Thermal management technologies and the economics of advanced manufacturing

In a recent article for Ideas Laboratory, Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, discussed the economic factors affecting innovation in today’s advanced manufacturing landscape.

Since the end of World War II, industries have been moving toward the “electrification of factories,” abandoning the steam- and water-powered mechanical systems of yesterday. As this paradigm shift took place, thermal management technologies became critical in facilitating this change and improving process efficiency.

Oftentimes, when we think of thermal management of electronics, we have in mind heat sinks that keep our laptop computers from overheating, or systems that allow each generation of smartphone to be more powerful than the last without dying in the midst of critical tasks. However, the consumer products we take for granted every day would never reach store shelves if it weren’t for the technologies that power the manufacturing facilities themselves.

“The recognition of the amount of energy that can be saved by replacing belt drives and hydraulic systems with electric drives equipped with power semiconductor controls is spawning many innovative new approaches,” Shih wrote. “One engineer at a factory I visited recently told me that higher vehicle fuel economy standards forced them to break out of their established way of doing things. New approaches were their only hope for hitting the target. This is driving major innovation in the automotive sector.”

Simply put, were it not for technologies developed specifically for dealing with thermally conductive materials, manufacturing facilities everywhere would be decades behind where they are today. Think of these breakthroughs as calculators, and their predecessors as the equivalent of solving every equation in your head. Which one is more efficient and allows you to focus your energy on new innovations?

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