5 Recent Technological Advances Engineers Should Be Excited About
As an engineer it is often necessary to turn the theoretical musings of scientists into practical real-world applications. Listed below are some of the more exciting developments that are set to drastically change the engineering landscape.
1. Additive Manufacture
Additive manufacturing is not a new technology; in fact, it only exploded into the public scene after a few key patents began expiring. The popular plastic 3D printer is quite useless in normal engineering applications, but in this case the technology being discussed is not plastic printing, but metal printing.
There is a massive mobilisation within the SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) industry. SLS is a process where metal parts are created by fusing metal powder particles together to create solid parts. Almost any material can be used from normal stainless steel to exotic alloys such as Inconel. Siemens recently illustrated the potential of metal printing by successfully manufacturing and testing a 3D printed turbine blade. These parts experience extremely high loads in high temperature environments.
2. Topological Optimisation
Topological optimisation is an engineering technique used to optimise the material usage of a part based on the loads it experiences. This method significantly reduces the material required by performing an FEM analysis and then removing all material that does not experience any load. This creates very lightweight, organically shaped components.
Usually these organic shapes are very difficult if not impossible to create with traditional manufacturing processes, however with the trend in additive manufacturing driving down the general cost, it is becoming more profitable to use this technology. Engineers can look forward to creating very lightweight components that are custom designed for each load case.
3. Transparent Aluminium
ALON or more accurately, transparent aluminium oxynitride, is a ceramic material composed of aluminium, oxygen, and nitrogen. It is manufactured using normal ceramic processes whereby a powder is produced and then baked in a furnace. This means that almost any shape can be made. Therefore, note that it is not pure aluminium that has been made transparent but rather a ceramic. This material has the potential of replacing bulletproof glass in military applications as it has the same stopping power as bulletproof glass with double its thickness.
4. Metal Foams
Metal foams can be simply explained as parts with a lattice structure where the void spaces typically have a larger volume than the actual metal.
Recent advances have seen the creation of lightweight stainless-steel foam that is capable of completely stopping an armour piercing round. Tests were done by firing a 7.62mm x 63mm M2 round at a sample, with a thickness of less than 1" (25.4mm). The bullet was completely destroyed and created an 8mm protrusion at the rear of the sample.
Russian material scientists have also created aluminium foam with a variable thickness solid shell, it should be noted that the entire sheet is created in a single process creating a homogenous product. The advantage of these materials is that they can be mechanically engineered to suit specific applications.
5. EM drive
This is a controversial topic but cannot be excluded from a list of exciting technologies. The EM drive was originally developed by Roger Shawyer and is described as an RF (radio frequency) Resonant Cavity Thruster that can produce thrust with no propellant. This effectively means it violates the law of conservation of momentum. Numerous organisations have tested the EM drive including EagleWorks, a division within NASA created to test exotic propulsion technologies. They confirmed a thrust measuring 50 µN with 50W of input power. This is small enough to easily attribute the thrust to measurement error or some other unknown interference.
The EM drive could revolutionise space travel if it is proven to work. It stands to open up a whole new branch of engineering. All that is left to do is to attach the EM drive to a micro satellite and send it into space to observe how it behaves absent of any terrestrial variables. Only then can we conclusively say whether it is a breakthrough technology or a very expensive lesson in measurement error.
Most of the above-mentioned technologies are on the cusp of largescale commercialisation and have the potential of drastically changing the mechanical engineering landscape. As these technologies mature and the costs associated begin to drop, the amount of applications will grow. This will allow engineers to leverage this technology in their designs to create more efficient and impressive solutions to both ordinary and extraordinary problems. Make sure you check out some of other engineering articles below!