Not all innovations these days are coming out of Silicon Valley or deal only with bits and bytes. Advancements in manufacturing of all sorts are keeping America at the cutting edge of global industrial leadership and are enabling a broad, long-term resurgence in the U.S. economy.
Here are five wide-ranging examples.
Microbeads that don’t pollute. Plastic microbeads were a great recent innovation in the personal-care industry, but it turned out that they weren’t necessarily filtered out by wastewater facilities because microbeads could be less than one millimeter in size. They ended up in waterways; picked up pesticides and other toxins; and then were eaten by small creatures whose digestive systems ended up being clogged by plastic.
Now, however, a partnership between the bioplastics firm Metabolix and Honeywell has come up with new microbeads made out of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biopolymers that are, in fact, biodegradable. They’re essentially a fermented type of polyester that breaks down like cellulose or paper. And now the two companies are exploring their commercial potential.
“New alloys are very stiff with a low coefficient of thermal expansion, making them ideal for rocket ships.”
Mixed-materials auto manufacturing. Cadillac is excited about many aspects of its new flagship CT6 sedan that is being introduced at the New York International Auto Show in April, including its sleek profile and its place as the first model in a new system of nomenclature for the brand. But General Motors executives also are touting the fact that when the car is built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant beginning later this year, CT6 will sport the industry’s most comprehensive and advanced mixed-material manufacturing techniques.
That will include patented spot-welding technology, aluminum laser welding for seamless joining of exterior panels, self-piercing rivets that can join different types of materials together with a clean appearance, and flow drill screws which, in conjunction with adhesives, can secure different types of materials together. The end result will be the creation of a large, top-of-range luxury sedan with the agility and efficiency of a smaller vehicle.
A fresher toilet. Odor, of course, is one of the biggest nemeses of toilet manufacturers, but there’s no getting around dealing with one of the biggest byproducts of the business. That’s why Kohler Co., one of America’s bathroom-equipment leaders, has come up with the Purefresh seat. It contains a deodorizing system that utilizes a carbon filter to neutralize odorous air.
An integrated fan is activated when the user sits down, drawing the filtered air over a scent pack that is located within the system and permeates the bathroom with a clean, light scent. Scent packs are easy for consumers to install and refill, similar to the refill method used in standard home air fresheners.
Lighter materials for aerospace. IBC Advanced Alloys Corp. has come up with a new group of beryllium aluminum alloys called Beralcast, which overcome the limitations of pure beryllium and existing aluminum alloys while retaining the benefits of the two metals. This is great news for applications in disk-drive armatures, automotive braking and structural components, and aerospace and satellite-system components.
The point is that the new alloys are very stiff with a low coefficient of thermal expansion. The principal Beralcast metal matrix is more than three times stiffer than aluminum, with 22 percent less weight and can be precision-cast for simple and complex configurations.
Smart medical accessories. Apple, Samsung and other digital giants may be developing the brains of smartwatches and other such accessories, but other manufacturing ecosystems are the ones that will be harnessing these devices in the ways that will make them more than just a tiny smartphone worn on the wrist.
For example, in the medical-technology market, companies are leveraging mobile apps and smartphone- and tablet-linked devices at a remarkable rate, relying on new generations of biosensors that are greatly advancing health care. And as the late Steve Jobs said, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st Century will be at the intersection of biology and technology.”