Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
New and advanced materials
Materials have always played an essential role in every Kondratiev economic cycle, largely shaping every technological system. However, in the presently emerging techno-economic paradigm, their role tends to be very different: no single material seems to be associated with the paradigm, but rather a kind of global dynamics in the conception and diffusion of a vast variety of homogeneous and heterogeneous materials, in what has been called "hyperchoice" . This dynamic applies not just to "recent" high-performance materials such as composites, but equally to more "traditional" materials such as metallic alloys or ceramics. It is based on increasing knowledge of the microscopic properties of matter and on mastering industrial reproduction processes of these microscopic properties, enabling different materials to be combined to make new alloys or composites and to customize their properties. The concept of "new materials" used here thus refers to substances possessing compositions, microstructures, properties, performances, or application potentials derived from the industrial reproduction of their microscopic properties. There are no "old materials," but only outdated industrial techniques, processes, and equipment. Every traditional material can become "new" through the adoption of advanced shaping and manufacturing techniques and processes permitting the control of its microscopic structure. What is in fact "new" is the unity material-process-product.
When examined under the light of the present paradigm change, the trend with the greatest force in new materials seems to be the one leading to a growing diversity in materials use. Three factors have recently acted in this direction: the increase in the relative cost in energy; the requirements of the micro-electronic components industry; the specific demands generated by the use of micro-electronics in new products and processes. The vast growth of innovation possibilities in programmable capital goods has been not only the main impetus for downstream innovations in products and services, but also a powerful impetus for upstream innovations in materials. This contrasts with the previous paradigm, in which the dynamics of innovation in the areas of materials, chemistry, and final goods set the requirements for innovation in capital goods . Under the old paradigm, materials were typical examples of technical constraints imposed from the outside: designers and engineers chose a material for a principal property or physical characteristic that imposed itself technically upon the desired product; under the new paradigm, the modular character of the material, made possible by the industrial reproduction of its microscopic properties and by intensive use of computer-aided design and manufacturing, permits the prior identification of a technical need and the ex post development of a material specifically adapted to that need. In other words, from an exogenous constraint on industrial design and engineering, new materials have become an endogenous production variable .
The specific requirements of the micro-electronic components industry have already led to the development of a vast supplier network for semiconductive, conductive, and photosensitive materials; crystals of various types; high-purity chemicals; new ceramics and resins. The changes occurring in the functional characteristics of products and machines, i.e. the replacement of moving mechanical parts by electronic circuits and the subsequent reduction in the size of the products, reduce part of the demand for the more common engineering materials such as metals and plastics in favour of lighter ones, as well as those that present several characteristics simultaneously (e.g. the lightness of plastics plus the resistance of metals). New diverse means of interfacing with the user have required the development of new materials that are sensitive to light, to touch, to sound, to heat and others with countless special characteristics for particular purposes or particular tastes . At the same time, the utilization of micro-electronics in the design and production of new materials has rejuvenated the technological trajectories in "old" materials like metals and polymers, and has created new trajectories in glass and ceramics. The convergence between these two different sets of trajectories has led to the development of several types of composite materials. In short, there is a growing richness in the information content of materials and a proliferation of alternative patterns of materials consumption, in line with the general characteristics of the new techno-economic paradigm.
The technical objectives at stake in the competition between different materials have become more numerous. Historically, competition between materials expressed itself through economic advantages that were obtained essentially by searching for alternative sources of higher quality minerals and ores, cheaper processes and transport costs. For any specific technical application, there was generally a single material that dominated more or less durably: it was the regime of "mono-choice," characterized by economies of scale and standardization. Variety, when it existed, occurred within the same family of materials (metals, plastics, ceramics, etc.), not by creating a new family. In economic terms, the lack of variety of these "commodity" materials reflected rigidity in the processes of production.
In the present transition period toward a new techno-economic paradigm, this situation is changing. Competition may still end up with a radical substitution of one material for another (in line with the "common sense" practices of the fourth Kondratiev), but increasingly frequently it is a new complementary association of materials that presents the best technical solution. The new forms of utilization are as varied as the objects to which they are applied. Often, several new materials compete with each other in offering alternative technical solutions for a particular technical device: the variety is both within and between families of materials. This movement toward diversification - or "hyperchoice" - expresses itself in the multiplication of groups, subgroups, classes, grades, and nuances of materials. Never before has mankind had available such an enormous number of materials: for instance, a limited number of basic polymers offer users countless different technical solutions by their innumerable combinations, mixtures, or alloys and by the incorporation of several liquid, solid, and fibrous additives.
The revolution in information technology greatly facilitates the rethinking and production of multi-material objects or of objects made from complex materials. Most often, the use of a new material (or a new combination of materials) involves the complete redesign of the object instead of simple piecemeal substitution. Programmable micro-electronics-based equipment assists the processing of materials that often acquire their final shape and composition within the object itself. The close integration of design and production functions within the firm has made it economically possible to produce objects that are conceived at the same time as their constituent materials. Attempts by firms to achieve greater flexibility in product and process design are often associated with the reconception of the object and modification of the materials used, revealing a close correlation between the will to adapt to a changing economic environment, the increase in technical flexibility of productive capital, the introduction of information technologies, and the exploitation of a large variety of materials . This correlation shows that new materials technology is intrinsically coherent with the "best practice" guidelines of the new techno-economic paradigm, and it expresses the tendency towards a deep transformation of the materials industry, which is increasingly becoming a service industry where producers sell "solutions" to a client's global problem, a sort of "kit" designed to respond to a desired "function," rather than a "material" in the proper sense.
This "functionalization" of the materials market is consequently accompanied by a "tertiarization" of employment in the materials industry, leading to a necessary integration and interfacing of know-how and skills, to a new division of labour both within and among enterprises, and to the emergence of new firms and industries. The multiplicity of variants of the same material that producers and users must learn to handle, as well as the refinement of production and processing methods of materials, require the emergence of the multi-material specialist with fluency in many skills. For instance, the transformation of plastics, which traditionally demanded mechanical knowledge alone, now requires better knowledge of chemistry for design and control of in situ reaction techniques, and of electronics and computer sciences for the control of automatic equipment .
The competitiveness of a firm is thus more and more determined by the efficiency with which it utilizes new materials. The exploitation of new materials technology has become vital for industry: it has acquired a major economic importance as a generic or "trans-sectorial" technology, spreading into all industrial sectors and affecting the production of innumerable products and services. New materials have become remarkable vectors of innovation, as advances accomplished in a particular industry through the use of a new material tend to "contaminate" one by one all other industrial sectors. They form a new technological system.
The growing variety of materials production techniques is associated with an increase in the complexity of production processes. In their effort to minimize this increasing complexity, firms are compelled to integrate production stages, i.e. to reduce the number of phases of a given process (lower stocks, less maintenance), to reduce the number of parts in the final product (lower assembly costs), or else the production time. The reduction of the number of parts results, in turn, in the integration of several simultaneous functions in the material: the final object is formally simpler, but more complex in its design, in its functions, and in the services it offers. A direct consequence of this tendency is the necessary development of new and efficient non-destructive testing methods to replace the former testing procedures based on sampling.
The best example of integration of different functions in the same material is given by composite materials ("composites" for short). Composites are best defined as "the voluntary association of non-miscible or partly miscible materials having different structures, which combine and complement their characteristics to form a heterogeneous material presenting global properties and performances superior to those of the original constituent materials and suited to required functions" .
Composites are generally formed by a matrix in which a different material (usually in the form of fibres) is embedded to reinforce the mechanical properties of the matrix. The most common composite is made of a polymeric matrix (epoxy resins, polyesthers, etc.) and of glass fibres: 95 per cent of the composites used in industry are of this type. Other matrix materials used for superior technical performances (mainly for aeronautic, space, and military purposes, although applications in professional sports equipment and racing cars are increasing) are metals, carbon, or ceramics; high-performance fibres are usually made of carbon, boron, or aramide (Kevlar). The role of the fibre is to absorb shocks and to give the material its mechanical resistance, whereas the matrix serves to distribute the mechanical constraints over the whole structure and to protect the fibres against environmental (mostly chemical) damage. The association fibre/matrix offers innumerable combinations of physical and chemical properties by modifying either the fibre/matrix constituent materials or the "architecture" of the composite. By employing different weaving and orientation techniques of the fibres, it is possible to control the microscopic characteristics of the composite and to obtain combinations of properties that are unconceivable with traditional materials.
Impact on developing countries
For developing countries, which are traditional suppliers of raw materials, the trends described above have both direct and indirect consequences. The direct impact is the decreasing amount of raw materials needed to manufacture a unit of industrial production. The indirect impact, which in the medium term might turn out to be by far the most significant, is the decrease in the technological innovation content of manufactured goods produced by the developing countries, i.e. the competitiveness of their industry.
The declining trend in the per unit consumption of raw materials in the industrialized countries is accelerating, through both substitution of synthetic for raw materials and development of materials-saving processing methods. Substitution still has a relatively minor impact, but it will become important in the long term because of the growing demand for enhanced performances in electronics, communications, information and data processing, transportation, energy, manufacturing, and chemical products. The largest changes are expected to occur in the replacement of metals by ceramics, polymers, and composites. The recent evolution of prices has already been extremely favourable to polymers in comparison with metals: between 1960 and 1987, the average price per unit volume of the main metals has more than trebled, whereas on average the main commodity polymers less than doubled in price in the same period .
These trends have strongly affected the international prices of raw materials, which have fallen sharply, with direct negative economic impacts on developing countries. But new materials tend to decrease the value of raw materials in two additional ways. First, the increased weight of processing techniques in the manufacturing process reduces the part of raw materials in the composition of the final value of the product; materials technology, not raw materials, is the main cost factor. In addition, intangible investments in software. marketing, and information technology R&D constitute a growing share of production costs. Secondly, new materials decrease the geopolitical strategic value of raw materials, for technology is able to develop appropriate substitutes.
Although some low-cost producers may be able to increase their shares in the slowly growing world market for traditional materials, developing countries will generally continue to face declining real prices. Some less developed countries may be competitive in the production of some new materials such as fibre-reinforced plastics and inorganic materials, because of the abundance of raw materials required and the labour-intensive character of parts of the production chain. Some Latin American and Asian developing countries have been carrying out research in the area of low-cost construction and building materials, as well as in alloys, polymers, and composites. Rare and rare-earth metals are and will remain essential for many scientific and technological developments, e.g. in superconductors; world markets for these materials are projected to rise many times by the year 2000 and even faster thereafter, and developing countries are their major producers. The development of ceramics is advantageous to Latin American and Asian countries' thanks to the availability of certain mineral resources like copper, iron, carbon, and aluminium. Developing countries in Asia and Latin America that have recently succeeded in micro-electronic components should enter into production of silicon and other semiconductor materials. African countries may develop materials for roads and for low- and middle income housing in rural and urban areas.
In short, the potential for developing countries to produce materials of higher purity necessary for high technology industries exists and should be exploited. Producers of primary materials should therefore reconsider their policies concerning materials technology development with the objective of shifting the production of traditional raw materials to more knowledge-intensive materials. Some are already doing so.
The main impact of the present trends in new materials is most likely to be felt by developing countries in the medium term, through the loss of competitive power of many of their manufactured products, which will increasingly have to compete with innovative products presenting higher functional integration or offering novel functions and 'services," manufactured by "multi-material" firms in the industrialized countries.
1 Aglietta, M. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation The US Experience. London: New Left Books.
2 Allen, J., and D. Massey. eds. The Economy in Question. London: Sage, 1988.
3 Boyer, R. The Regulation School: A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
4 Brady, N.C. "Agricultural Research and US Trade." Science 230 (1985), no. 4725.
5 Bull, A., G. Holt, and M. Lilly. Biotechnology: International Trends and Perspectives. Paris: OECD, 1982.
6 Buttel, F.H., M. Kenney, and J. Kloppenburg. "From Green Revolution to Biorevolution: Some Observations on the Changing Technology Bases of Economic Transformation in the Third World." Economic Development and Cultural Change (1985), no. 34.
7 Caron, F. Le résistible déclin des sociétés industrielles. Paris: Perrier, 1985.
8 Clark, J.P. "Markets for Advanced Materials." Materials and Society 13 (1989), no. 3.
9 Cohendet, P., M.-J. Ledoux, and E. Zuscovitch. Les matériaux nouveaux: dynamique économique et stratégie européenne. Paris: Economica, 1987.
10 Dosi, G. "Technological Paradigms and Technological Trajectories: A Suggested Interpretation of the Determinants and Directions of Technical Change." Research Policy 11(1982), no. 4.
11 Dosi. G., C. Freeman, R. Nelson, G. Silverberg. and L.L.G. Soete, eds. Technical Change and Economic Theory. London: Frances Pinter, 1988.
12 Filho, A.G.A., R. Marx, and M. Zilbovicius. "Fordism and New Best Practice: Some Issues on the Transition in Brazil." In: Kaplinsky, ed. See ref. 25.
13 Flores, H.E., M.W. Hoy, and J.J. Pickard. "Secondary Metabolites from Root Cultures." Trends in Biotechnology (Cambridge: Elsevier Publications) 5 (1987), no. 3.
14 Fransman. M. Biotechnology Generation, Diffusion and Policy: An Interpretative Survey. Maastricht: The United Nations University. New Technologies Centre Feasibility Study, Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, 1986.
15 Freeman, C. Technology Policy and Economic Performance. Lessons from Japan. London: Frances Pinter, 1987.
16 Freeman, C. ed. Long Waves in the World Economy. London: Frances Pinter, 1984.
17 Freeman, C., J. Clark, and L.L.G. Soete. Unemployment and Technical Innovation: A Study of Long Waves in Economic Development. London: Frances Pinter, 1982.
18 Freeman, C., and C. Perez. "Structural Crises of Adjustment, Business Cycles and Investment Behaviour." In: Dosi et al., eds., pp. 38-61. See ref. 11.
19 Freeman, C., and L.L.G. Soete. Information Technology and Employment: An Assessment. Brighton: Science Policy Research Unit, 1985.
20 Gilles, B. Histoire des techniques. Paris: Encyclopédie de la Pléïade, Gallimard, 1975.
21 Green, K., and E. Yoxen. "The Greening of European Industry: What Role for Biotechnology?" Futures 22 (June 1990), no. 5.
22 Hippel, E. von. The Sources of Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
23 Jacobsson, S. "Technical Change and Industrial Policy: The Case of Computer Numerically Controlled Lathes in Argentina, Korea and Taiwan." World Development 13 (March 1985), no. 3.
24 James, J. Microelectronics and the Third World: An Integrated Survey of Literature. Maastricht: The United Nations University, New Technologies Centre Feasibility Study, Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, 1986.
25 Kaplinsky, R., ed. "Restructuring industrial Strategies." Bulletin of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (1989).
26 Katz, R.L. "Explaining Information Sector Growth in Developing Countries." Telecommunications Policy (September 1986).
27 Kondratiev, N.D. "The Long Waves in Economic Life." Review of Economic Statistics (November 1935). Originally published in Russian in 1925.
28 Lipietz, A. "Trots crises: métamorphoses du capitalisme et mouvement ouvrier." Cahiers CEPREMAP 8528 (November 1985).
29 Mandel, E. Long Waves Capitalist Development: The Marxist Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
30 Mensch, G. Stalemate in Technology: Innovations Overcome the Depression. New York: Ballinger, 1979.
31 Miles, I., H. Rush, K. Turner, and J. Bessant. Information Horizons: The Long-Term Social Implications of New Information Technologies. Hants, U.K.: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. 1988.
32 Munasinghe, M., M. Dow, and J. Fritz, eds. Microcomputers for Development: Issues and Policy. Cintec-Nas Publication, 1985.
33 Nelson, R.R., and S.G. Winter. "In Search of a Useful Theory of Innovation." Research Policy 6 (1977), no. 1.
34 Nelson, R.R., and S.G. Winter. An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982.
35 OECD. Biotechnology: Economic and Wider Impacts. Paris: OECD, 1989.
36 OECD. Advanced Materials: Policies and Technological Challenges. Paris: OECD, 1990.
37 OTA (Office of Technology Assessment). Commercial Biotechnology: An International Analysis. OTA-BA-218. January. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. 1984.
38 OTA Technology, Public Policy and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986.
39 Perez, C. "Structural Change and Assimilation of New Technologies in the Economic and Social Systems." Futures 15 (October 1983), no. 4.
40 Perez, C. "Microelectronics, Long Waves and World Structural Change: New Perspectives of Developing Countries." World Development 13 (March 1985).
41 Perez, C. "Las nuevas tecnologías: una visión de conjunto." In: C. Ominami, ed. La tercera revolución industrial: impactos internacionales del actual viraje tecnológico. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1986.
42 Perez, C. Technical Change, Competitive Restructuring and institutional Reform in Developing Countries. World Bank Strategic Planning and Review Department Paper no. 4. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1989.
43 Perez, C., and L.L.G. Soete. "Catching Up in Technology: Entry Barriers and Windows of Opportunity." In: Dosi et al., eds. See ref. 11.
44 Piore, M.J., and C.F. Sabel. The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
45 Rada, J. "Information Technology and the Third World." In: T. Forester, ed. The Information Technology Revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
46 Rosenberg, N. Perspectives on Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
47 Rosenberg, N. Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
48 Sasson, A. Biotechnologies and Development. Paris: Unesco, 1988.
49 Sasson, A., and V. Costarini. Biotechnologies in Perspective. Paris: Unesco, 1991.
50 Schumpeter, J.A. Business Cycles. A Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process. New York/London: McGraw-Hill, 1939.
51 Schumpeter, J.A. Business Cycles. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Allen & Unwin, 1943.
52 Soete, L.L.G. "International Diffusion of Technology, Industrial Development and Technological Leap-frogging." World Development 13 (March 1985), no. 3.
53 Stewart, F. "Technology Transfer for Development.'` In: R. Evenson and G. Ranis, eds. Science and Technology: Lessons for Development Policy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991).
54 Thaller, R. "Pour une économie de la diffusion des innovations technologiques: l'exemple des matériaux composites." Ph.D. dies., Lyon: University of Lyon II. 1986.
55 Tigre, P.B. The Mexican Professional Electronics Industry and Technology. Vienna: UNIDO/IS. 1985.
56 UNCSTD (United Nations Committee on Science and Technology for Development). "End-of-Decade Review. Implementation of the Vienna Programme of Action, State of Science and Technology for Development: Options for the Future." Background paper for tenth session of the Intergovernmental Committee on Science and Technology for Development. August 1989. Mimeo.
14 Technology assessment
The methodology and its critics
A typology of technology assessment and policy analysis
Stakeholder participation in technology assessment
Technology assessment was created in the United States as an aid in identifying and weighing the existing and probable impacts of technological applications on the natural and social environment. In the industrialized countries? the term covers activities variously described as technology assessment, environmental impact analysis, traditional policy analysis, systems analysis, operations research, social assessment of technology, technological forecasting, programme evaluation, risk analysis, or cost-benefit studies. In developing countries, technology assessment is viewed with considerable interest and hopeful expectations, primarily because of its potential in the context of development and modernization. Whereas in the industrialized countries, TA is viewed predominantly (though not exclusively) in the context of anticipating and avoiding unintended side-effects of technologies as their scale of application increases and spreads, in developing countries it is seen more as a means of building up an indigenous capability for wise technology choice in the context of a more autonomous and self-reliant development strategy . While the need to monitor and control technology from a societal perspective is well recognized in developing countries, this is seen more from the point of view of avoiding the unwanted socio-economic effects of imported technologies controlled by foreign corporations, and of mastering new and emerging technologies with potential applications to development. The creation of the ATAS Bulletin published by the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development is an example of this type of activity.
With the rising importance of global environmental problems, both the developed and the developing countries perceive a new mutual interest in a widely dispersed TA capability that will help avoid exacerbating these problems by non-sustainable technology choices and development strategies in the developing countries.
Contents - Previous - Next