Honoring both innovation and manufacturing, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) recently announced the 2011 list of Innovations That Could Change The Way You Manufacture. This annual list showcases new and emerging technologies making a difference in manufacturing and 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, the panel of industry experts that selected the innovations, “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, the strongest material ever developed, and this one-atom-thick sheet of carbon is lightweight and electrically conductive. Fifty times stronger than steel, graphene is used for extremely sensitive sensors, super-fast electronic switches, aircraft braking systems and touch screens. Companies using graphene include IBM and Bell Helicopter, and the material 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. These magnets 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 (TPS), works well for suppliers that experience variable demand and seek to increase customer service rates while reducing inventories and production costs. Limited or no capital investment is required to implement BTD in most companies. John Deere Horicon Works originally 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 many others. This approach reduces microstructure manufacturing cost by 83 percent to 98 percent. Developed by Hoowaki, microstructured tooling has been available since the spring of 2010.

Programming light with quantum dots is an innovation that promises to change not only the way things are manufactured but also 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 currently provide 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 can see what the robot sees and direct it around by using a computer’s arrow keys. Companies such as Procter & Gamble use 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 have 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 currently 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 are unproven in the manufacturing setting. This year’s list includes:

  • Continuous-flow microreactors
  • Dip-pen nanolithography
  • Green cement
  • Large-format ceramic batteries
  • Laser heating in a diamond anvil cell
  • Metamaterials
  • Self-assembling vehicles
  • Synthetic cells

“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.”