Latest posts by Dr Arlindo Silva (see all)
- Trends in Teaching: A ‘flat world’ needs streamlined communication about materials - 25th February 2013
Thomas Friedman has stated that ‘the world is flat’. He’s not recanting modern scientific discoveries, but he is highlighting that everything, everywhere, is somehow connected and that what happens at some part of the world can have drastic implications in other parts. It’s another way of saying that we live in a globalized world, that we eat, drink, and perform our daily activities using products that sometimes come from such remote places that we don’t even know they exist – take the horse-meat scandal as a recent example! It also means that the way in which we teach our younger generation has to adapt accordingly to this new paradigm of globalization.
The first response to this must be to globalize our teaching. We need to move away from the conventional, compartmentalized ,narrow modules that we teach on each specific topic. The good news is that, at least in terms of the teaching of engineering materials, this is what we have, gradually, been doing.
The subject of materials can be traced back in history at least 4000 years. It evolved from early metallurgy, which was itself informed by alchemy and by tradition. The evolution of materials teaching over the last 50 years has been one of increasing integration. At one time, metallurgy, polymer science, and glass and ceramic technology were taught in different departments and even within different Universities. Today they are generally integrated into a single program under the heading of Materials Science or Engineering Materials. The subject sits at the intersection of physics, chemistry, geo and bio sciences, environmental science, and engineering – that is to say as a bridge between the applied sciences and the pure sciences.
A balanced materials education today must include depth, providing expertise in the subject, and also provide breadth, allowing material issues to be judged in the light of contemporary economic and societal concerns – looking both at the present and the future. This is consistent with the increasingly integrated nature of technical education. Innovative design, today, must include an understanding not only of the technical aspects of products but also of stakeholders’ interests and the context in which the products will be used.
Analysing a typical design activity from the point of view of a materials scientist, an engineer, and a product designer is quite helpful to capture their different approaches, but most of all, the points of contact in their approach that relate to materials. This in turn will provide strategies to teach materials to each of them in a way that helps them do a better job at collaborating in designing our future world.
When we analyse the activities of these three professionals, we can easily see that all three use a very similar design cycle of need-research-idea-model-test(-produce) and that although each of their final products is quite different – the final product for the materials scientist is the bulk material, for the engineer it is the component made of that material, and for the product designer it is the final product made of all the components – they form a pyramid of relations without which there would be no final product.
It can also be seen that there are some points of contact where materials are concerned. Materials are the way in which a drawing or an idea takes shape in reality. Product designers need to have a notion of material properties in order to convey the message that the product has to exhibit. Engineers must know the material properties to be able to model and test components and the manufacturing processes, and also to match them with product requirements in some way. Materials scientists are responsible for developing materials with these very same properties that are then used by both engineers and product designers for their modelling and decision making processes.
Generally, new materials and processes enable the development of new designs; but it also happens that new designs drive the development of new materials and manufacturing processes. Examples of the former include the development of optic fibre enabling high speed exchange of data, while the quest for space exploration is an example of the latter, with its need for materials with increased strength- and stiffness-to-weight ratios driving the development of composite materials.
It can be said that the first broad decision on which material to use in a given design is done by product designers with a broad, but not necessarily deep, vision of materials: they will specify a material class – say, an aluminium alloy, or a thermoplastic polymer – that will then be further specified by engineers or materials scientists until a unique grade is selected, with a chemical composition, eventually specifying also surface and/or heat treatments, and accompanying manufacturing processes to shape and join all its components. This requires that all three professionals can talk to each other about materials with a minimum of technical language constraints. This alone can be quite challenging, as the teaching of materials and manufacturing processes is often done in qualitative terms for product designers and in quantitative or scientific terms for engineers and materials scientists.
In conclusion, materials teaching must be done in a way that streamlines the communication between different professionals in their daily life design activities. Common tools and trans-disciplinary project work will help students from different departments gain the communication skills and common language they need in a flat world.
Key References & Further Reading
- Friedman T (2007) The world is flat. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-29278.
- Silva A, Radlovic P and Melia H (2013) Materials Scientists, Engineers and Product Designers: Not so different after all. To be presented at the ASEE Conference, Atlanta, June 2013.
- Sheppard S D, Macatangay K, et al. (2009) Educating Engineers – Designing for the Future of the Field. San Francisco, Josey-Bass.