While digitalization is mainly about bits, it creates new opportunities for the research, manufacturing and use of various materials. The most familiar of these methods is 3D printing, which is becoming increasing common. These layering-based additive methods enable small-scale production without separate tools and allow for variations in the geometry of a product. Variations in the material properties of a product will become possible in the future.

Additive manufacturing has become an everyday activity. An FDM printer, which is suitable for working with molten plastic, is sold online for approximately €1,000. What is more interesting is the development of the printing of rubbers, composites, metals, ceramics and medical materials.

The Department of Materials Science and the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Systems at Tampere University of Technology have purchased a device suitable for printing ceramics with funding from the Tampere Region 3D Centre of Expertise. The device is used extensively for studying the manufacturing of polymer and ceramic items. The device enables printing both wear-resistant nozzles for industrial purposes and bone replacements for medical applications. The accuracy of printed features reaches a level below 0.1 mm. The properties of ceramic powders can be tailored to each application, for example, to increase the hardness of nozzles or to add cell growth-promoting substances to bone applications.

The printing of basic ceramics is already an everyday activity, but a great deal of research and development remains to be done in terms of special materials. The possibilities are almost unlimited. In most cases, 3D printing enables the effective production of parts that could not otherwise be profitably manufactured on a small scale using traditional methods. Imagine a future where we can print a part of a product from the desired material without moulds or prototypes.

Another digitalization-related phenomenon is materials informatics. While perhaps not as well-known as 3D printing, it is just as revolutionary. Materials informatics applies mathematical methods to materials research. The aim is to develop algorithms and models to predict the properties of new materials through computational methods.

The United States has launched a materials informatics initiative entitled “the Materials Genome Initiative”. As President Obama puts it, “To help businesses discover, develop and deploy new materials twice as fast, we’re launching what we call the Materials Genome Initiative.” In Europe, similar tools are being developed through the NoMaD and Marvel projects. Work has also begun here in Finland in the form of collaboration between Tampere University of Technology, Aalto University and the University of Tampere. Imagine a future where, instead of off-the-shelf materials, we can design a material that meets our needs using the safest possible materials available.

Materials informatics allows us to eliminate the limitations of different materials. For example, one of the greatest challenges in the development of fusion reactors is finding suitable materials. Materials informatics also benefits Finnish industry, as it paves the way towards more sustainable and affordable materials.

One of the themes of the Subcontracting Trade Fair 2015 is new materials. It could be the fair theme every year but is now more interesting and relevant than it has been for a long time. Digitalization has the potential to revolutionize materials technology just as it has revolutionized other areas of technology and business.

Imagine a future where we utilize additive manufacturing to turn a new material developed for a specific application into a unique, competitive and environmentally friendly part that is difficult to duplicate. It is hard to imagine, but could it still be possible?

Jyrki Vuorinen holds a professorship in the Department of Materials Science at Tampere University of Technology (TUT) and is the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences. The Department of Materials Science maintains close R&D collaboration with Finnish industry and is nationally recognized as the leading producer of MSc graduates in its field.