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SME Unveils Annual Innovations List

March 11, 2011
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DEARBORN, MI---Honoring both innovation and manufacturing, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) announced the 2011 list of Innovations That Could Change The Way You Manufacture.

This annual list showcases new and emerging technologies that are making a difference in manufacturing. This is not the usual list of emerging technologies. These are innovations that can be used today or within a few months and have already shown some successful implementation.

“Not only has innovation enabled us to make better things at lower costs,” says Boris Fritz of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and vice chair of SME’s Innovation Watch Committee, “but innovation also leads to the development of things we couldn’t even dream of just a decade ago.”

Among this year’s innovations is graphene, which is said to be not only the strongest known material ever developed at a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon, also is lightweight and electrically conductive. Fifty times stronger than steel, graphene is being used for extremely sensitive sensors, electronic switches, aircraft braking systems and touch screens. Companies using graphene include IBM and Bell Helicopter, and is available from companies such as Angstron Materials.

Programmable magnets open the door to self assembling. The ability to manipulate magnetic fields lends itself to many applications from precision switches to snowboard bindings to spinal implants. Using heat to erase a magnetic field, the material can be reprogrammed to have multiple north and south poles of differing strengths. They are available from Correlated Magnetics.

Not all innovations on this list are technical. The committee also recognized the Build to Demand (BTD) process as something that can change the way things are manufactured. BTD, an alternative to the Toyota Production System, which works well for suppliers that experience variable demand and are seeking to increase customer service rates while reducing inventories and production costs. Limited or no capital investment is required to implement BTD. John Deere Horicon Works developed BTD in the early 2000s with assistance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Microstructured molding tools will impact manufacturers of products that could benefit from enhanced surface capabilities. Created as square or custom inserts for injection or compression molds, the innovation adds several capabilities to any molded product: superhydrophobic, reduced friction, reduced fluid drag, increased heat transfer and more. This approach reduces microstructure manufacturing cost by 83% to 98%. Developed by Hoowaki, microstructured tooling has been available since the spring of 2010.

Programming light with quantum dots is an innovation that promises not only to change the way things are manufactured, but also change the way we light our homes and offices. Quantum dots are nanoparticles of a semiconductor material that range from 2 to 10 nanometers in diameter. The ability to control the size of a quantum dot enables a manufacturer to determine the color of light emitted. Quantum dots are currently providing brighter images, lower power consumption and improved color purity for electroluminescent displays. Companies manufacturing quantum dot-enabled products include QD Vision and Weinberg Medical Physics.

Controlled through a Web-based application, a remote-presence robot allows a telecommuting worker to remotely attend meetings, drop into the offices of colleagues and otherwise collaborate with people in another office. With cameras in the eyes to capture video, speakers and microphones to relay sound and a laser pointer “finger,” the user sees what the robot sees and directs it around by using a computer’s arrow keys. Companies such as Procter & Gamble are using these remote-presence robots to increase the efficiencies of teams working across the world.

Ten times stickier than Velcro and reusable gecko-inspired glues, Super Velcro is an extremely strong adhesive that comes apart when heated. Using shape-memory polymers, General Motors researchers created a product that allows a strong but alterable bond that replaces liquid adhesives requiring lengthy oven curing, which consumes a lot of energy, or foam tapes that do not provide high adhesion strength. Super Velcro is being used for interior and exterior automotive trims with potential applications for furniture, toys and buildings.

In reviewing submissions for the Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture, the committee also highlights an Innovation Watch List. These technologies are showing great promise but, as yet, are unproven in the manufacturing setting.

“Because most people use common, everyday products that are frequently outsourced, they think that manufacturing in America is dead,” says Fritz. “Innovations like those identified today should be a reminder that American manufacturing has moved beyond the production of commodities and is one of the most technologically advanced sectors of our economy.”

The Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture will be a focus of the Manufacturing Velocity: SME Annual Conference scheduled for June 5-7, 2011, near Seattle. The conference brings together manufacturing professionals and leaders who are interested in innovations and exchanging ideas in one place.

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