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SME Speaks: Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture

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Terry Wohlers





This marks the second year for SME to showcase Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture. It is a member-driven initiative that reveals new and emerging technologies that are expected to impact the future of manufacturing.

SME members have steered this program through the Technical Community Network (TCN) and Manufacturing Enterprise Council (MEC). The TCN seeks and reviews nominations. The MEC then narrows the list of nominations to a few that it feels are worthy of recognition.

I believe it is important to recognize innovation, especially good innovation. It acknowledges deserving individuals and organizations, and stimulates others to become involved in idea generation and the technology development process.

What is innovation? Wikipedia says it is a new way of doing something. It refers to incremental, radical, or revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations.

Innovation has set the US apart from most other nations. Americans are born and raised to think and create freely. It's in our blood, and it is believed to have given us an intangible edge over other developed regions of the world. I have long seen it as a great strength of our nation.

Innovation will help to preserve manufacturing in the US, and grow it in the future. Without it, the US will struggle to develop competitive products. Among the most interesting opportunities for future innovation are products that are complex and of high value. They produce good margins, and are the most difficult to copy and manufacture elsewhere.

Now, more than ever, innovative software tools and new methods of manufacturing are available for clever Americans to design and test their ideas. Processes such as laser sintering and fused deposition modeling are being used for direct digital manufacturing (DDM) and are available for small production runs. (DDM was one of last year's Innovations.) This substantially reduces cost and risk, because it eliminates the need for tooling. As a result, custom and limited-edition products become much less expensive, especially those that are complex and of high value.

Invention plays a vital role in innovation. Invention is the finding or creation of a new configuration, composition of matter, device, or process, according to Wikipedia. Invention leads to innovation.

Ideas have been explored and tried in an effort to "produce" inventors. I agree that some people are born with more natural ability to invent than others. You simply can't create good inventors. It is possible, however, to bring out the best in people that have what it takes to invent. History has shown that high-profile prizes can encourage innovation. One example is Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris. It was the $25,000 Orteig Prize that served as the motivation. More recently, Mojave Aerospace Ventures received the $10 million X Prize for launching a private pilot into space.

SME is playing multiple roles to encourage invention and innovation. For example, a group of SME members and other volunteers have worked together for years to introduce high school students to the tools and technologies that help explore new ideas, create, and innovate. The sixth-annual Bright Minds Mentor Program, scheduled in May 2009, will introduce advances in CAD solid modeling, additive fabrication, DDM, and laser scanning to 50 Chicago-area students at the RAPID 2009 Conference & Exposition. The program has never offered prizes as an incentive to participate, but it supports NAS, NAE, and NSF's belief that creating interest in invention and innovation starts at the elementary and secondary school levels. Many of the students from the past Bright Minds program are now in college and pursuing careers in engineering and/or manufacturing.

NAS, NAE, and NSF also believe that more scholarships for science and math majors are needed. The Dimension 3D Printing Group, a business unit of Stratasys, holds a contest called the "Extreme Redesign: The Ultimate 3D Printing Challenge," a design and 3-D printing contest for high school and college students. More than 1200 designs were entered in the last (2007) competition. Two first-place winners received $2500 scholarships, and four finalists received $1000 scholarships. Entries for the 2008–2009 Extreme Redesign competition are currently being received and reviewed.

Inventors cannot be created, but there are ways to motivate the naturally gifted to become productive inventors. I truly believe that programs, such as Bright Minds and Extreme Design, as well as Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture, are helping. They are serving as a spark to ignite our imagination, especially among our youth.

If you come across innovations that you feel should be considered in 2010, please visit


About the Author

Terry Wohlers is president of Wohlers Associates Inc., an independent consulting firm he founded 22 years ago. The company provides technical, marketing, and strategic consulting on the new developments and trends in rapid product development and manufacturing. Through this company, Wohlers has provided consulting assistance to more than 150 organizations in 21 countries. He has authored 350 books, articles, and technical papers on engineering and manufacturing automation, and given more than 60 keynote presentations on five continents. Wohlers has been a SME member since 1989 and joined the 2005 SME College of Fellows. He is a current member of SME's Manufacturing Enterprise Council as well as an advisor for the Education & Information Exchange Tech Group, which is part of SME's Rapid Technologies & Additive Manufacturing Community.   


2009 Innovations List

SME's Manufacturing Enterprise Council (MEC), with support from the Technical Community Network (TCN), has chosen the following innovations for the 2009 Innovations That Could Change the Way You Manufacture list:


  • High-Speed Sintering
  • Buckypaper
  • Synthetic Gecko Tape
  • Micro-Laser-Assisted Machining
  • Wireless Power Transfer
  • Personal Fabrication

Future sections of SME Speaks will contain more detailed summaries on the innovations. However, brief summaries on the innovations are outlined below.

High-Speed Sintering — Builds parts from CAD models by slicing the CAD models into 2-D bitmap images. Like selective laser sintering, a layer of sinterable powder is deposited onto a build area and then, like 3-D printing, a 2-D profile of the first bitmap is printed. Rather than a bonding agent, a radiation-absorbing material (RAM) is printed onto the powder. Infrared light is then flashed over the surface of the powder where the RAM absorbs the energy as heat, which is transferred to the nearby powder particles, causing them to sinter. Areas that were not printed with RAM remain unsintered.

Why was it chosen? Production times increased significantly, approaching mass-production viability.

Buckypaper — A thin sheet made from an aggregate of carbon nanotubes. The nanotubes are approximately 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. Originally, it was fabricated as a way to handle carbon nanotubes, but in 2008 buckypaper was being studied and developed into applications by several research groups, showing promise as a building material for aerospace vehicles, body armor, and next-generation electronics and displays. These applications are expected to be implemented in 2009.

Why was it chosen? It is one-tenth the weight of steel, yet potentially 500 times stronger than steel when its sheets are stacked to form a composite.

Synthetic Gecko Tape — Developed by transferring micropatterned carbon-nanotube arrays onto flexible polymer tape based on the hierarchical structure found on the foot of a gecko lizard. The gecko tape can support a shear stress (36 N/cm2) nearly four times higher than the gecko foot, and sticks to a variety of surfaces, including Teflon.

Why was it chosen? Eliminates the need for high-heat soldering and allows new, lighter materials in many applications.

Micro-Laser-Assisted Machining—Fiber lasers at ~1000 nm and ~1500 nm wavelength have been applied to silicon and silicon carbide with significant results, including increased material removal rates and reduced tool wear.

Why was it chosen? It can enable materials to be precision machined that were previously impossible or very difficult to machine.

Wireless Power Transfer — A process that takes place in any system where electrical energy is transmitted from a power source to an electrical load, without interconnecting wires in an electrical grid. Wireless transmission is ideal in cases where instantaneous or continuous energy transfer is needed, but interconnecting wires are inconvenient, hazardous, or impossible.

Why was it chosen? It has the potential to completely change the way machines and other products are designed.

Personal Fabrication — Fabbers (a.k.a. 3-D printers or rapid prototyping machines) are a relatively new form of manufacturing that builds 3-D objects by carefully depositing materials drop by drop, layer by layer. With the right set of materials and a geometric blueprint, you can fabricate complex objects that would normally take special resources, tools, and skills if produced using conventional manufacturing techniques.

Why was it chosen? It differs from traditional rapid prototyping in that it's affordable for home use and takes the idea of manufacturing from the plant to the home.

2009 Tech Watch List — In addition to the 2009 Innovations list, the MEC and TCN have selected two additional technologies to "watch" for future use. These technologies are still in the developmental stages, and are not ready to be implemented into the manufacturing community, but hold great technological promise.

Self-Healing Polymers — A new class of smart materials that have the capability to autonomically repair themselves after damage, without the need for detection or repair by manual intervention.

Liquid Lens Imaging — Captures 250 pictures/second and is powered by water, sound, and surface tension. This newly created technology could lead to smarter and lighter cameras in cell phones, automobiles, and even autonomous robots.

Foldable and Stretchable, Silicon Circuits — Scientists have developed a new form of stretchable silicon integrated circuit that can wrap around complex shapes such as spheres, body parts and aircraft wings, and can operate during stretching, compressing, folding and other types of extreme mechanical deformations, without a reduction in electrical performance.

To explore these innovations, watch for future ME issues OR join us at: BREAKING THROUGH: SME Annual Conference, June 7–9, 2009, in Philadelphia. Visit to learn more.


SME Member Receives Top Canadian HonorSteve F. Krar, LSME, was inducted into the Canadian Manufacturing Hall of Fame during a March 31 ceremony at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Steve F. Krar, LSME, was inducted into the Canadian Manufacturing Hall of Fame during a March 31 ceremony at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Krar is a dynamic force, tirelessly promoting and educating experts and the general public about the merits of manufacturing and the rewards of manufacturing careers. He is a passionate advocate of technological training and an author whose textbooks on manufacturing have sold more than one million copies worldwide. Now in his eighties, Krar continues to publish textbooks, magazines and newspaper articles, and travels the world to learn about new and emerging technologies like nanotechnology and lean manufacturing techniques.

In 2005, he launched the Productivity Development Center to help Canadian companies learn more about productivity-enhancing manufacturing practices. In 2006, he launched a new online seminar series using the latest technologies to promote manufacturing education worldwide. In 2007, the first of his series of 50 articles on manufacturing and technology were published in the Welland Tribune newspaper. In 2008, Krar hosted and organized the 46th annual Advanced Technology Think Tank gathering that brings Canadian and American manufacturing and industry leaders together to exchange views and information. He has been a SME member since 1959 and is a Life Member of SME.   

The Society congratulates Krar on this prestigious accomplishment, and wishes him continued success.


This article was first published in the March 2009 edition of Manfacturing Engineering magazine.