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Materials for The Digital World: The Big New Business Bet

Pretty soon you will be printing earphones and shirts, fighting over the household 3D printer like you used to do with your family over the bathroom. Industries will be scrambling, too. When you can buy design like a commodity, what things are made of is really going to matter. The hot ticket is going to be material science.

The truth is materials have always led design. Stone Age flint tools led to metalworking. From sand and lightning came glass, then optical fiber. Tubular steel gave us Bauhaus, and steam-bent plywood, Modernism.

For the second half of the 20th century, nuclear power, the Cold War, and the Space Race were the most potent drivers of materiality – structural qualities were the absolute priority. Steel, concrete, asphalt, brick and wood still account for more than 95 percent of all the materials we consume.

But it’s a new day. Now the dominant drivers are economic growth, knowledge management, and health care. Globalization and internet commerce shift the emphasis to the economic attributes of materials, on the value of intellectual property, and on business strategy. As products mature technically and markets saturate, it falls to industrial design and brand differentiation to drive sales.

Being less bad won’t be good enough.

The white noise of advertising helped to make waste possible on an industrial scale. The insistence that consumers were in the driver’s seat, that customer satisfaction was the first concern of corporations, and that products were the embodiment of good intentions, created a fog hard to penetrate.

Note how packaged-goods companies have buried the meaning of “organic.” Instead of being told who owns these companies and their environmental records, we’ve been fed a diet of diversion to steer us away from tough scrutiny. Small wonder, that today’s customer, emerging groggy and bleary-eyed from an age of denial, is rabid for transparency.

The long-term answer isn’t just a more intelligent use of materials. We need to start work on a whole new materiality. Because in a sustainable (read, survivable) world, as well as conserving, recycling, and reassigning much of what we use, we’d retire the rest back to the earth not as landfill but as organic or technical nutrients.

The dream, however distant, is cradle-to-cradle for every product. In the meantime we’ve got to design for fewer materials that last longer and weigh less, with no loss of structural integrity – preferably recyclable in a closed loop. Tata’s F-Type Jaguar, Boeing’s Dreamliner and Novelis’ evercan are a start.

This is about hard currency, not feeling good. The Research and Innovation arm of the European Commissionhas estimated that 70 percent of new product innovation is based on materials with new or improved properties: “Materials play a key role in the generation of growth and the creation of wealth in Europe.”

The trick is to dematerialize. Then, rematerialize.

In our daily lives there’s a retreat from materialism. We see it in a social revolution, which places sharing over owning – Zipcar and airbnb are mainstream examples of product categories transformed into services.

As we learn to de-materialize, we’re also learning to re-materalize. Dutch firm Kokoshout produces coconut-wood composites – felling plantation trees instead of forests – to manufacture a material harder than oak. Germany’s NeptuTherm is an insulating material made of matted seaweed fibers. Plastics are now being made with carbon captured from coal-factory smokestacks. And while we’ve come to expect the silicon chip to keep getting smaller and our devices cheaper, experiments point to materials that could leave silicon standing.

Then there are intelligent materials, engineered to respond to their environment. New nanostructured metals, ceramics, and polymers adapt with stress, pressure, and temperature. Smart surfaces can be embedded with sensors and actuators, creating an invisible layer of live information superimposed on physical reality. The Chevrolet Volt relies on 10 million lines of code– 2 million more than in the F-35 fighter jet. And by 2020, Cisco says, fifty billion sensing devices will be connected in the “internet of things.”

What does Mother Nature have to say?

Material has traditionally been thought of as a feature of form. Now in the drive for fewer materials, smaller size, greater functionality, and the embedding of services into products, it may be form that becomes a feature of materials. What happens if you invert the conventional sequence of design process – form-structure-material – and materiality becomes the driver?

In nature, which is clearly sustainable, material generally comes first. It informs structure, which, in turn, informs the shape of all naturally designed things. The biological world is capable of producing complex organic or inorganic composites like pearls, corals, shells (with their living hinges), bones, teeth, wood, silk, muscle fibers and infinitely more.

Designer and MIT teacher Neri Oxman suggests we take nature’s lead. Variable Property Design is a 3D printing technology that offers gradation control of several materials within one print, to save weight and material quantity. The result is a continuous gradient material structure, which optimizes functionality, performance, and customization.

We live and work in an increasingly digital space, where the rate of innovation is already staggering. But if you like a bet, it might be time to double down on the material world. As The Matrix not so subtly screamed, you can’t run software without hardware.

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