Can Metals Remain a "Cornerstone" Industry?

The metals industry has a strong heritage of innovation, says Warren H. Hunt Jr., executive director of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (www.tms.org), Warrendale, Pa.

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And through innovation, he adds the industry “is positioning itself to continue to be a cornerstone industry.”

Greater attention toward sustainability—that is, using resources to meet human needs while preserving the environment now and in the future—and increased utilization of computational modeling comprise what Hunt sees as positive current trends. Short-term benefits he notes include reduced energy consumption and reduced energy cost. Regarding modeling, Hunt says the technology has demonstrated the ability to reduce development cycle time by 15 percent to 25 percent, with a return on investment of seven to 10 times the amount invested.

Longer-term implications, which cover the next three to five years, Hunt explains, mean that “sustainability will result in much more closed-loop manufacturing processes.” He also forecasts that “computational modeling will further reduce cycle times.”

But positive implies negative. And Hunt suggests that a current negative trend is “the perception that the metals industry is not ‘high tech.’ ” The implications he foresees could be serious: that the industry may face challenges in attracting capital and talent.

However, new technologies help recast the industry and put a higher-tech face on it. “I think a very significant new technology is Integrated Computational Materials Engineering, or ICME,” Hunt says. “By combining computational modeling across a range of size scales, and coupling materials properties with manufacturing and product performance, the metals industry will be able to most effectively provide competitive products.”

ICME appears to be one of those “hot” technological concepts that offers much promise. Through Web-available information, the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (www.nationalacademies.org/deps) of the Washington, D.C.-based National Academies (www.nationalacademies.org) calls ICME “an emerging discipline that can accelerate materials development and unify design and manufacturing.” Gordon Research Conferences (GRC, www.grc.org), of Kingston, R.I., notes on its Web site that ICME may also be known as Through Process Modeling. GRC—which is sponsoring an Aug. 2-7 conference at the Proctor Academy, in Andover, N.H., on “Integrating Computational Materials Science and Engineering”—also calls ICME, “a new and potentially transformational discipline within the materials profession.”

Considering climate

Transformational development of the metals industries will also involve, however, dealing with what is commonly called global warming, but which is more accurately called catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. Hunt notes that “certainly, the industry is viewed as an important contributor.” Companies respond, he remarks, “by emphasizing sustainability in their activities.” Hunt notes that, overall, the aluminum industry is making progress, including Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Alcoa Inc. (www.alcoa.com). The company details that progress at www.alcoa.com/global/en/about_alcoa/sustainability/rnp_overview.asp.

But with low-tech perception and climate-related challenges, how will metals continue to be, as Hunt puts it, “a cornerstone industry?” Through innovation, especially the ICME, he says, along with “a strong focus on sustainability.”
 
That said, the Reston, Va.-based Minerals Information Team of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said in its April 2009 “Metals Industry Indicator” report (MII, minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mii/0904/miiapr09.pdf) on the U.S. primary metals industries—steel, aluminum and copper—that “the primary metals leading index declined in March [2009].” However, the USGS noted that the leading index’s “6-month smoothed growth rate increased modestly.”

Nevertheless, the April MII report continued that “it appears that the decline in overall U.S. primary metals activity is likely to continue into the near future.” The metals price leading index decreased in February 2009, the MII continued, “and although its growth rate moved up slightly, it is still negative and is suggesting further declines in some metal prices in the near term.” While that’s not good news, it could be worse.

C. Kenna Amos, ckamosjr@earthlink.net, is an Automation World Contributing Editor. 

The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society
www.tms.org

Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
www.nationalacademies.org/deps

Gordon Research Conferences
www.grc.org

Alcoa Inc.
www.alcoa.com

Minerals Information Team
minerals.usgs.gov

 

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