thumbnail group

Connect With Us:

ME Channels / SME Speaks

SME Speaks: Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture

By Innovation Watch Committee
Society of Manufacturing Engineers 


What do you do when the rules of the game change? Most will do something different. That's the situation many manufacturers are facing today. SME is playing multiple roles to support these efforts by connecting manufacturing professionals to resources that can help them define their future. Most agree that this includes innovation in many different forms. Innovation will help to preserve manufacturing, and help it grow in the future. Among the most interesting opportunities for future innovation are complex, high-value products. These types of products produce good margins, and are the most difficult to copy and manufacture elsewhere.

In its third year, Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture features new and emerging technologies and processes that are expected to impact the future of manufacturing. As with most of manufacturing, this initiative has undergone some noticeable changes in the last year. SME's Manufacturing Enterprise Council (MEC), which originally managed this program, has formed the new Innovation Watch Committee. This group is comprised of manufacturing professionals whose profession requires them to keep a constant eye on innovations. The committee will serve as the "innovation researchers" for all of SME and manufacturing. It will also actively seek and publish information about technology and process innovations. By bringing together and discussing the value of new ideas with the global manufacturing community, this committee will encourage improvements in manufacturing and the products built by manufacturing enterprises.

In addition to helping the MEC and SME identify potential areas of needed content development, the group will publish two annual lists:

  • Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture. This annual list of up to 10 innovations showcases new and emerging technologies that are making a difference in manufacturing. This is not the usual list of emerging technologies. These are innovations that can be used today or within a few months, and have already been successfully implemented in some applications.
  • Innovations Watch List. This complements the above list, but identifies innovations that are not ready to use but have potential to make an impact. The goal of this list is to highlight developments to be watched.

The Innovation Watch Committee is guardian of a key strategy for SME—finding and promoting how innovation improves manufacturing. The members are committed to participating in improvements for manufacturing. Each member was nominated by an MEC member or others close to the project. The founding committee members are Sarah Audet, PhD, MBA, Medtronic Inc.; Boris Fritz, Northrop Grumman Corp.; Rod Jones, Mori Seiki Chicago Technical Center; Christopher Kaye, US Endoscopy; Ralph Resnick, PhD, National Center for Defense Manufacturing & Machining; John Patten, PhD, Western Michigan University; and Terry Wohlers, Wohlers Associates.


Member Involvement

There are several ways you can get involved in this "innovation" project:

  • Nominate someone to join the Innovation Watch Committee. This group is looking to have as many as 12 members, with each member making a two-year commitment. Most committee work is done online and through monthly conference calls.
  • Learn more about the 2010 Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture by attending the BRIDGING THE GAPS: SME Annual Conference, June 6–8 in Nashville. For more information, visit
  • Nominate an innovation for the 2011 list by visiting
  • Add to or comment on ideas being put forward by visiting the committee's wiki site at

For 2010, the innovations chosen seem to reflect many of the critical areas for manufacturing—cost savings, efficiency, and the growing area of green manufacturing, which includes energy challenges and sustainable materials. If indeed "innovation is the lifeblood of manufacturing," then manufacturing and its future are in good hands with these innovations, and hopefully the many innovations to come.

SME's Innovation Watch Committee of the Manufacturing Enterprise Council (MEC), with support from many SME members and manufacturing professionals, has chosen the innovations described below. (Future sections of SME Speaks will contain more detailed descriptions on these innovations.)



2010 Innovations List

Pay at the Store without Waiting in Line Using Printed RFID Tags—A new technology that integrates printed silicon electronics and thin-film technology allows manufacturers to print RFID tags, and brings the cost of such tags down by 80% or more. Economical RFID tags make it easier to use in many new places, even low-volume productions. Instead of pallet-level tags, the printed RFID tag could make it economical for all parts in a manufacturing process to be tagged—increasing the ability to track and plan throughout the product life cycle.

WHY: Making RFID tags accessible to almost any application where information can be used for tracking, pricing, sales, etc., could revolutionize RFID tag usage, and represents the first practical, widespread application for other printed integrated circuits (PICs). For manufacturers, meeting the requirements of some customers for everything to have RFID tags just became possible.

BONUS: It's green too. The technology used to manufacture digitally printed integrated circuits is much kinder to the environment than conventional technologies.

Doubling the Range of Electric Vehicles with Nanoporous Silicon Electrodes—Silicon-nanotube electrodes may enable lithium-ion batteries to store 10 times more charge than the conventional graphite electrodes used today—essentially doubling the range of an electric vehicle. LG Chem is working with university researchers to manufacture lithium batteries, including those used in the Chevy Volt. With current technology, charges last only 30 min. The anodes themselves extend the life, but if they can be matched to a cathode with comparable storage capacity, a car could run for three to four hours.

WHY: Energy storage is a major obstacle to portable products. Extending battery life will make it possible to offer more products that have embedded power. As storage capacity continues to grow, it will be a continuing game changer.

Electronics that Can Survive Hostile Environments with Silicon Carbide: High-Temperature, High-Power MicroElectronics—Silicon carbide (SiC) materials and manufacturing have evolved to commercialization over the past 10 years. Recent breakthroughs in materials and cost reduction have moved SiC electronics forward. Through their ability to withstand extreme temperatures with improved current flow, they are being integrated in many challenging areas. These include hybrid vehicles and wind turbines, which rely on high-power (AC and DC) performance, and operating in extreme conditions. They can also accommodate high power and high voltage in small areas, making them beneficial for consumer audio and video electronics, as well as in power control integrated circuits in automotive and aeronautical electronics.

WHY: Silicon carbide's ability to function in high-temperature, high-power, and high-radiation conditions will enable significant performance enhancements to many systems and applications. These abilities will allow the development of products and designs that were not possible before.

Recycle Your Copier Paper Into Batteries with Nanotube Inks—New nanotube inks can turn your plain copier paper into a highenergy electrode, which can be used for economical energy-storage devices. These high-energy electrodes are strong, flexible, and highly conductive, and might be used to power portable electronics. Their performance has been shown to match that of current metal electrodes, while weighing far less.

WHY: The lightweight and high flexibility of these new "paper" batteries could open a whole new universe of design and manufacturing for portable electronics.

Nano Fibers May Now Fit Your Budget—Nano fibers have been used to strengthen materials and create improved and unique properties in a broad spectrum of applications—from drug-delivery systems and sensors to energy storage and sporting goods. To date, the limited ability to manufacture these fibers in different materials cost effectively has been a barrier that limits applications for the technology. Centrifugal force spinning (Forcespinning™) machines can create fibers from a wider variety of materials, and more cost effectively, than current technology.

WHY: Safe, cost-effective mass production has been an obstacle. Knocking this challenge down makes nanofibers available for integration into many more products. The ability to improve material properties could lead to more replacement of metal parts with lighter materials that are stronger.

Polymers that Heal Their Own Scratches—By adding self-healing agents to coatings (and other materials) enclosed in microcapsules that rip open when scratched, a new group of smart materials can be used in a growing number of applications. They are currently available for elastomers, thermosets, and powder coatings. The self-healing agents are made up of cheap, readily available chemicals, and can be used in a wide range of applications in coatings that are cured up to temperatures of about 150°C. Early applications have been for critical metal structures where the metal is exposed to harsh environments, and taking the structure "offline" for frequent repainting is costly. These include key performance items on ships, oil rigs, and pipelines.

WHY: While self-healing agents in coatings are already having an impact, the potential for integrating into materials would likely increase the use of polymers to replace traditional metal components.

No Need to Wait for the Engine to "Warm Up" with Phase-Changing Polymers—The new generation of phase-changing polymers (PCM) are made with polymers that are economical and safer to use, making more applications possible. PCM is used today in a latent-heat battery offered by BMW as optional equipment in its 5-Series automobiles. The storage material is connected to the radiator and stores excess heat when the motor runs at operating temperature. This heat is then available at the next cold start to warm the vehicle's interior (driving comfort) and quickly heat up the motor (yielding better gas mileage). Like silicon-carbide electronics, PCM can also be used in critical electronics applications. Using PCM to keep circuits cool is absolutely reliable because no motor or temperature measurements are required. The PCM regenerates itself between peaks by radiating heat with cooling fins. The advantage is a smaller cooling system with very high reliability. A computer travel bag that utilizes this technology is in development.

WHY: So much in manufacturing today seems to focus on better energy use. Phase-changing polymers build this into the materials themselves, and improved electronics cooling improves reliability and lifetime.

Mother Nature Inspires Manufacturing with Bio-Based Products and Materials—A whole new family of bio-based products is making its way into the manufacturing plant. Ford began with soy-foam seats in the 2008 Ford Mustang, and has since placed soy-foam on more than one million Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles leading to a total reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of more than 5 million lb. Bio-based materials are being used in the manufacture of a wide variety of materials including adhesives, carpets, engine oils, and metalworking fluids.

WHY: Bio-based products reduce the need for petroleum and are made from renewable/ sustainable materials. Recent innovations have made these bio-inspired products more economical and just plain smart for many manufacturers.

2010 Innovations Watch List

  • Small Gallium Nitride-Based Transistor
  • Quantum Dots
  • World's Smallest Radio—Nano Radio
  • Dip-Pen Nanolithography
  • Method to Print Polymer X-Ray Sensing Panels


This article was first published in the March 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 1/1/2010

Editor's Picks

Advanced Manufacturing Media - SME
U.S. Office  |  One SME Drive, Dearborn, MI 48128  |  Customer Care: 800.733.4763  |  313.425.3000
Canadian Office  |  7100 Woodbine Avenue, Suite 312, Markham, ON, L3R 5J2  888.322.7333
Tooling U  |   3615 Superior Avenue East, Building 44, 6th Floor, Cleveland, OH 44114  |  866.706.8665