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Will Real Tech Innovation Emerge from Lightweight Materials Institute?

The University of Michigan and Ohio State University are bitter rivals on the football field and lots of other arenas. But as the lead institutions in the Defense Department’s new American Lightweight Materials Innovation Institute, they’ll have to get along in a new federally funded effort to advance the manufacturing and use of lightweight, high-performing metals and alloys.

It isn’t clear yet exactly how the latest entity to be created under President Obama’s National Network of Manufacturing Innovation will actually advance the technology for these materials after manufacturers and customers of high-strength steel, aluminum and other materials have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in perfecting, applying and manufacturing them.

Certainly, establishment of the institute – which is to open its doors this spring – could be a boon to existing manufacturing in metro Detroit, where it will be headquartered and where it is predicted to spawn up to 10,000 badly needed jobs over the next five years. Funding will total nearly $150 million from the federal government, Michigan, Ohio and others. It is expected to contract for more than $100 million in R&D development projects with partner organizations.

Some manufacturers also have joined the predictable academic and government entities in expecting the institute to tangibly advance technology. Honda North America, Boeing, General Electric and Alcoa are listed as among the 17 companies that are “partners.”

But it’s too early to tell whether this next volley of industrial policy by the Obama administration will be as misdirected as its decision to waste billions of dollars of taxpayer funding over the last several years on Solyndra and other green-energy failures.

However, the involvement of many major manufacturers is one positive sign. Another is the fact that lightweight metals already are being relied upon heavily in many industries to yield gains in strength, functionality and energy savings. High-strength steels have been fundamental to helping the auto industry strip weight from its fleet over the last several years, for instance, and Ford threatens to revolutionize the manufacture of heavy full-size pickup trucks with its new aluminum-framed F-150 that is to debut next year.

In 2012, McKinsey & Co. published a report saying the use of lightweight materials will significantly grow across industries. The chief hurdle is cost. Today lightweight materials offer weight advantages but are more expensive. Even so, the lightweight share is currently highest in aviation with almost 80 percent. Automotive is massively increasing the lightweight share from 30 to 70 percent by 2030 (high strength steel considered lightweight material).

But even the most expensive material, carbon fiber which has the highest weight reduction potential (50 percent lighter than steel), may yield a cost decrease of up to 70 percent, thereby making it significantly more attractive. For manufacturing CEOs the emerging materials transformation could be a game-changer.


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