Materials? The choice is yours

Louise Smyth

Materials are important for driving innovation and in gaining a competitive edge in an increasingly global economy. Here, Achuth Rao on the importance of materials selection 

Although the proliferation of new materials and the expanding use of composites are making new and improved technologies and products possible, engineers are challenged to make reliable and accurate assessments and comparisons of the properties of different material types. Information is readily available to help classify a particular material type, metals for example, but there is an information gap for engineers charged with specifying suitable alternative materials from another material class, for instance, composites.

Materials are important for driving innovation and in gaining a competitive edge in an increasingly global economy. Finding a cheaper material for a component can help level the playing field for companies competing with low-cost manufacturing economies, such as China. Lightweight composites have helped the aerospace and automotive sectors to deliver lower carbon emissions to meet rising environmental and sustainability demands, which also now impact the oil and gas and construction sectors. Materials are also leading to innovations in manufacturing techniques, in particular additive manufacturing using 3D printing. The result is that the decision by an engineer to select or substitute a material for a product has assumed a higher priority in the design process, but until now information systems have not kept pace to enable material selection and decision support.

The importance of materials in the engineering product design and development process is also being driven by two key factors. Firstly, most engineered products today are complex to meet demanding user and service life requirements, thus creating a need for advanced materials – a prime example is the smartphone. Secondly, most product failures are attributable to a fault or deterioration in a material, making materials a critical item in product design, manufacture and performance.

An engineer’s perspective 

In selecting a material, engineers look at the ‘design allowables’, including the relevant international standards, to determine which properties the material must have. To make a decision they need all the relevant information around each material relating to processing and production, application areas, cost, sustainability, availability and service life. The latter is particularly relevant for remote applications, such as subsea in the oil & gas sector. When it is ready for market they have to submit it to stress conditions to validate its performance in certain temperatures or against corrosive fluids. In a global market products have to operate effectively in different countries and conditions, and comply with differing international regulations for safety and sustainability.

A trend impacting the design process is the digitisation of the engineer’s work environment, where using CAD tools is now standard for performing engineering simulations and virtual prototyping. However, the lack of comprehensive materials information systems means that many engineers compare data on different materials manually, using an Excel spreadsheet. To improve the materials selection process they need materials information to be exportable into their CAD geometry so they can select, compare and test different materials to optimise a design.

So how are engineers finding the data they need? In the largest corporations, such as aerospace prime contractors, engineers have access to proprietary databases. However, the majority of engineers typically rely on searching a variety of materials databases, unstructured internet searches, reference books, technical data sheets or standards organisations. The challenge is to find data in a consistent format with comparable data from an aggregated source to enable them to take the decision to select or substitute a material. Another information gap has been the lack of comprehensive databases on composites and polymers.

Solutions designed to support

The introduction of new information-based decision support tools for the materials selection process is designed to fill these information gaps. In response to users’ demands for comprehensive data on composites, the Knovel technical information application introduced aggregated databases for Composites and a Polymer Matrix Composites in 2015 to complement existing Knovel databases for Metals and Plastics, providing accessible information across the materials spectrum. Each material’s data is presented in a consistent format to enable engineers to evaluate and compare data on design, selection, analysis, testing, manufacturing and service life.

The Knovel Polymer Matrix Composites database is an interactive compilation of composite tensile, shear, flexural, compressive and impact properties data for engineers involved in the component design process. Organised into multiple tables, the database includes mechanical, thermos-physical and processing properties data, along with relevant application information and safety data. The database features design-allowable properties compiled and normalised in a manner ideal for structural, mechanical and materials engineers.

The Knovel platform is also designed with APIs to allow the integration of its content into third-party applications so that engineers can export data in the correct format and do not have to leave their CAD environment to search for answers. Applications already include Autodesk Inventor and Autodesk Revit.

Knovel only includes data from trusted sources, such as professional societies and publishers, and curated data vetted by subject matter experts, thus offering all important source traceability. All users also have access to links with relevant journals, books and data sheets to provide a central repository of related and relevant materials information.

Engineers under pressure

With pressure on engineers to make the right decisions to deliver innovative and competitive products and the importance of materials in the product design process they need equally innovative decision support tools to do their job with the necessary speed and precision.

Achuth Rao is VP, product strategy & new product development at Elsevier

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