Great inventions often precede the great materials that make them happen! There is no better example of this than the bicycle which first arrived in the 1800’s in the form of the laufmaschine, which was no more than a seat on two wheels and required its rider to ‘lauf’ (German for run!). This was quickly superseded by machines with pedals and brakes but riding these very heavy contraptions with rigid wheels was for the brave and fit few. The invention of the bicycle was truly realized in the late 19th century with two great material innovations: Mass production of steel, providing chains and lighter frames, and the vulcanization of rubber, providing the pneumatic tire. And with these great material innovations, a great idea became a great product bringing transport to the masses.
We see this cycle of great idea, then material innovation and then winning product repeating over and over again. And the commercial spoils rarely go to those originating the idea. As a further example consider the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): A vital tool in medical diagnostics. The MRI was arguably first conceived in the 1930s and first patented in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until development of superconductors (that is the super-cooled materials which conduct electricity with no resistance) that the vital technique, which requires enormous magnetic fields, became mainstream. In 1984 GE produced its first MRI machine, connecting its advanced knowledge of superconductor materials with a great idea, and today the total MRI market size approaches $8B. Examples of critical material innovations are everywhere: Think of carbon fibers (lightweight strength critical in planes, boats, cars and even tennis rackets), float glass (high quality at low cost), synthetic dyes (low cost color), stainless steel, linoleum (the first synthetic floor), portland cement…The list is almost endless.
We now see a world where material innovations are happening at an ever-increasing pace and as they do great ideas, which had once seemed impossible to reduce to practice, suddenly become viable. Do you have a great idea in need of the right material? Here at Flex R&D we specialize in connecting ideas and technology…
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