I was inspired to write this by Fred Wilson’s excellent blog post What is Going to Happen. I like that he is putting his theses out there, so I am going to do the same.
Each of these deserves a whole post (if not a book) of its own, so maybe I will circle back on some of them in the future. On to my own predictions for materials broadly:
1. Materials innovation will be driven by data (and machine learning). We at Citrine have obviously made a big bet on this, but we believe it fully. When the Human Genome Initiative started, there were two key things that happened: people became aware of what it would mean to understand the genome and genetic specialists started to systematically compile the research that would form its underpinnings. The Materials Genome Initiative is much younger and has progressed differently from the HGI, but awareness for the project is growing and scientists are beginning to participate in related programs in larger and larger numbers. Product development teams at companies have had their eyes opened to the promise of using machine learning in fields from development, to selection, to manufacturing optimization. They will approach these technologies carefully, but those that move quickly will benefit greatly.
2. Consumer companies will invest in materials as a competitive advantage. Apple has become known for touting its beautiful, fantastic, magical experiences. But in 2014 they introduced the general public to “ion exchanged glass,” the fact that sapphire is clear, and custom 14k gold alloys. While Apple is the most well known, Microsoft has developed a magnesium vapor deposition process for the Surface. Tiffany even debuted its own new jewelry alloy in 2012, and Ford has started to use aluminum body panels in the F150. In 2015, those that have not yet made the move to differentiated materials will scramble to do so.
3. Enterprise 3d printing will enable new tooling but will fall short of becoming mainstream for manufacturing. Jigs and mounts are already growing in popularity (and NASA emailed a wrench to the ISS) but most 3d printing is not yet ready for prime time. Too little is known about materials failure rates (here people are looking to bodies like ASM to help) and the parts that come off of these systems are quite literally too rough around the edges for make a complete product. The promise is there, though, and will come through over the next 3-5 years.
4. Raw materials and specialty manufacturing capacity will matter more than ever. A dirty secret in the materials industry is that companies hoard raw materials. They try to buy when prices are low and use other techniques to make sure that their materials holdings stay attractive to investors. In addition, because of number 1 above, advanced materials are going to be more in demand than ever. We have already seen some of these sorts of moves: Tesla announcing the Gigafactory and Apple with its failed JV with GT Applied Technologies to produce sapphire. More are coming and will provide critical competitive advantage to those that invest wisely.
5. We are going to see a few big successes related to space flight. SpaceX will land a rocket on a floating platform—maybe not the first time, but after a try or two—and Orion will take a few more steps toward manned flight. To achieve the ultimate goals of both of those groups will require further materials development that will lay the groundwork for future lightweight and radiation-proof materials in everyday devices. Space presents extraordinary materials challenges, and will yield many new earth-bound technological wins that we will all benefit from.
6. Graphene will eventually succeed in certain niches, but is being oversold today. Mechanically, graphene is strong, but it is still only 1 atom thick, raising practical questions of insertion into products. As an electronic material, it will eventually show utility in high frequency, low power electronics. It will also be a useful component in some energy systems to to allow charge exchange or exciton transport. Ultimately, its biggest market it may be as a good replacement for ITO in flexible/transparent displays, but that is several years away. 2d electronics generally will continue to show promise, but will not be seen in commercial products until 2018 at the earliest.
These are just a few my own predictions and, as Fred said, biases. And these are only a short descriptions of each of them. Thoughts? Disagree? Find me on twitter: @gregmulholland.