Published in Issue Nr. 3
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smart materials

„The men where you live,“ said the little prince, „raise 5,000 roses in the same garden – and they do not find in it what they are looking for, and yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water“.  (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)

Products and Components today come with rising complexity and reciprocal dependencies. Thus, malfunctioning, required space and energy consumption are rising. At the same time society expects those to decrease. Like the Little Prince, the innovation network smart³, headed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU, strives for solutions to tackle these issues within the product itself. Using smart materials, the members of smart³ integrate functionality directly into the structure of products or components, making them smarter, leaner, less energy consuming, and smaller.

Smart materials are capable of adapting self-sufficiently to changing environments. They change their characteristics specifically to external effects like pressure or temperature in order to adjust to their surroundings. Thus, they allow high functionality in simplified structures – directly at the level of materials, without complex construction design.

The materials used can both send and process signals. Thus, they can be used as sensors and actuators – or both at the same time. Moreover, they can also harvest small amounts of energy, such as the energy of machine vibration that otherwise would be wasted.

The network has set ambitious goals: Developing sustainable products, overcoming technological path dependencies, and working towards a paradigm shift by integrating function and structure. This approach, however, is different to the modus operandi of other material networks. Founded in 2013 and financially backed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, smart³ deliberately took an interdisciplinary approach and brought together not only the engineers and material experts of Fraunhofer IWU and other research institutes, but also designer, social scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, SMEs and corporations. This constellation ensures the development of products and technologies that are not only technically upfront but also meet the challenges of today’s society.

These interdisciplinary projects require open dialogue between all project partners. This also means creating a common language and a mutual definition of pivotal terms. Often, apparently well-defined terms of one discipline possess a very different meaning within the counterpart’s field of work. Becoming aware of pitfalls like these is one crucial issue when working together in interdisciplinary projects.

The R&D projects conducted at smart³ cover a wide range from future production systems to integrating smart materials into new mobility concepts, from creating new medical devices to energy efficient buildings and sustainable lifestyle products.



1 Valve cluster with pneumatic hoses

2  Shape memory alloys are smart materials that return to a pre-defined shape when heated. Thus, they can be used as lightweight sensors and actuators, activated by heat or electricity.


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