Materials science: Shaping the future of manufacturing

Dr Marcus Zipper

Materials play a crucial role in the evolution of manufacturing by forming the foundation of every product and innovation. Progress in material science and engineering has paved the way for groundbreaking advancements across various industries. In Australia, a nation with rich natural resources and a strong focus on research and development (R&D), materials will shape the future of manufacturing.

This article explores the significance of materials, the advancements made so far, the trajectory of materials development, Australia’s competitive advantage in materials and manufacturing, and the pivotal role of research and development in shaping a prosperous future for manufacturing the industry.

What are materials?

In the context of manufacturing, materials are the substances used to create products, ranging from wood and clay to complex mixtures of materials like vaccines, metal composites and solar panels. The properties and characteristics of materials determine how they are used. As manufacturing technologies have progressed, so has our understanding of materials, allowing us
to tailor their properties to suit specific applications.

Advancements in material development

The history of material development can be traced back thousands of years, from the discovery of metals like copper and iron in ancient civilisations to the change brought about by steam engines that fuelled the Industrial Revolution. And now advanced manufacturers are using automation and robotics, which has been coined the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0). For completeness, the Second Industrial Revolution encompassed the changes brought about by electricity and the Third saw the advent of preliminary automation and digitisation. We’re already starting to see the next big leap being brought about by AI and machine learning. 

With advancements in the way we do things, come advancements in the materials we create. Developed in the early 20th century, synthetic polymers and plastics have had a huge impact on what we can produce globally. Though now a waste management problem needing an urgent solution, these materials are still integral to many important innovations we rely on including medical devices (e.g. IV tubes, contact lenses) and transport (e.g. cars and bicycle helmets) and electronics (e.g. computers and smartphones). 

There are a lot of materials science that go into electronics – semiconductors and advanced alloys also play an important part.

The 21st century ushered in the era of nanotechnology, enabling the manipulation of materials at the atomic and molecular levels. Nanomaterials are impacting various sectors including medicine, energy storage, and electronics.

Materials today and into the future

In the present day, materials continue to be at the forefront of technological advancements and innovation. Our ability to adapt the properties of base materials combined with advanced manufacturing processes is transforming how we live. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) for example is enabling industry to combine all manner of materials to design products for extreme environments. From medical implants to satellite parts, modern manufacturing and cutting-edge research is improving existing materials and at the forefront of creating new ones. 

Robotics, automation and digital twins are also having a profound effect on how materials and manufacturing processes are designed and optimised. And, with a growing emphasis on sustainability, there is a concerted effort to develop eco-friendly and renewable materials that reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing processes and the sheer volume of products now available.

Looking ahead, materials will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of manufacturing across various sectors. Designing advanced and novel materials, processing and transforming materials and manufacturing devices and products will continue to be fundamental to a multitude of industry sectors and applications including biomedical and medtech, defence, aerospace, cleantech, energy, chemical products, food, building and construction, clothing, transport and consumer product markets. All rely on transforming base materials to higher value materials, components, devices and products. 

One good example is the critical need for Australia and the world to transition to renewable and low-emission energy. The success of the global energy transformation hinges on a secure and sustainable supply of critical metals and minerals, essential for constructing the renewable energy technologies that will drive this transition. 

Australia holds a strategic advantage, given its abundant resource reserves and a growing domestic market for renewable energy and energy storage solutions. While Australia possesses most, if not all, of the required minerals, we currently export them rather than use them to manufacture the products we need domestically. 

By embracing sustainable practices and developing capabilities Australian companies will benefit from sustainably producing refined metals, precursor chemicals, alloys, active materials, and manufactured products, as well as improve the affordability of these crucial technologies.

Australia’s Competitive Advantage in Materials and Manufacturing

Australia possesses a wealth of natural resources, making it a potential leader in materials and manufacturing. Our competitive advantage in manufacturing centres on high quality products produced by skilled workers. We’re developing environmentally sustainable energy solutions and have a reputation for quality and safety, which will continue to ensure our products appeal internationally. 

It is important to note that Australia cannot directly compete on a cost basis with low-wage economies. Our competitive advantage emerges from adopting science and technology to radically increase productivity beyond what is possible with a cheap labour force.

CSIRO, universities and others working in R&D and innovation play a vital role in growing and strengthening Australia’s manufacturing sector. To continue to grow, Australian manufacturing needs a thriving value chain powered by innovative R&D. 

The importance of research and development (R&D)

R&D is the backbone of materials science and manufacturing. Without substantial investments in R&D, progress in discovering novel materials and optimising existing ones is limited. 

While Australia has a strong track record of R&D, discovery and invention, the commercialisation of this ingenuity continues to be a challenge. Inventions stall at the technology ‘valley of death’ between R&D and commercialisation. 

CSIRO aims to help industry traverse the valley of death by developing manufacturing processes that are scalable, economically viable and sustainable. We have a range of pilot scale, scale-up and prototyping facilities to support those working in materials development and manufacturing. 

An example is our Rapid Automated Materials Processing (RAMP) where we use automation, robotics and experimental design to supercharge materials research. And it’s not just the equipment that sets this facility apart, it’s also the multi-disciplinary expertise of our scientists that means we can work to synthesise and characterise a vast array of materials very quickly.

Australia has a strong foundation and history of R&D in the materials field. A number of Australian universities are ranked in the top 100 in the field of materials science on an international level. CSIRO’s normalised citation index is 1.53, ranking it 9th against 56 international peers and in the top quartile. 

Strong R&D at all levels, from whole-of-nation to an individual company, will have a positive impact on generating innovation and driving economic growth and productivity. This is as true for manufacturing as it is for other parts of the economy. 

R&D in the field of materials and manufacturing goes beyond just materials science though. To keep Australian manufacturing innovative, relevant R&D disciplines also include chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, digital science, many engineering fields and other science disciplines that may be relevant to a specific industry sector. 

Often a combination of different science and engineering disciplines need to be brought together through collaborative mechanisms to provide a multidisciplinary approach to develop breakthrough innovation. To maintain and grow our manufacturing capacity and competitive advantage in Australia, our R&D ecosystem needs to stay strong and continue to grow and collaborate.  

Materials are the cornerstone of manufacturing in Australia. Advancements in material science and engineering have revolutionised industries and paved the way for innovative products and technologies. Which is why we can’t take our eye off the importance of ‘materials’ when it comes to our manufacturing sector.

As we look ahead, continued investments in R&D will be crucial for unlocking the full potential of materials, propelling Australia’s manufacturing sector forward and generating new industries and employment opportunities. 

Case Study 1: Aust in Space: additive manufacturing aids satellite launch

CSIRO’s additive manufacturing researchers have gone from establishing an Australian industry to saving satellites. 

Of the approximately 2600 operational satellites orbiting our planet, a growing number are CubeSats (tiny satellites). CubeSats are about the size of one or two loaves of bread and can be used for a range of applications including monitoring and communication. They’re making space more accessible thanks to their smaller size and lower cost compared to traditional satellites, but there are a few challenges.

The harsh environment of space means these satellites are subject to extreme conditions and temperature variations. As the orbiting spacecraft moves in and out of sunlight and shadow, it experiences thermal cycling. That means it jumps from extreme cold to extreme heat, over and over again. These temperature changes can affect the stability of the satellite structure and risk damaging the meticulously calibrated optics equipment within.

Working with partners from DMTC, UNSW Canberra Space, La Trobe University and AW Bell, we explored the best methods and materials for the satellite components.

We sought out material compounds that were able to remain stable under thermal cycling. A titanium/invar hybrid part was designed and selected for additive manufacturing – titanium for its strength and lightness and invar for its thermal properties.

Our Lab22 team combined two additive manufacturing techniques to make the components – 3D printing and cold spray. This enabled them to fast track the production of the parts. But more importantly, the additive methods and hybrid alloys used allowed the team to produce parts that could withstand the extreme conditions of space. This, in turn, helped minimise the effect of thermal cycling on
the performance of the satellite optics.

Case Study 2: Biodegradable plastics

One million tonnes of Australia’s annual plastic consumption is single-use plastic such as that used in food packaging. One of the biggest problems with plastic and its growing use is it can take a long time to degrade in the environment, creating environmental impacts on our natural world.

What if we could find alternative plastic materials? Ones that degrade quickly, and leave no lasting environmental footprint? At CSIRO, we are working with industry and academia to investigate bioplastics that can degrade into carbon dioxide and water. Such bioplastics could be disposed of in industrial and home composts.

Using internationally recognised standards and test methods we are investigating materials that could produce compostable plastics, plant-based plastic composites as well as undertaking research to improve technology for producing bioplastics from renewable resources. 

Such biodegradable plastics could be used as a substitute for conventional non-degradable plastics in many applications such as coffee pods, fresh food packaging, shopping bags and picnicware.

Case Study 3: Developing a cybersecure battery management system

The growth of renewable energy and global commitments to emissions reduction has increased demand for lithium-ion batteries. As 100% of Australia’s lithium-ion cells are currently imported from overseas, there is a need for Australia to develop its own battery manufacturing industry and support the growth of the local renewable energy sector.

Responding to this demand, our partner, Energy Renaissance, has established Australia’s first manufacturing plant for lithium-ion batteries. Energy Renaissance’s batteries are safe, affordable and optimised for hot climates like in Australia and South East Asia.

Instead of relying on an overseas technology platform, Energy Renaissance decided they wanted an Australian-made Battery Management System (BMS), so they turned to the scientists at CSIRO to build it. The BMS is the ‘nerve centre’ of the battery. It is responsible for managing a battery’s operations to ensure it is safe, optimised and cyber-secure.

It also reports on the battery’s usage, lifespan and faults through a mobile network to Energy Renaissance and its customers. This system enables secure real-time data, analytics and remote management which drives down the risk of battery failure and cuts operating costs for commercial / industrial scale and defence-grade energy storage users.

Our collaboration allowed us to create a world-class cybersecure battery management system that is fully developed and managed in Australia.

With 92 per cent Australian components and growing towards a target of 100%, the Energy Renaissance superStorage™ family of battery storage products is also fostering the development of an Australian
battery supply chain.

CSIRO’s work has been an integral part of product development and contributed to Energy Renaissance opening Australia’s first gigawatt battery manufacturing factory in regional New South Wales.

This project aligns with the goals of CSIRO’s Renewable Energy Powerhouse mission which brings together the work of our Critical Energy Metals and Energy Storage teams to deliver sovereign solutions to decarbonise our energy system.

Dr Marcus Zipper has held senior leadership, commercial, business development and marketing roles primarily in scientific research organisations for the past 20+ years, including over 15 years at Australia’s national science agency CSIRO. Dr Zipper is currently the Director of CSIRO’s Manufacturing Business Unit. He has experience in a range of research areas and sectors including chemicals, materials, mining and minerals processing, polymers/composites, metal production, manufacturing, service industries, packaging, aerospace and automotive. He has an academic background in materials science and engineering with an emphasis on engineering materials, materials characterisation and materials processing and has over 30 publications. Dr Zipper is the Executive Ally Sponsor for the Pride@CSIRO (LGBTIQ+) Network and the Executive Sponsor for the Shine@CSIRO (Disability) Network.

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