UpFront: The Problem of Living in a Material World
By James D. Sawyer
One of the more uncomfortable questions a parent may face is, "Where do babies come from?" Manufacturing has an uncomfortable question of its own. We just haven’t taken the time to look far enough ahead to ask ourselves "Where do materials necessary for manufacturing come from—and where will they come from in the future?"
Materials, both for products and processing, are becoming more complex, exotic and rare. Even not-so-rare substances are becoming hard to obtain. Helium, the second most common element in the universe, is not very common on earth. It also isn't renewable. It is in short supply, making it more difficult and more expensive for the aerospace industry to perform some types of welding. Helium is also used to cool magnets in MRI scanners, ripen fruits and vegetables on the way to market and inflate balloons among other applications.
The implications are more than hot air. A recently released American Resources Policy Network report notes that "A broad range of non-fuel metals and minerals are critical to our commercial manufacturing base, our hopes for a transition to a green-energy economy, sustained innovations in the high-tech sector, and advanced weapons systems to allow our military to effectively fulfill its mission to protect the homeland and project American power around the globe. As a result, access to critical minerals and metals becomes a matter of national security." (The report may be found at http://americanresources.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ARPN_Quarterly_Report_WEB.pdf.)
Other countries have been paying attention to this issue. They have optimized the advantages they have in national resources by rationing them and maximizing the prices they charge. One need only look to OPEC with its attempts to control the supply and price of petroleum and to China and its policy of restricting sale of rare earths. China also has been aggressive in tying up metals and minerals found outside its borders.
To say a solution lies solely in Washington’s hands is simplistic and likely to be ineffectual. Manufacturing can do its part in seeking a solution through attention, conservation and innovation:
- Attention to the fact that there is a problem and we have a role in solving it.
- Conservation in the use of key materials so that they do not go to waste.
- Innovation to come up with substitutes for these materials so that we have alternatives to fall back on.
This article was first published in the September 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.