The Innovation Makers: America’s Fuels and Petrochemicals at Work

What does it take to be a successful innovator in America today?  Talk to people who are making a difference, in fields from health care to transportation to STEM education, and you hear the same themes:  innovators need an idea, a new way of seeing an old problem – plus hard work and the willingness to sweat even the smallest details.

In a new short documentary produced by CBS, and sponsored by Imagine That, we meet three innovators who are working on solving problems ranging from the future of automotive design and transportation, to a germ-fighting robot, to a digital fabrication lab that is at the forefront of STEM education.

And as each of these innovators tells the story of their work, another common theme emerges — they need the right materials, to bring their ideas out of the imagination, and into the world.  The materials that make those ideas real?  Built from petrochemicals:

  • The strong, lightweight resins that make up more and more of today’s cars that inspire GHSP’s Chief Engineer of Innovation Ian Sage;
  • The durable plastics that protect the delicate workings of a medical robot that drives Xenex CEO Morris Miller;
  • The modern polymers that enable 3D printers to fabricate almost anything, which are helping the Fab Foundation’s Sonya Pryor-Jones encourage students to discover STEM.

You can watch the full documentary here but read on to get a behind the scenes look at the secret to success for our innovators.

“Innovation happens very fast … so whether it’s an industrial designer looking at new materials or a mechanical engineer looking at new resins for plastics, in a matter of hours we can turn around a new product idea or part, just to understand how its shape, size, fit and finish look and feel in a larger system.”

That’s Ian Sage, Chief Engineer – Innovation for GHSP, which makes parts for today’s lighter, more fuel-efficient cars, e-controls and elements of the powertrain.  When he talks about resins, and plastics, he’s talking about petrochemicals – the ingredients that are essential to making those plastics, that make up much of today’s cars, and even more of the cars of the future.

One piece of the future that’s already here, is that robot with a “death ray” for killing germs.  But going from the “lightbulb” idea (literally), which was to use xenon light for the death ray – to a robot that can actually disinfect a hospital room, Xenex Disinfection Services CEO Morris Miller explains – that required the right building blocks, which meant plastics:

“we’ve gone through three different iterations of plastics, and they’ve become more protective over time, so that literally the machine can be slammed against the wall [which happens, regularly] and “…three or four years later, those look [and work] like they are brand new…”

And thanks to jets and jet fuels, you can get those “clean machines” just about anywhere, on just about a moment’s notice.  Like this past winter, in Norman, Oklahoma:

“…they called and said the elementary schools were having a huge problem with flu.  ‘Can you help us?’

“We were able to overnight them 10 robots … we disinfected those schools one by one…and stopped that flu outbreak.”

And the next generation of innovators?  They are kids today, in classrooms all across the country.  But many of those classrooms don’t have the next generation of machines and technology.  The solution, is bringing those machines and tech to the kids.  Sonya Pryor-Jones, Chief Implementation Officer of the Fab Foundation explains:

“There are more than a dozen mobile ‘Fab Labs’ across the United States.  It is basically a 27-foot-trailer that you hitch to a truck and you drive it where people are. What mobile Fab Labs have done in essence is allowed us to take the technology into communities who may not have a Fab Lab or maker space. The first time that many school-age kids get to see a 3D printer, in action, there’s a magic that comes over them.”

What makes a 27-foot-Fab Lab trailer move across country is – a tank of gas:  fuels, made from petroleum.  And what a Fab Lab makes, are “digital fabrication natives…children who are living what they’re learning.”  What they’re learning today, says Pryor-Jones, just might become the prosthetics, the drones, the cars of the future.

To see more of that future, and what’s already possible, thanks to petrochemicals and fuels, just Imagine That.

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