For most North American metals service centers, the tide of game-changing new materials has so far mainly produced wavelets, rather than disruptive developments. But the more alert industrial metals supply chain executives are watching high tech materials innovations closely. In many cases they are already adapting, buying new equipment, buying companies with expertise in innovative materials, and reaching out to new customers so they are able to ride efficiently and profitably with this wave instead of being drowned by it.
The technology has already produced plenty of revolutionary new materials in metals and related fields. These include carbon fiber, lab-engineered “meta-materials” that don’t occur in nature, and, of course, high-strength low-alloy steels and aluminum, now increasingly used in “light weighting” new cars to reduce the carbon footprint in automobile manufacturing. They include, as well, innovative metals coatings that resist corrosion, “smart chips” or sensors that are embedded in more standard metals and other materials, and of course the rapid evolution of 3-D printing that is creating new processes and products every day, including advanced metals applications.
Those executives and their companies that are analyzing and embracing new materials tech say they are looking not only at retaining existing customers, but also developing new markets as well. For example, some are installing new cutting equipment to handle tough-to-cut products like High Strength Low Alloy steel. Samuel, Son & Co. has invested in more capable slitters at the company’s automotive center in Tennessee, outside Nashville. “Because of the strength of the steel, just to draw it across the head of the slitter you need more strength, more horsepower,” says CEO Bill Chisholm.
New equipment investments are certainly only the beginning. In 10 or 15 years, forward-looking metals service centers will offer a wider variety of products to a more diverse set of customers. Some, for instance will be processing and even fabricating with customized one-off materials rather than standard steel and aluminum. There is already, in some industries a growing demand for “smart” products, with sophisticated sensors that can keep track of temperatures, materials integrity, global positioning and more.
Consequently, service center executives generally acknowledge that they’ll be called upon by their clients to produce components equipped with these higher tech sensors. “You’ll eventually have the capability to design sensors right into the steel, so you can measure corrosion rates, elongation, yield strength,” Chisholm says. Samuel, Son & Co,. among others, is prepared to buy new sensor-deploying equipment. But the production boom in sensors is currently focused more on RFID chips, for inventory management or security controls, than on the kind of sensors that are creating the vast Internet of Things.
“We haven’t been asked yet by a customer to do this [to provide sensor-armed components],” says Holman Head, CEO of O’Neal Industries. “But I’m sure it’s coming.”
Expanding applications for 3-D printing
At the same time, metals companies have to consider what their role might be in the burgeoning additive manufacturing sector, already established as a mainstay of the aerospace industry and rapidly making incursions into automotive manufacturing and others.
But David Sheer at Steel Supply already has established a foothold there. His company has even found some “positive disruption,” finding a lucrative niche in supplying additive manufacturers with Steel Supply’s custom-made steel tools. The company’s steel mandrels, nozzle-like devices that feed threads of materials into 3-D printers, are in high demand, Sheer says.
And Samuel, Son & Co., which sells flat rolled carbon steel and carbon steel plate as well as aluminum, copper and brass, has moved boldly into the field, announcing last March that it had bought Burloak Technologies, Canada’s leading manufacturer of additive components. Then it announced a strategic alliance with Carpenter Technologies, a major supplier of powdered metals. With its new partners, Samuel plans eventually to become a global provider of 3-D metal printing products.
Industrial coatings, too, are clearly one of the new materials’ new frontiers.
Kloeckner is partnering with Double Stone Steel to market steel and aluminum treated with Double Stone’s “physical vapor deposition” process. The process significantly increases corrosion resistance in stainless steel, as well as scratch and wear resistance. Soon to reach the market is a new type of paint that has been engineered to deflect heat. Applied to the roof of a structure, it reduces its temperature during extremes of heat by about 13 degrees F.
A Key Government Initiative
The development of new super-materials is only going to come more rapidly, materials scientists say. Spurring such research for the past six years has been the Materials Genome Initiative, a federal effort to map out the millions of possible combinations of elements of the periodic table.
The initiative, which involves all the federal agencies engaged in technological development (Department of Energy and Department of Defense, for starters), is using artificial intelligence to make new discoveries by, among other things, creating databases of known and predicted properties. There are potentially hundreds of millions of these (the effort has been compared to the Human Genome project, which mapped human DNA).
One potentially serious problem: Most programs that depend on federal funding may be in jeopardy from the federal budget process, and the Materials Genome Initiative is no exception.
Still, whatever happens with federal financing, the hyperactive spirit of innovation in the metals field is likely to continue. Because of the increasing powers of computers to aid in the testing of laboratory-developed materials, the new Nano-engineering technology is expected to drive the creation of microscopically engineered products at an accelerating pace.
“We now have access to these computational tools that can simulate a number of things without going into the lab,” says PARC’s Casse. “Back in the day, we used things blindly. Now we have optimization.” Which allows researchers to predict, say, the most efficient motor without building actual motors to fit every scenario. And the effects are powerful.
Jack Uldrich and others say the rate of innovation will increase “exponentially,” particularly in the metals industry because of the new computer simulation technology. Uldrich, a speaker at MSCI conferences, is the author of 10 books including “The Next Big Thing Is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business”. “The new computers might be able to design optimal materials, making their way into the industry really soon,” he says. “Prepare yourself for significant changes in the near future.”