Archived Viewpoints




About This Technology

The term smart materials has now moved beyond being a technical term and toward becoming part of everyday language. Although many commentators, journalists, scientists, and technical experts use the term smart materials in their written outputs, their definition of smart materials varies somewhat. Smart materials produce direct, inherent responses to signals such as temperature, voltage, pressure, magnetic fields, and light. The ability to use a very simple device to produce an action in response to specific conditions or signals can dramatically improve the overall performance of a device. Designers can use SMs to simplify products, add features, improve performance, or increase reliability with relatively little complexity. Key SMs include piezoelectrics, electrochromics, shape-memory materials, thermoelectrics, magnetorheological fluids, and self-healing materials. In addition to developments in SMs, developments continue in smart composites and systems.

Notably, except piezoelectric materials, SM markets and technologies are relatively young. Nevertheless, a growing band of SM technologies has now entered commercial applications, albeit often in interesting niches. Existing SM applications are surprisingly numerous and diverse. Examples include simple piezoelectric speakers, smart sporting equipment (such as skis, tennis rackets, and exercise equipment), self-dimming automobile mirrors, magnetorheological suspension systems, medical-imaging devices, autofocus motors for cameras, active noise control for electric transformers or aircraft, and smart textiles.

Continuing commercialization of SM technologies benefits not only SM producers but also other participants across a number of value chains. Indeed, SMs benefit a wide range of companies across many industry sectors—including automotive, aerospace, medical, food, construction and infrastructure, consumer-products, Internet of Things, and robotics sectors. SMs will not only improve many existing products and services but will also enable the creation of completely new systems and approaches. Beyond "traditional" SMs—such as piezoelectrics and SMAs—wholly new materials and systems with smart functionalities are likely to emerge.