Guest Editorial from Dr. Francis Nedvidek, Faculty of Science at the
Technical University of Dresden
After initial isolation in 2004 and a decade and one-half of follow-on discovery, material research and process development, only a trickle of graphene enhanced applications have reached the market. In spite of huge progress and critical advances the so called “killer applications” have yet to appear. Commercial deployment of nanoplatelet graphene, not to mention a cohort of emerging 2D materials, face three challenges.
The first and most obvious obstacle is a consequence of graphene’s newness. Harnessing novel functionality entails painstaking searches for new recipes, non-standard ingredients and adaptation of processes, manufacturing methods and industrial infrastructure. The second hurdle relates to graphene’s assimilation into industrial scale processes and supply and distribution networks. The third challenge demands rigorous focus on the applications where customers unambiguously recognize graphene’s unique value and for which graphene-enabled solutions eclipse all contenders.
Commercial graphene-enhanced products are penetrating niche markets with formulations demonstrating cost to performance ratios decisively better than the alternatives. And the production and supply issues impeding broader commercial development of graphene-based materials - including quantity, consistency, dependability, standardized characterization, certification, traceability and purity - are being remedied. Never-the-less, the number of deployments in high-volume graphene-enhanced application remains modest.
Let’s delve deeper into why this is so; and, then explore ways to accelerate graphene’s wider-adoption.
1) Building a Better Product Using Graphene – A View from the Material Engineering Lab
Nanomaterials – to the dismay of material engineers and production plant managers - store, transport, mix and behave markedly differently from their bulk material counterparts. Not only is the graphene nano-platelet characteristically distinct from the precursor graphite, but specific flake size, topology, and nuances of compound constitution and processing particulars influence nearly every aspect of how the material performs in the final application. At best, bulk material recipes serve only - but in not all cases - as rough starting points from which to begin iterative “expeditions” into uncharted design and engineering territory. Exploiting graphene’s exemplary properties requires iteratively investigating, testing and re-evaluating formulations, modifying existing processes, and adapting contemporary production equipment.
Figure 1 - A generalized development plan for graphene material applications
2) Harnessing Graphene as Enabler
Creating a graphene-enhanced compound typically begins with selection of a specific nanoplatelet profile of lateral size, thickness, defect density, purity and topology. Functionalization, in most instances, plays a pivotal role in dispersion and therefore the molecular bonds and structures assembled within the graphene-doped host matrix which impact the properties of the final and end product. Single digit % by weight graphene concentrations (and often less than 1% by weight) are common making process precision and consistency crucial. Commercially available matrix substances (typically polymers), various bulk ingredients and chemical additives are mixed per specified quantity and according to one, or a combination of, mechanical sheer milling, ultrasonic agitation or pressurization etc., techniques. Processing duration, extrusion method and temperature are just a few of the parameters adjusted during injection molding, thermal-set molding, spin drawing, aerosol spraying, dip coating, adsorption, relief printing etc. to yield the desired end component or product. All data including recipe, ingredient concentrations, process parameters are meticulously registered both quantitatively and qualitatively. The front end of the procedure appears in the graphic of Figure 2 below.
Figure 2 – Data collection in graphene formulation discovery
The network of Figure 3 below depicts material selection, ingredient integration, processing, preparation evaluation and the filtering of outcomes cascades through a maze of options. The exercise begins with selection of the graphene supply and proceeds though to completion of a selection of final compounds or a final product. Successive attempts are sorted according to ingredient constellation, concentration level, process parameter regime etc. The outcomes most closely approaching the desired product performance and estimated per unit production cost are used for subsequent trials.
Figure 3 – Recipe discovery - a labyrinth of options
Progressive iterations eventually coalesce into a small number of potentially most suitable “material recipes and process regimes”. Further refinements culminate in material assays, sub-component samples or final product prototypes demonstrating the characteristics, behavior, supply chain ecosystem fit and benchmark economic prerequisites before undertaking scale production of the winning viable intermediate component or the end product.
3) Solve Problems & Satisfy Needs with Graphene-Enhanced Materials
A formidable assortment of options and combinations of ingredients and procedures conspire to create a graphene-enhanced product destined for use as a vehicle component, battery electrode, integrated sensor module, anticorrosion chassis coating, rubber seal or auto dashboard – or even piece of sporting gear. Formulations, masterbatches and intermediate components may be marketed/sold separately to end up in any number of downstream products and applications. The Figure 4 below displays the major product development activities according to relevant development stages.
Figure 4 - The value creation chain for a graphene-enhanced product.
The arches traversing individual upstream and downstream value creation stages represent enquiries, specification requests, test protocols, parts, components, software code and exchange of standard business documentation. This bi-directional flow of human liaisons including problem solving sessions, teleconferences, schedule update meetings and business and industry forecast exchanges ricochet between partners and among collaborators. Each link of the chain represents an enterprise bound to reconcile its own technical, operational, and logistic capabilities and economic obligations. Close and dynamic collaboration is vital in charting routes through the network promising the best chance for success of individual contributors and the end user solution.
Figure 5 below illustrates the perspective of the graphene technologists peering downstream in search of problems in need of solving. They are eager to monetize exceptional effort, personal risk, patented intellectual property and acquired know how.
Figure 5 – View from the engineering lab
Improved functionality, reduced cost of ownership, appropriate certification, higher income garnering potential etc. must render value exceeding the price in light of alternative approaches including compensation for perceived risk, switching cost or similar disadvantages. However, if the inventive engineers lack information pertaining to the end customer’s problems, needs or wants, they may not be able to precisely identify the ultimate customer or enduser.
4) Problems, Needs and Unidentified Opportunities
Customers purchasing graphene enhanced products or materials expect to enjoy or otherwise benefit from the utility generated from these graphene-enhanced products. Owing to good luck, fortuitous contacts and helpful channels via suppliers, sales agents and distribution partners, a development team can gain at least some understanding of how graphene serves the application and lends value and satisfaction to end customers. Figure 6 portrays the customer’s viewpoint.
Figure 6 – View from the customer
The benefits of graphene are diverse and varied and determined by the appraisal of the product’s functional and economic attributes by the customer and buying influencers. Cost savings, space savings, flexibility of use, physical attractiveness, prestige, ease of maintenance, product safety, peace of mind and enhanced value and finally desirability in terms of the customer’s customers are a few examples of value. An enterprise selling / delivering the value is rewarded in terms of purchase price, future repurchases, volume orders, collaborative relationships, ecosystem intelligence etc.
In the case of graphene or other novel or disruptive technologically driven innovations, any departure from standard application methods, practices or fulfillment models requires increased attention to issues not encumbering traditional or entrenched competitors – initially. Particularly for graphene, prospects with potential to disburse large orders reciprocally demand delivery quantities and lead times unattainable for shops not yet operating at industrial sale. Conversely, suppliers of ingredients, plant and equipment tend to eschew new enterprises lacking financial gravitas. Instead, innovative companies must play to their strengths: flexibility, speed and readiness to work collaboratively in revealing, inventing, testing and fine-tuning formulations and products that address the customer’s needs, mitigating the user’s problems in ways competing offers cannot. Figure 7 below summarizes how the innovator views the endeavor and the customer considers purchasing the graphene-enhanced product.
Figure 7 – Successful Innovation and the Meeting of Minds
5) Problems, Needs and Unidentified Opportunities
How does one acquire a relevant and unambiguous overview of the utility, benefit and advantages graphene products should target? Market studies offer a perspective of industry fundamentals, market size and trends, existing benchmarks and statistics. Trade shows and industry events provide information regarding the ecosystem’s competitive landscape, technological progress and future developments. However, speaking directly with customers represented by Product Managers, CTOs, Marketing Managers and Distribution Partners confers more specific and highly relevant detail. And building relationships with customer groups as well as other stakeholders proves immeasurably helpful in uncovering latent needs, unappreciated deficiencies and previously unarticulated insights.
Interactions with customers as well as upstream and downstream value chain stakeholders including suppliers, service providers and manufacturing partners typically yields highly useful information concerning production methods, process short cuts, unexpected and unexpressed potential for cost savings or unrealized means for improving product quality, logistics or utility that are normally inaccessible to laboratory denizens. Even financiers may lend assistance through discussing strategy in terms of key industry metrics, opening doors to export prospects or building bridges to large buyer consortiums and industry clusters.
Most importantly, direct interfacing and repeated interaction with value chain stakeholders - from suppliers to endusers, installers and support services – offers valuable observations and breeds trust and collaboration. A much broader and deeper reserve of know-how, skills and information may be brought to bear in seizing the maximum portion of problem space with valuable, practicable and profitable solutions, as depicted in Figure 8.
Figure 8 – Successful Innovation - a Meeting of Minds, Technology and Resources
6) Lessons Learning
Three major issues have come to light during attempts to commercialize graphene-based solutions directed at real world problems and inadequacies. Successful market innovations combine and integrate the know-how and capabilities of graphene scientists together with value chain partners to solve the customer’s problem. Value is generated and equitably distributed sufficient to incentivize all stakeholders and customers to perpetuate collaboration, production and further innovation.
Figure 9 displays the three areas where proficiency becomes vital in successfully bringing graphene-enhanced products to markets and individual customers and clients.
Figure 9 The Sweet Spot Driving Collaborative Commercially Successful Innovation
a) Technical: Solving practical problems and grasping exciting opportunities demands technically feasible, stable and scalable solutions, whether materials, formulations, compounds, components or end products.
b) Business Case: The process of delivering solutions using graphene must be economically and commercially sound and sustainable for all value creation chain contributors from the graphene supplier to the final purchaser. This holds true across contributors; viable business case must hold for each stage.
c) Stakeholders: Developing, producing and then scaling novel materials and products requires the combined interest, commitment, investment and ideas only achievable via concerted collaborative engagement and mutual reward. A team approach is essential to overcome challenges at each stage progressing from raw material to actual application and final recycling.
Graphene nanoplatelets are a substance unlike the bulk material graphite from which it is made, or like other bulk materials used in traditional product design. At an advanced level, exploiting the functional possibilities of graphene, (electrical conductivity, tensile strength, chemical affinity and compatibility with multilaminar plastic extrusion techniques, etc.) is ONLY achieved through exemplary collaboration.
Three observations are noteworthy. They allude to different ways of managing teams, dealing with uncertainty and discovering what and how products earn their worth. The journey from the lab to installation in the latest model of automobiles is a longer and more tortious path for graphene products than it has been for traditional materials. The skills threshold has been raised for business development and product management professionals orchestrating commercialization. Re-training with new conceptual tools and software aids is on the agenda for the entire team stretching from development laboratory to the end user. A refurbished and invigorated organizational dynamic will be needed to meet the challenge.
a) Graphene is a multifaceted and complex material demanding engineering ingenuity to unleash its potential. Intermediaries further down the value creation chain applying conventional equipment to fashion contemporary materials must learn to experiment, adapt, improvise and collaborate;
b) Graphene pioneers must strive via all possible means and channels to understand the process prerequisites, performance expectations and appreciated worth of innovations in the eyes of the customer, enduser but also intermediate value chain partners. The ability to deliver value to customers depends as much on uncovering and serving latent opportunities as solving salient customer urgent problems lucrative opportunities.
c) No catalogue of graphene formulations combined with common and exotic matrix materials, additives, process methods and forming techniques presently exists. Working as an extended team between vendor and customer, service provider and users along the span of the manufacturing network is vital to navigating the path toward launching commercially successful next generation of functional materials.