Putting the Gleam Back on Metals
A combination of factors is bringing renewed interest to metals, expanding their applications in industries as diverse as automotive and architectural. Part of it can be attributed to higher oil prices, which increases the cost of the petrochemicals used in plastics. In a turn-about that would have been hard to imagine until recently, metals are becoming cost-effective alternatives to plastics in some instances.
Another factor concerns the technological advances in new alloys coming out of the manufacturing industry and universities around the globe. They are lighter and stronger to better meet today’s needs. A third factor is the increasing interest in the environment that is transforming the perception of a smokestack industry into a green alternative to materials that are harder to recycle.
Advances in Automotive Applications
Price-conscious automobile buyers want less expensive vehicles that are safe. And they want fuel efficiencies in an era of $3-a-gallon gasoline, never mind the mileage requirements that Congress recently stiffened. That means lighter materials that are strong enough to keep passengers safe in the event of a collision. To meet the demand, automakers have turned to light alloys and high-strength steels to reduce weight and to produce more efficient engines.
Titanium has always offered high strength at low weight, though at a higher cost than other metals. Titanium also offers high corrosion resistance and is suitable for use at high temperatures. These properties have led to this metal being widely used in chemical processing and aerospace applications. Once considered to be too expensive for many applications, it is now being used in automotive springs and for motorcycle parts to reduce weight. For example, Nippon Steel is testing titanium for use in other transportation applications, including exhaust systems and intake valves.
Steel Muscles in on Plastics
The steel industry is gaining new markets and re-entering areas thought lost to plastics. High-strength steels have been developed for applications ranging from fasteners to engines. These high-strength steels allow parts to be smaller without sacrificing safety or durability.
Sound-dampening steels are now incorporating technology that reduces noise inside automobile passenger compartments while remaining completely recyclable. Other metallurgical advances specific to the auto industry are finding their way into many applications, and the ease of recycling metals ensures that manufacturers in many industries will continue to use them. The ability to magnetically separate iron-based materials from waste streams offers a unique advantage to this metal.
Building Architectural Applications
Metals are finding growing markets in architectural applications, and not just in kitchen appliances. Many municipalities are mandating “green building” methods, and any company considering new facilities or renovations must consider incorporating more metals into their plans.
The industry is responding. Stainless steel, with its corrosion resistance and formability, is finding its way into railings, window frames, and cladding. These products retain their beauty even in coastal regions or areas where atmospheric pollution degrades other materials. Engineers and architects can specify alloys and surface finishes that survive contact with salt from road deicing, too.
Aluminum continues to find new applications in buildings and structural applications as well. Aluminum has a high strength-to-weight ratio, and is naturally corrosion resistant. It can be colored though anodizing processes, and changes to the process allow designers to select from a rainbow of colors. Architects and engineers are also using more aluminum for components in bridge decking and domes.
New Processes Expand Uses
Metals continue to find new applications as innovative manufacturing processes are developed. For example, foamed metals are being applied to heat sinks for electronics, where the thermal conductivity of the metal combined with greater surface area allows for more efficient heat dissipation at reduced weight. Foamed metals have been used to insulate commercial buildings, resulting in energy savings and reduction of sound transmission through walls. Foamed metals can also be recycled like any other form of the metal.
Today’s consumers are increasingly considering the effect of their purchases on the environment. They are supported by a proliferation of websites and blogs about the impact of their consumption on the planet. These consumers are affluent and educated, and to attract and retain these customers, manufacturers must be prepared to show that their products and processes use recycled or sustainable materials that do not produce harmful wastes, which also may result in a safer work environment for employees. And, these materials and processes must reduce overall product cost to be competitive.
Increasing Shareholder Value
Companies that examine their materials selection for recyclability and environmental considerations can also attract shareholders seeking to invest responsibly. And many companies are finding that product designs that reduce impact on the environment also produce savings in energy costs, transportation, and a reduced cost of the disposal of manufacturing waste. Reducing costs can drive profits and increases shareholder value.
The political mantra of 2008 is “change.” It also could be said that newly developed materials can provide opportunities for change that makes sense in today’s world. Increasing energy efficiency, eliminating the use or creation of harmful materials and reducing waste are all possible through careful material selections.
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