Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Changing Materials World

A new President and a change in direction for manufacturing in this country. The outgoing flow of manufacturing  from the country has been stemmed and now there is an influx of manufacturing back into the country. In addition, the direction of attention of available resources, both human and material are now starting to be driven in a different direction, both as an effect of policy change as well as obsolescence of things that should have been maintained properly or that merely have reached the end of their life cycle.At any rate the change bodes new challenges and requires different assets to accomplish the job.
To regress, I entered the materials world as a young engineer in the 1950s. At that time, it was a different world. Most of the periodic table was empty at that point. Steel was the material of choice because of its abundance, its cost, and a foundation of an industry ready to produce it, shape it, heat treat it for desired properties and finish it into shapes required for a growing list of applications. Plastics were used for toys and even then, a now-banned lead was used to cast toys. Aluminum was light and therefore it was ideal for an emerging aircraft industry. Because of cost of producing it, expense of material was too great for anything else. Not many remember that the first aluminum utensils were for the French King on his birthday. The other materials that were used were copper alloys, brasses and bronzes, and that was about it.
However, today all of this has changed. The periodic table is now full. From a few basic steels, an extensive Table, listing steels for many different applications, is available and more steels are constantly being added. These include steels for structural applications, chromium steels for hot working, such as dies for extrusion and forging, tool steels, a growing list of stainless steels for corrosion resistance, specialty steels, and now micro-alloyed steels. In addition, because of need for lightness, aluminum and titanium alloys are now under development. Nickel, cobalt and iron superalloys are available for today's aircraft requiring increased payloads and designed to fly at higher altitudes. Chromium and refractory alloys are now starting to emerge for space applications requiring even higher temperature and corrosion resistance.  Sounds exciting? well yes, but with the loss of manufacturing to outsourcing we have a problem of skilled labor. This includes people that use their hands as well as their brains. In other words, with the influx of returning industry and a change in priorities for manufacture, there is now becoming a shortage of people that were machinists, die makers, welders and other skills requiring hands-on skill. These people were developed in special schools called Trade Schools. However, due to over supply, these schools have largely disappeared and to make matters worse the pool of qualified machinists and welders, etc, is aging at a time where more are needed. Robots are replacements, in some cases, however, we now start limiting available jobs, and that is another problem.
Therefore, where are we going today? Well certainly we need people to man industry returning to the country. In addition, look at the national statistics of our transportation system. In our area, trains ordered by the transit system have faulty welds and they require repair. Track for railroads is old and new technology is required to improve travel by train. Bridges are all aging and are in desperate need of repair or replacement. Newer improved roadways are needed. In addition, our nuclear reactors are also aging and in need of costly repairs or replacement. These reactors provide the cleanest energy that we have to date. They also hold the promise of production of cheap hydrogen to replace environmentally unfriendly hydrocarbon fuels. New energy efficient housing is required. All of this requires laborers with hands on experience. Therefore, we predict that in the near future, more emphasis will be placed on re-establishment of trade schools. These will become alternatives to the complex issues now emerging at our Universities.
Yes, a changing world, some of it back to the basics. However, there is always a need for new technology, with some of the problems that it brings. Except for offshore rigs, the ocean remains largely unexplored and it is three quarters of the earths surface. In addition we are fast approaching the capability of faster travel and even unmanned  space travel. Even colonization of unknown worlds is becoming a possibility. My kids when they were young used to say," are we there yet."? I'm afraid the answer is still no. There are a lot of challenges in the next few years. Change is always with us and as long as brain power and skill of hand power is required, it remains a good and an exciting thing. I look forward to the next few years as we begin building our infrastructure.