Wisconsin Firms Make a Case in 2013 R&D 100 Awards

Wisconsin holds its own in the international engineering game.

By Andy Kerber Print Design by Jason Wan

While many Wisconsin residents don coats to protect themselves from cold weather, two Wisconsin engineering firms developed material coatings to protect against high temperatures. Material Interface and NCD Technologies have been awarded a 2013 R&D 100 Award for their innovative product development.

The R&D 100 Awards, known in the industrial world as the “Oscars of Innovation,” are granted to the 100 most unique and technologically significant products developed worldwide. Winners are chosen by an independent judging panel, in conjunction with the editors of R&D Magazine.

The first award winner from Wisconsin is Material Interface of Sussex, WI. Material Interface developed Minimox ®, a nanoparticle alloy coating that minimizes oxidation in high-temperature environments. The appeal of Minimox® hinges on its simple application; Material Interface bills Minimox® as an “alloy treatment in a bottle,” referring to its ease of use. It can be applied using a spray bottle, a brush or by dipping components directly in the liquid.

The inspiration for Minimox® came from Dr. Susan Kerber, founder of Material Interface. She has over 20 years of experience as a materials analyst and consultant and has seen plenty of high-temperature material failures due to high-temperature oxidation and corrosion. She noticed that a significant number of those failures could have been avoided had there been a method of applying alloy protection after a part is constructed and in use. Most methods of alloy protection must be implemented during production, an impossibility for a setup that has alr¬eady been constructed. Minimox®, however, can be applied to an existing system because it alters the surface chemistry of an alloy. Application at any time allows effective protection to be applied in a simple, inexpensive manner after production, even years down the line.

Dr. Kerber says that the product’s novelty has been both a blessing and a curse. The high degree of customization that materials science can offer. “Materials science and engineering is a very rewarding field, in general, because materials can be custom built, atom by atom, to accomplish specific goals and achieve specific material properties. Development of a new product that does not have any parallel in the marketplace is very rewarding,” Dr. Kerber says. But the originality of the product has also been its marketing downfall. Because Minimox® uses a new application process, it has been difficult to advertise in a context that clients will easily understand. Dr. Kerber says Minimox® is revolutionizing the industrial coating process, but long-held industrial habits have proven difficult to break for Material Interface.

The main end goal of Minimox®, according to Dr. Kerber, is to “improve many types of manufactured goods that operate at high temperatures – automotive systems, heat treating components and furnaces, and gas and oil processing equipment. These systems can be made to last longer and run more efficiently while costing less to build and operate.”

NCD Technologies of Madison also struck gold with a material coating. NCD collaborated with Argonne National Laboratory to develop a new tool-coating process using an augmented diamond compound. The previous standard solution depended on acid-etching, which weakens the tool steel, leading to long-term tool degradation and shorter material life. The coating process, called Nanocrystalline Diamond Pretreatment (NDP), is applied to minute industrial manufacturing machines. Since the tooling parts in question are so minuscule, the margin of error is small, and improving the process increases efficiency and output at all levels of the manufacturing process. The coating decreases the coefficient of friction between the tool and the parts being created. The tool’s sharpness and accuracy are sustained for a longer period of time, minimizing the frequency of manufacturing part replacement and assembly line downtime.

Materials science and engineering is a very rewarding field, in general, because materials can be custom built, atom by atom, to accomplish specific goals and achieve specific material properties.

Dr. Susan Kerber

Patrick Heaney, a member of the design team, says that the inspiration for NDP came from several years of working with small tooling parts. He encountered the common complaint that tools of such small size are uncoatable, leading to drastic production waste and lost time. “We figured there had to be a better solution that wasn’t currently available,” Heaney says. He and his colleagues at NCD saw the clear need for a coating process that can be easily applied to small-scale equipment and went to work. Heaney says that the general idea for NDP was brought to life fairly quickly, but the majority of the work was in perfecting the formula. The tweaking, Heaney says, was both the most frustrating and rewarding step in the design process. Accommodating the wide variety of environmental variables in tool shops, such as temperature, machine speed, machine quality and tool material, was the most difficult aspect of the design process.

Similarly to Material Interface, Heaney says that the toughest challenge that NCD has faced has been advertising the coating process as something that is both valuable and easily applicable. Heaney says that “the people that are using [small tools]…they’re not really willing to slow down production to try a new coating, even if it has a promise of reducing costs or improving productivity, because it’s such a challenge.” Most firms are already strapped for funds and don’t have spare money to spend on research and development. Another obstacle NCD has faced is the resistance of tool manufacturers and tool distributors. Heaney explains their hesitance: “If you think about their business, they don’t want to improve tool life, because they’ll sell fewer tools. Even though they’re going to lose some short-term tool sales, this [NDP] is the way to immerse themselves in the industry.”

NCD has attempted to make up for the distributors’ opposition by appealing to companies that make their own tools in-house. That has been a much easier sell because using the coating process saves those companies money in both the manufacturing process and total tool output; tools with a longer life need to be replaced less often, decreasing the number of tools that need to be made.

Material Interface and NCD Technologies both hinge on long-term economic savings as a key selling point. Their innovative methods have garnered the attention of the international engineering community with their R&D 100 Awards, showing that the state that gave us the vacuum cleaner and clothes dryer is still determined to stay on the global engineering map.