The year is 2020. Materials and manufacturing technologies came a long way in the last century, but in the past two decades, the advancements have truly liberated the industrial designer. In particular, there have been significant strides taken in tool making, processing
equipment, and high-performance resins. Let’s review the radical developments of the past 25 years and look at four examples of their application.
Pressure to decrease tooling lead times inspired companies to experiment with stereolithography technology in mold making. For processing equipment, more design controls and modularity improved quality thermoplastic cyclic polyester reactive resins revolutionized very large low-pressure composite molding. As military and aerospace markets dwindled, composite manufacturing methods found commercial markets. New materials and reinforcements translated into more cost-effective manufacturing processes. Composite metals, plastics, and ceramics improved product design while combinations of lightweight carbon and boron fibers with plastics yielded materials with physical properties unmatched by any natural material.
Stereolithography is now only one of many 3D printing options. Injection molds are being 3D printed for quick turn-a-round prototypes and short production runs. Composites have more than doubled in use since this article was written. Specialized coatings and nanoparticle technology have revolutionized industries ranging from storage batteries to biomedical products. Shape memory alloys and advancements in battery technology have benefited from major contributions derived from materials science developments. 3D printing is now becoming a viable cost-effective manufacturing alternative as well as a means of printing human organs and micro-sized electronic circuits directly onto a plastic product.
Processes such as resin transfer molding and pultrusion eliminated much of the labor associated with composites. To improve overall performance, coaling materials ranging from sand to diamonds were combined with different substrate materials through innovative techniques such as vacuum deposition, microwave plasma deposition, sputtering, arc spray coating, and ion implantation. The result improved hardness, scratch resistance, corrosion resistance, sound absorption, multiple colors, abrasion resistance, and biochemical compatibility. The demand for high-performance materials in semiconductors, insulators and high-temperature materials led to the refinement of ceramic materials and manufacturing processes.
Improvements in processing resulted in ceramics derived from silicon nitride and boron nitride, which were coextruded within a polyethylene copolymer compound. The resulting filaments were sintered into extremely strong materials used as reinforcements for metals and plastics. Other processing methods included gel casting and sintering, but the most exciting innovations came out of the discovery in 1986 that a metal oxide rather than pure metal could be used to achieve superconductivity at much higher temperatures than thought possible. This and subsequent compounds based on yttrium barium cuprate paved the way for smaller and more efficient motors and electronic devices. These new materials and processes also led to the refinement of free-form fabrication technology, which was commercially introduced in 1987 with the presentation of stereolithography.
The new century brought new techniques based on the use of different plastics, metal powders, ceramics, and even composites to expand the size and selection of parts. Other methods included solid ground curing, selective laser sintering, laminated object manufacturing, design-controlled automated fabrication, solid creation system, solid object ultraviolet laser plotting, ballistic particle manufacturing, printed computer tomography, shape melting, and three-dimensional printing.
Products quickly incorporated this new knowledge to the point where free-form fabrication was routinely used in everything from appliances to replacement human body parts. Although the laser is common to all variations, materials and techniques vary widely. No longer are industrial designers limited to one material or solid walled shapes. To illustrate the paradigm shift that has resulted as these innovations opened new doors, let’s look at four 21st-century products.
In 2015, KTX Associates introduced the lawn Tank, the first self-powered robot lawn mower. This design expressed innovative use of material and manufacturing breakthroughs. The design team cleverly interpreted the mower with features common to military tanks. This reference suggested durability and provided functional benefits. Low profile electric motors of superconductive ceramic coils contribute to the low-profile appearance and high operating efficiency. One motor drives the rotor while the two stepper motors govern the mower. Built-in sensors guide the device around the lawn. An exterior photosensitive coating converts sunlight to electric energy, and batteries based on lead-coated glass mats form a recyclable plastic module, which continually recharges. This honeycombed modular structure of carbon reinforced nylon 6/6 acts as a support bridge. Designers used Helisys-laminated object manufacturing methods to form these complex shapes. Composite graphite/polyester molding compounds result in a lightweight, rigid deck.
A number of electric powered robotic WiFi controlled lawn mowers are on the market today. There are also a number of commercially available solar powered lawn mowers offered. The robotic systems are driven by stepper motors which can be programmed via WiFi. Although there are no reports of superconducting coils within motors the look and style of these devices is surprisingly similar to the original concept developed more than 20 years ago. Many of the technological predictions were accurately forecasted as proven by-products on the market today.
Instant success greeted the wall-hung home computer from Somex in 2018. Its Industrial design teams redefined the computer to integrate with electrical devices throughout the home. Operated by voice or touch, the unit uses infrared and spread spectrum technology to communicate with or replace peripherals such as televisions, stereos, telephones, timers and surveillance equipment. The lightweight thin curved form features a variety of coatings, each for a specific purpose. Polyaniline, for example, will convert passive surface interactive displays, controls and keypads. Application of photosensitive silicon to other surfaces converts light into electric power. Santex’s solid creation system formed the smart composite modules that can be plugged into the main body for added functionality. Microchips and circuitry are directly implanted into the main body of the computer. The unit’s high efficiency and solar-powered coatings let it run indefinitely on long-life batteries.
The idea of a centralized control system and communication station within the home has become reality. It’s referred to as a smart home center. These products range from Amazon’s Alexa to Google Home Hub and dozens of other control systems integrating security, entertainment and appliances within a computerized network which can be remotely accessed worldwide. Although computer modularity has been manifested in a different way as originally forecasted, today’s computers are offered in many different forms with specialized functionality. Some computers are solar powered and microchips have been implanted into humans. Circuitry is now being directly printed onto skin for medical and military purposes.
Magna introduced the ultrasonic clothes washer in 2012, a major departure from the bulky washers of the previous 80 years. Its piezoelectric spheres wash clothes by shaking off all dirt, using less than two gallons of water and special detergents. The same ultrasonic energy dries clothes after pumping out dirty water. By eliminating a rotary wash basin, the design team could achieve a flatter, more compact shape. Composite materials give the compact washer rigidity, lightweight and free forms not easily achieved with stamped steel. A thermoplastic elastomeric gasket forms a watertight seal all around the front door, which features polyaniline LED coatings to let users program the washing conditions. A diamond-coated polycarbonate blow-molded door permits total access to the wash chamber while providing a watertight seal and high visibility.
There are a number of commercially available ultrasonic clothes washers on the market today ranging from compact low-cost units to full-size high-end washers. They function identically to the description predicted twenty years ago, drying the clothes as well as washing them. Today’s washers still utilize a rotary drum and are therefore not as compact as originally described. Although the smaller models are offered in plastic, the higher end models are still manufactured using traditional steel.
Lightweight, portable and durable were some of the adjectives for a table saw introduced by SaWell in 2012. The Alpha power tool division creatively applied new materials and manufacturing processes to a lightweight portable table saw that redefined design for the power tool industry by replacing massive and bulky forms with efficient shapes. The saw’s highly efficient compact 5 hp motor, made possible by superconductive wires, shares a tiltable housing with the saw blade. A stepper motor drive system controls blade tilt from a front control panel that uses an electroluminescent display. Built-in rotary and linear capacitive sensors determine precise blade angle and fence distance. Boron nitride rods embedded in a clear, diamond-coated polycarbonate leaf provide a very rigid lightweight surface. Fold-down panels, created in three-dimensional printing technology pioneered by MIT in 1995, and double-shot injection molded foldout legs, molded in bright colors around a carbon-graphite core, provide rigidity, lightweight and strength. Visually bold and colorful rubber feet dampen vibration and add stability during use. The unit folds into a 4- thick case for easy transport.
A number of “portable” table saws are offered today manufactured in both metal and plastic. None of these approaches the look or function of the concept proposed. All of the so-called portable table saws are simply offered as a small table saw mounted to a collapsible tubular metal caddy. This prediction is still far ahead of its time and may require a few years to be realized.
This brief glimpse of major developments in materials and processes during the past 25 years offers insight into the creative designs introduced by industrial designers who took advantage of the technology.
What do we have to look forward to? Within the next 25 years, we may be genetically designing products, colonizing distant planets and living under the sea. Industrial designers can look forward to a time when products will have no specific top and bottom orientation. We will design for a three-dimensional environment where ecosystems, materials, societies and life will be carefully managed in order to sustain themselves. New materials will be fabricated from solar energy living organisms may be designed to work in conjunction with inorganic objects as a routine part of our exciting designs. The only limit IS our imagination.