if they are not made with visually appealing materials.
4. Is the material mined or obtained through ethical sourcing?
This is something that has become of greater concern for consumers in recent years. With increased access to products from around the world and increased availability of source information, there has been a rise in demand for ethically sourced product components.
Whether through improved mining of raw materials or fair-trade sourcing, consumers are more aware of the origins of their products and the materials that comprise them.
Designers and manufacturers now more than ever need to ensure that they are getting their materials from fair-trade partnerships and lower environmental impact mining to guarantee more ethical sourcing for their products. Similar to the increased demand for ecologically sound materials, ethically sound sourcing is less of a direct trait for any single material and more of an overall framework for selecting which materials are best to use. Nevertheless, this is one of the biggest challenges in selecting materials for modern products.
5. Is the material cost-competitive?
This is something that matters to both the producer and the consumer. Lightweight, strong, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing materials are not feasible unless they are affordable. Given that materials are usually sold by volume, measured in kilograms, the associated cost will impact heavier materials such as iron and steel more than graphene or lightweight plastics.
Fortunately, lightweight but strong materials such as aluminium, are abundant and relatively inexpensive at a little over $0.50 USD/€0.40 per kilogram. On the other hand, highly specialized or newly created materials with similar or better strength-to-weight ratios, such as the above-mentioned nanocrystalline alloy, can be prohibitively expensive. In many cases, assessing the cost of available materials is the deciding factor, all other aspects being relatively equal.
How to find the right balance
As with many other aspects of construction or manufacturing, there needs to be a middle ground or a sweet spot where all things line up to create the ideal material for each intended product. Some materials that are rather suited for certain projects may be deemed inappropriate for others, whether through differing requirements or differing levels of allowable ecological impact.
For example, fibreglass resin composite may be a perfect option for boat construction because it is strong and is able to cover small cracks and imperfections in the hull. Yet, the same material would perform much worse if used in a rail car as there are more fitting options available.
With the five guiding questions above, you can construct an initial framework to identify which materials are better suited for your particular products and projects.
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