Engineering is a broad and complex discipline with new and complex challenges facing modern day engineers at their jobs. They need robust tools to help them to be productive and agile at what they do. We know that one of the more critical challenges they face in making product design, process improvement or manufacturing decisions has to do with effectively accessing materials data to make safe and sustainable materials selection decisions. For many engineering tasks, the number of suitable materials to choose from can easily be in the hundreds or up to 100,000 as Myer Kutz suggests. Choosing from the wide array of options is a daunting prospect and with the amount of new research, processes, and materials available and expanding at a rapid pace, the problem is becoming increasingly complex.
The complexity around material selection is due to the vast number of factors that need to be weighed against each other when finding, selecting and managing materials. Each project has its own considerations around cost, performance, and feasibility. Materials need to be analyzed to ensure that they comply with regulatory guidelines from the EPA and REACH that are frequently updated.
The importance of adopting sustainable practices in materials selection, manufacturing and product development has also come under increasing scrutiny recently. Engineers must balance the process and cost optimization demands with that of sustainability and environmental safety. Firms have to ensure they meet the demands around cost and performance, but also measure these against the likely future environmental impacts.
Environmental concerns have now moved to the top of the engineering agenda. Today, we see huge proliferation of materials like concrete and plastics that was created over the last half-century. It is estimated for every kilogram of concrete produced, the same amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere, while 32 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic produced annually goes into the oceans.
A survey found that nearly half of CEOs (46 percent) expect climate change— specifically resource scarcity— to have a transformative effect on their business. Societies are more aware of sustainable development and starting to apply increased pressure on corporations to promote greener practices. Programs, such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, have opened the public’s eyes globally to the real and immediate impact our plastic usage is having on the oceans. Additionally, initiatives such as the Green Pledge Bond are booming as companies, aware of the prospect of further regulation demonstrate their ability to self-regulate.
Rising to the challenge
Given the considerable negative environmental impacts that materials such as concrete and plastics can have, one must find new, innovative materials for the sustainability needs of the world. Emerging trends like additive manufacturing and 3D printing present the possibility of more environmentally friendly options becoming available. Breakthroughs such as Aluminum foam, Terreform ONE biodegradable furniture or bricks made from cigarette butts have enabled engineers to radically improve the sustainability of their projects without compromising on performance
While such innovations have enabled engineers to make their projects more sustainable, working with new materials can be tricky. Knowing the impacts involved in using a breakthrough material is critical to ensuring unexpected problems do not occur down the line. For example, Indium-Tin-Oxide is currently used as a conductor in most of our touch screens, yet Indium is one of the rarest elements on the earth’s crust, meaning supply is potentially limited and expensive to mine. As such, alternative solutions will need to be created. Engineers need to constantly incorporate new, cutting edge information about these materials to understand how they will work in numerous conditions and find alternatives.
Engineers therefore need up-to-date, trusted, scientific knowledge that is easily accessible so they can make more informed decisions. The volume of published scientific literature, that is of tremendous value is also growing rapidly, doubling every nine years and it can become challenging for engineers to find the right answer quickly, when they need it.
Specialized tools required
The solution to this problem is specialized engineering data and information tools—such as comprehensive and curated technical reference or materials databases—that are designed to help engineers operate as effectively as possible. Without these tools, engineers will be hindered and more likely to miss a vital piece of information they need to do their jobs.
Material selection is a daunting challenge, yet it is a fundamental issue that must be addressed. The deluge of news about resource shortages and plastics choking our oceans demonstrate the urgency of the matter. To maintain and advance human development while respecting the planet, we need to understand and incorporate a wide range of new materials into our lives. Each material will come with important trade-offs that must be assessed, which means companies need to ensure that their engineers and researchers can explore new technical topics, develop products and processes, and formulate engineering solutions with the confidence that they haven’t overlooked vital data.