In an era of technological advancement, new and more sophisticated materials are being developed, allowing for answers to age-old manufacturing questions such as, How can a solution reduce weight and its environmental footprint while increasing durability, affordability and efficiency? Materials of the future — and the innovators who adopt and implement them — are transforming industries from automotive to industrial to consumer and everything in between.
Currently the third-largest manufacturing sector in the U.S., the plastics industry is rapidly evolving. Yet many industry professionals continue to debate whether plastic can compete when it comes to traditional structural applications. To address these concerns, suppliers are focusing on innovation and application advancements within plastic and composite formulations that present a broad range of opportunities and advantages compared to predecessors such as aluminum, steel, wood and glass.
For example, fiber-reinforced composite materials expand plastic market potential by combining the inherent strength of the fiber with the durability and tunability of the plastic matrix. This results in strong, mechanical properties that enable use in structural applications.
One such material, carbon fiber, historically has been considered a specialty commodity for the aerospace industry because of its relatively high cost. However, increased demand and new developments continue to drive cost down, leading to greater adoption in other markets. Polymers reinforced with glass and carbon fibers continue to push the limit of what is possible structurally, while offering significant benefits such as weight reduction and increased design freedom when compared to traditional materials.
Another barrier to acceptance and adoption of plastic material is confidence in part performance. Customers must be assured that plastics will perform the same — if not better — than other available alternatives. For this reason, it's important to leverage digital technologies that allow companies to accurately predict part performance of engineered plastics and polyurethane foams. For example, BASF developed Ultrasim, a performance prediction technology, which routinely delivers 90-95 percent accurate prediction of performance. This digital process reduces development costs, increases time to market and improves the final product quality to ensure that the plastic component can compete with traditional materials.
Similarly, 3D printing and additive manufacturing have the opportunity to revolutionize the industry, moving from mass production to mass customization. However, taking a process that has predominately been used for prototyping and making it viable for the creation of functional parts remains a challenge. At BASF, we believe that in order to achieve this industrialization goal, industry players must work together on an open platform to unlock the true potential of 3D manufacturing. The opportunities are endless, and innovators in this space are already demonstrating how this process can revolutionize mass customization markets.
Material science matters more today than ever before. Researchers are working hard to identify the chemistries that lay the foundation of tomorrow's products, while engineers are proving out these materials in labs and incorporating them into designs that reach new heights.
After centuries of progress in the fundamental sciences and decades of progress in materials science, we're only just getting started.