Achieving manufacturing immortality through self-healing materials might be good for the consumer and the environment, but what could it mean for the product life cycle as a whole?
What are self-healing materials?
Self-healing materials include reversible polymers, biomaterials, inorganic capsules, self-healing coatings and shape-memory materials. They are used across industries such as healthcare, military, construction, electronics, telecoms, aerospace, and energy generation. Analysts predict the market could be worth $4.13 Billion by 2025.
In practice this means all kinds of extraordinary developments from satellites repairing themselves in deep space, to phone screens 'healing' organically when they're damaged.
But, do we really want product immortality?
In the classic movie ‘The Man In the White Suit’, a young scientist played by Alec Guinness (not yet Obi-Wan) invents a suit of clothes that constantly regenerates itself. The suit never needs cleaning, never wears out and never needs to be replaced. The bosses and the unions in his factory try to suppress the invention. They know the effect of the release will be disastrous. Everyone will stop buying clothes, factories will shut down, jobs will be lost and the economy will tank. They threaten and chase the scientist relentlessly for his prototype, which eventually (after two weeks wear) disintegrates completely. It was not so durable after all. Panic over - the consumer economy is saved!
In the film, it seems impossible that the interests of the consumer and the manufacture could ever be aligned when it comes to ‘immortal products’. If things can’t wear out, they’ll never need to be replaced and there will be no reason for anyone to make or buy anything ever again.
Ecological and commercial advantages to longevity
But, things have moved on a bit since the 1950s when the film was made. Now the ecological and commercial advantages of longevity in a range of materials are becoming more defined.
Even so, when I wrote about self mending materials in 2018 I did think manufactures like Apple might not like a brave new world where hardware can fix itself - particularly when they have constant upgrades to flog to people with broken iPhones and no AppleCare.
Improved performance and new applications with regenerative technology
The latest advances in self-healing materials are certainly underlining the huge benefits to consumers of the technology. The recently announced research work being done by the Saudi Arabian institute Kaust, looking into pliable, self-healing thermoelectric materials - could be the answer many manufactures are seeking to a common limitation:
“Wearable electronics are under continuous strain, and their power supply is prone to breaking. [This] material can provide constant and reliable power because it can -re-form, stretch, and most importantly, heal itself…” says research lead Seyoung Kee”
Wearable electronic devices that can withstand the rigours of daily life and regenerate themselves, could mean less product failure and much more commercial success. When applied to medical implants this kind of tech could pave the way for new solutions with less invasive replacement work necessary and happier, healthier and longer living patients as a result.
For manufacturers, there are many applications and benefits to self-healing materials - from the premises, robots and tools that can mend and maintain themselves, to the corporate contribution they would be making to a low waste economy. Think of the benefits of chips and circuit boards in hard to reach places that will require less fixing and replacing or the reduction of inefficiencies over time caused by degradation.
More durability, more servitization, more opportunity
Where technology lasts longer, and is embedded with more IoT, more servitization opportunities might arise with manufacturers levering longer and more lucrative relationships with end-users. In this commercial model, one purchase can yield a life time’s worth of revenue. That’s not an outcome they could have predicted in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, manufacturers will be able to focus their innovation and resource away from maintenance and replacement work. They will be able to concentrate on finding new applications for their technology while refining, still further, the sustainability of their offerings.
The contribution self-healing materials could make to the goals of ‘net positive manufacturing’ are intriguing, but businesses will need agility to fully realise their benefits and rethink the product life-cycle.