The future is in your hands

The future is in your hands. This is perhaps more true of engineers than any other profession. Your choices dictate how something is made, how it should be used and ultimately how it should be disposed of. Affecting all of this, however – indeed, perhaps the most vital consideration – is material selection.

In the course of researching and writing this issue, I have spoken to many of the leading experts in various materials, discussing everything from steel to composites. What is notable is that, while all are keen to talk up one technology over another, they all advocate a similar philosophy when it comes to material selection: namely designing with the entire system in mind over the entire life of a product.

This is easier said than done, however. Take, for example, the automotive industry's need to lower tailpipe emissions. This is driven by legislation, but in practical terms it results in lighter structures, hybrid motors and stop-start systems being used. The trouble is that, while this yields more miles per gallon, the added CO2 from manufacture and disposal can make the apparently environmentally friendly anything but. Shifting CO2 from one region to another, from countries where the cars are used to countries that produce them, is hardly a sustainable solution.

Another example is energy efficient lightbulbs. These are a extremely difficult to dispose of and seem to need changing as often as incandescent bulbs did. Biofuels, too, were initially welcomed, until it was realised it was diverting food crops away from those that need them and causing mass deforestation in some parts of the world.

As a community, engineers must be a lot clearer and more knowledgeable when it comes to discussing lifecycle issues so as to better influence the decision makers. They in turn need to accept that the problems are extremely complex, with no easy solution and jumping on a bandwagon before knowing the facts is never the best course of action.

There are no easy answers, but it is our hope that Engineering Materials magazine will help give a broader view of the importance materials play and the difference getting it right can make.

Justin Cunningham

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