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Materials in a Systems-Dominated, Resource-Constrained World

Prof Mike Ashby | University of Cambridge

Materials in a Systems-Dominated, Resource-Constrained World

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What will our students be doing 10 years from now? Teaching and research, like us? A few. Far more will be employed in materials-dependent industries; many of these will assume managerial roles charged with managing materials-related risk. Over much of the last century material supply was not (with occasional exceptions) a major issue. Trade tended to be national rather than global. Material prices, in real terms, were static or falling. There was relatively little control over the way materials were used or what happened to them at the end of product life. Corporate priorities focussed on profitability and financial returns to shareholders. Today the picture looks rather different. The increasing complexity of products creates a dependence on a larger number of elements, some comparatively rare. These are sourced globally and used to make products that are traded on a global scale. Manufacturing nations increasingly compete for exclusive rights to minerals resources world-wide in order to safeguard their industrial capacity. New and expanding legislation controls many aspects of manufacturer responsibility, product design, material usage and material disposal. The public, stakeholders and government increasingly judge corporate success not just in financial terms but in terms of stewardship of the environment and welfare of its workforce and that of the local economy of the communities in which it operates. Corporations respond by issuing Sustainability Reports detailing their attention to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Thus a significant role of the Materials Engineer is now likely to be dominated by issues such as: Adapting to, and complying with environmental and other material-related legislation; Managing the material supply chain, particularly where 'critical' materials are involved; Contingency planning to cope with material constraints and price volatility; Helping the company to adapt to a circular materials economy. In short, it is probable that many of our students will be involved with materials risk-management. To what extent should our materials teaching respond to these changes? This talk explores some of the issues and provides some ideas and schematics to help explain them to students. My hope that this will stimulate a discussion and sharing of views on how to adapt our teaching to include these global issues.