Ilse van Kesteren presented a paper documenting the progress of research she has undertaken in collaboration with and under the supervision of P V Kandachar at the Delft University of Technology on the commercialisation of new materials in consumer goods.

It was an example of a clear, targeted and useful research project that is intended to assist designers, developers of new materials, manufacturers and ultimately to benefit consumers.

Arguing that it has sometimes taken decades before a new material appeared in stores, van Kesteren has developed an inventory of factors that facilitate the introduction of new materials, focusing on plastics and using two historical case studies, of the commercialisation process of Bakelite and nylon.

The factors that van Kesteren has isolated as influencing how and when a material will find its way into the objects we use in everyday life include their raw materials, material properties, manufacturing, information transfer, marketing strategies, economic factors, legislation, entrepreneurship and the cultural perception of a material.

Interestingly, given the pervasive rhetoric of free-marketeers that claims an underlying evolutionary logic for every aspect of business, van Kesteren explained how the adoption of materials into use in consumer goods does not follow the Darwinian model of the survival of the fittest.

Her study threw up examples where inferior materials had been adopted over more appropriate ones, such as the choice of plastic widely used for cutlery. It also drew attention to how materials with outstanding potential have been left languishing like laboratory wallflowers at the manufacturing hop.

Another problem with the introduction of new materials into consumer goods is their inappropriate or ill-considered use. Van Kesteren gives the example of plastics being substituted for metals in the manufacture of some consumer goods without a redesign of their form.

The lower stiffness of plastics, despite their other positive properties meant that the result was a high rate of breakage and consumer disenchantment.

The failure of a new material to take on a coherent ‘identity’ was described as delaying or preventing their acceptance by the mass market in certain cases, even when the material was given a whirl on the dance floor by the designers and manufacturer.

According to van Kesteren, consumers are made aware of new materials “only when the materials are important for product functionality”, as in the use of Teflon in saucepans. She argues that in lacking an identity, new materials are conceived of by the mass market as ‘unreal’, and thus passed over.

The study revealed that while consumers readily differentiate metals into their types; gold, aluminium, brass, etc, they do not do the same for the diverse materials that are subsumed under the name ‘plastic’. New kinds of materials will potentially suffer the same fate – of sitting it out when they could be strutting their stuff.

The research suggests that material technologists need to communicate more effectively with designers and design engineers to shorten the time in which new materials are picked up.

It also shows that even when designers and manufacturers might be clear about the value of new materials and processes, the mass market may not be. As a result, it is up to them to communicate more effectively too, about a material’s attributes and value, through providing accessible information, naming, branding and other communication strategies.   

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