Thousands of new materials are developed each year, many of which could be game-changing. But even with the concept proven there is still a long way to go. How do you commercialise materials for use in demanding applications? Giles Salt, CEO of Manchester-based M&I Materials gives us an insight.
Start with a double take
In the excitement of having developed an innovative, new material it’s easy to get carried away. It’s important to start by taking two things: a breath, and a step back.
The hard work is not over. Now is the time to invest in developing a deeper understanding of the material’s potential customers, markets and applications.
Working specifically in demanding applications can be a blessing and a curse; competition may be less fierce but higher specificity means more effort is required to understand precisely where commercial opportunity lies.
One of our brands, Wolfmet, produces a tungsten heavy alloy that found its niche in providing fine balance to Formula 1 cars and Boeing 737s on the one hand and radiation shielding on the other. The two applications aren’t closely related so finding these commercial opportunities depended on judicious and comprehensive research.
The business model for demanding, niche applications is often likely to be one of high value, low volume; so understanding each potential customer and their specific needs is doubly important.
Not all suitable markets already exist. Sometimes it’s not as simple as saying: “I’ve got a great material, what do you think” – it’s about creating the market.
his could involve working with companies who are developing new technologies so that the materials become integral to the design. For our MIDEL transformer fluids, we work closely with transformer manufacturers as they looked to design new models; our product helps to push their design in terms of performance.
These sorts of opportunities don’t occur by themselves. It involves going out and collaborating to create the market providing benefits for all.
Developing a new material and its early use cases calls for very specific types of technical expertise. Commercialising it requires a different set of skills. Chief among these are patience and tenacity.
For materials designed for specialist, demanding applications it can feel like forever getting the first customer, signing the contracts and putting the supply chains in place. Engineers can be risk averse, preferring to stick to what’s tried and tested; tenacity is required at every step to bring them around. But it can also go the other way. Certain applications, such as Formula 1, are always looking for something that can give them an edge, making them more receptive to innovation.
Pick your partners
Frequently manufacturers need to seek out organisations with complementary expertise to bring a new product to market.
This might take the form of research from universities or private laboratories, collaboration with potential customers, or even other private companies.
There are also a host of agencies that exist purely to help promising, young technologies scale by providing tailormade, commercial support.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is to never stand still. New applications may still be developed for successfully commercialised products. At M&I Materials, we’ve been making Apiezon, a range of high vacuum greases, sealants and lubricants, for over 80 years. Yet we recently created a new grease to work at a wider range of temperatures replacing several products.
Commercialising a material for demanding applications is a complex process with no set formula, the key is to remembering that the material itself is only ever the start.