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Thought Leader Thursday: The Material Genome Initiative

The Material Genome Initiative (MGI) is a U.S. Federal government, multi-agency initiative launched by President Obama in 2011 to double the speed with which new materials are discovered, developed and manufactured at significantly lower costs. These advanced new materials in turn are expected to power a wide spectrum of industries from healthcare to national security. The accelerated process of time to market for new materials is expected to strategically improve our global competitiveness.

The origins of the program goes back to the President’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI); an R&D initiative to understand and control matter at the nanoscale level for technology and industry such that it benefits society. With the support of the NNI, nanotechnology research and development has been successfully utilized in Govt., industry and academia.

Changing the Paradigm of Design

Now in its 5th year, the MGI initiative has also demonstrated tremendous potential and made measurable strides in its goal of pioneering new materials using multiscale science, science of big data, physical experimentation and their seamless integration.

The initiative’s 5 year anniversary was marked by an event hosted by The White House to commemorate and celebrate its success. With my expertise in Multiscale Science and Engineering, I was among 70 other experts from the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Defense (DoD), National Industrial Security Program (NISP), the Army Research Office, as well as Industry and Academia. The general consensus is that the program’s progress appears to change the paradigm of design today. Companies are finding that their time to market has improved; there is more robustness and the tools are more predictive. While these factors are indicative of success of the initiative, the program faces several challenges which must be addressed if it is to succeed.

Bridging the Gap

With the most vested to lose (or win) Industry traditionally tends to be the most cautious to adopt major changes. There is some concern that the program is too scientific and does not sufficiently involve industry. Given my experience with both industry (having previously created a software company and being employed as a design engineer in Israel Aircraft Industries) as well as in Academia (my current affiliation as Professor at Columbia University) I am well aware of the differences between the academic world and practitioners in industry. Historically we have seen, that unless industry completely embraces a particular technology, it cannot realize its complete potential or succeed at the expected level. A prime example is the interest generated by Artificial Intelligence in the 70s. There was much excitement about robots replacing humans, but even though billions of dollars were invested, it took over 40 years to come close to reality primarily because Industry was slow to embrace the idea completely.

With industry giants like Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney leading the way, the MGI has had a demonstrable measure of success in Industry so far. While this is a good stepping stone, a wider, all-encompassing industry-wide acceptance is required. One of the challenges of the program is bridging the gap between expectations of the Government and Academia in the program and what industry is willing to adopt. It’s a slow transition and requires education of the workforce.

Here at Altair, we are doing our part to further the initiative’s purpose. Altair’s Multiscale Designer is a tool for development and simulation of multiscale material models for composite materials, honeycomb cores, reinforced concrete, soil, bones, and various other heterogeneous material systems. From the technology’s innovation to a promise that was realized over several years and translated into a commercial product, Multiscale Designer was originally developed as a result of my research and development supported by various SBIR programs and subsequently acquired by Altair. Its main application, although not as broad as the MGI, is geared towards it.

Since the tool is very advanced, it requires a new generation of engineers to realize its full potential in product design, as is the case for the MGI program success. Most current users of Multiscale Designer have an education at the Ph.D. level. To permit successful utilization of this technology by engineers having bachelor’s or a master’s degree, efforts are currently under way on two fronts: (i) automating and streamlining Multiscale Designer’s workflows and (ii) training our customers in the automotive, aerospace other industries in multiscale design principles.

Poised for Growth

The MGI program has already received funding at the level of half a billion dollars and is poised for the next 5 years of growth. There have been sufficient advancements in the development of the technology. What is needed now is industry involvement and educating industry. That is the message we must get out.