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Saturday, July 12, 2014

What it's made of

You've probably seen a television program How It's Made. Nearly 300 episodes have been produced to describe the manufacturing processes behind three finished goods per episode. I like the program, and although I'm not personally a manufacturing or industrial engineer, my career has taught me a little about electronics manufacturing.

But behind every product are the materials that it's made from. Your smartphone has a screen made of Gorilla® Glass, a speaker that depends on a neodymium magnet, a battery made from a lithium polymer, and an electronics component that utilizes the special properties of gallium arsenide. Bike frames are made of carbon fiber. Some golfers swear by putters made of beryllium copper. The materials used in these products are just as important as the processes to assemble the products.

Materials scientists tend to work behind the scenes and don't get much public acclaim. Watch one of my favorite clips from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:

It turns out that years later, somebody did invent transparent aluminum — but not what engineer Montgomery Scott had in mind. Anyway, the point is that new materials come along every day that can influence our world 10-20 years later. Remember the scene in The Graduate?

The advice was bang on; think of the items that are made of plastic today, compared to 1967. I wonder what new materials I will see in widespread use during my lifetime. This one, perhaps?