In August 1964, author Isaac Asimov wrote a piece in The New York Times, pegged to that summer’s World Fair and imagined what the world would be like in 2014. “The direction in which man is traveling is viewed with buoyant hope, nowhere more so than at the General Electric pavilion,” he wrote.
Fifty years later, in the spirit of Asimov, GE is making our own predictions about what the future will bring. This blog was originally published in GE’s “What’s Next” collection that gathers perspectives from the makers of tomorrow. Follow the series on Medium.
Isaac Asimov pushed the boundaries of what were thought to be physical limitations. He made people dream about how to make things easier, faster and lighter. Those dreams have inspired my work, and are exactly what we do today in material science and manufacturing. Asimov predicted that our use of gadgets would advance far enough to keep people out of harm’s way in manufacturing; it turns out he was correct. Today, the marriage of materials and manufacturing is revolutionizing the way we work.
Our materials are changing the paradigm of the products in which we use them; whether it is in a gas turbine or a jet engine. Because of advanced materials, we are able to create machines that run more efficiently, use less fuel, are more environmentally friendly, and can operate in previously unimaginable conditions. Take ceramics for example. I’m not talking about pottery; I’m talking about advanced materials, strong and tough, that can withstand hotter and harsher temperatures than metal, all while being one-third of the weight. When applied to industry, this translates to increased durability and efficiency.
In addition to ceramics, we are investing in two other areas within materials: metals and surfaces. Metals are still a critical focus area for us, and we are working to create metal superalloys that can withstand the hottest and harshest conditions that our products will experience. We are reinventing things that have already been made with 3D printing and advanced casting methods, and ending up with lighter and more precise parts.
Surfaces are a large area of opportunity for us. We have been observing the outcome of making a surface smoother or bumpier, and we are seeing that there are applications for both. A surface that repels water, for instance, would have a huge impact in the aviation industry or heat exchanges. A surface that prevents oils from sticking may be a great way to prevent fuel build up that damages machines. So much insight comes from studying the surfaces of materials.
In order to work with these super materials, our methods of manufacturing have had to change dramatically as well. We can alter the surfaces of materials with new manufacturing methods to produce structures as fine as a human hair or shapes that have the highest performance possible! These features, when used in large industrial equipment, have the potential to make surfaces more aerodynamic and less prone to damaging material build up. Additive technology had enabled us to redefine the way we design and work with metals. All of these developments work together to create more efficient machines that are faster and safer for the people who work with them.
The new methods in manufacturing rely on practices Asimov could have only dreamed of: laser cutting, waterjet machining and welding with unimaginable precision and being applied with advanced machines that can only be described as “brilliant.” How can a machine be brilliant? These machines are constantly learning. They are continuously evaluating and predicting outcomes right alongside the people that work with them. They can diagnose their own problems and produce feedback, making them the ideal partner for an engineer or designer. Now, engineers can take this feedback and use it to optimize their practices.
Today’s manufacturing is run by people with degrees in computer science, industrial engineering and metallurgy, in addition to the great manufacturing technologists who have decades of knowledge and expertise. When these great minds combine with advanced materials and brilliant machines, we get the technology Asimov predicted fifty years ago.
All of these technological leaps are the result of valuable investments into both advanced materials and manufacturing. The two go hand in hand to change the world. Now is a great time to be an inventor: we have the tools to get an idea from your head into your hand within a matter of hours. Asimov’s spirit for invention is reflected in the way we work today; the maker movement is a great example of this. Isaac Asimov did a great job of predicting the future. At GE, we’re fulfilling his dreams and are hard at work at the next fifty years of innovation.