Exhibitor Spotlight - GrainBound

As Ceramics Expo draws closer, we spoke to Prof Martin Harmer and Prof Jeff Rickman from GrainBound about how data analytics can help solve ceramic industry problems, changes to industry demands, and what products they will be featuring at the show. 

GrainBound co-founder Martin Harmer is also the Alcoa Foundation Distinguished Professor at Lehigh University. He obtained his BSc, PhD and DSc degrees in Ceramics from Leeds University (UK). Over the last 30 years he has collaborated with companies ranging from small businesses (TA&T) to large corporations (Almatis, 3M and DuPont) to improve their material development. In his capacity as a Center Director at Lehigh, he oversaw interactions with hundreds of businesses, as well as federal and state government agencies.

As a Senior Technical Lead, Jeff Rickman applies his skills in materials informatics to problems of interest to the ceramics industry. He is a Professor in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Department of Physics at Lehigh University, teaching courses including modeling and simulation, thermodynamics of materials, and kinetics of materials. Before joining Lehigh in 1993, he completed postdoctoral appointments at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Michigan.

Martin Harmer = MH
Jeff Rickman = JR
Ceramics Expo = CEX

CEX: What are your areas of R&D focus?

MH: We diagnose grain boundaries and link them to predictable behavior. We utilize a wide range of advanced electron microscopy tools to characterize grain boundaries and correlate the starting characteristics of the powders with the performance of the finished parts. What makes us distinct is the combination of our team’s extensive technical expertise and knowledge base on the understanding of grain boundaries and the ready access to the state-of-art electron microscopy tools at Lehigh University – electron microscopy provides an enormous amount of data. Detailed characterization of the microstructure can provide the entire grain size distribution, pore size distribution, aspect ratio distribution and texture in the microstructure.

We use a statistical data analytics tool, called grain boundary informatics, to correlate all of this data with the processing parameters (e.g. chemistry, temperature, processing atmosphere, etc.). In grain boundary informatics, we consider the entire production scheme including powder chemistry, processing protocols for fabricating the parts, and the final microstructure and properties of the parts to develop a predictable path for reproducible product performance. For past customers, we have related impurity chemistries to microstructural evolution as a function of processing temperature and time to ultimately increase production reliability. Eventually we will use grain boundary informatics as a generic toolbox for predicting microstructural evolution in ceramic parts and for predicting material properties, such as mechanical strength or electrical impedance as a function of any possible processing variable.

CEX: Which customer or market demands were the biggest drivers of your company’s growth during the past three years?

MH: Over the last decade, new tools to characterize grain boundaries at the macro and atomic scales have become available, providing new insight into the role of grain boundaries in materials processing. The ceramic industry in general has yet to appreciate that specific grain boundary types are the cause of processing issues; also, it doesn’t have the appropriate tools to identify the influential grain boundaries. Exacerbating this problem, many companies have downsized their R&D capabilities, and they need external expertise to supplement their own research capabilities.quote

To address processing challenges, customers demand expertise in grain boundary design; rapid diagnosis of the influential grain boundaries that dictate reliability; and the ability to identify the key processing parameters governing the grain boundaries. GrainBound meets the demand of grain boundary design using grain boundary informatics.

GrainBound has developed an interactive strategy to partner with the customer’s R&D or processing development groups to provide tailored solutions for each material and processing procedure. This partnership has fostered a pathway for new product development. Ceramic manufacturers are looking for new ways to adapt their materials to expanding markets. GrainBound makes this possible by providing precise processing control and correlating grain boundaries with new material performance needs.

Identifying the key processing parameters is difficult, and with the latest microstructure characterization tools, diagnosing grain boundaries has become a ‘big data’ problem. This is the latest driver of our growth. We have integrated big data analytics to provide a superior scientific approach for predicting grain boundary-related behavior.


CEX: Can you define big data analytics?

JR: The field of data science has grown considerably in the last few years. Data science, or more simply ‘big data analytics’, is defined as a systematic exploration of large amounts of data, in some cases more than several terabytes of data, using statistical methodologies that reveal new relationships. The human brain is great at connecting one or maybe two independent variables to results, but it struggles if more variables are added. This is where big data analytics is very strong. Big data accelerates our road to discovery and, in some ways, takes us down paths that we would not have even considered.


CEX: How would you use data analytics to solve ceramic industry problems?

JR: Data science is of particular relevance to the ceramics community given the sensitivity of final product properties to small amounts of impurities and/or differences in processing routes. Data science enables us to identify the most important combinations of processing variables, and to assess the degree of sensitivity of a specific process to small changes in temperature, composition, etc. Moreover, in cases where unusual events (e.g. abnormal grains) are most responsible for materials properties, such as fracture, we adopt an extreme statistics approach to data analysis that focuses on these particular events.

The extreme statistical tools used here are borrowed from other fields, such as the financial and insurance industries, where one is interested in quantifying risk under unusual circumstances (e.g. rare weather events, market crashes, etc.). Taken together, our tools enable a customer to identify the most significant factors that dictate materials properties, and thereby create a processing strategy that leads to predictable outcomes at reduced cost.

MH: We have developed a hybrid experimental/statistical analysis framework to link the role of intentional and unintentional secondary elements on processing and performance. Using our methods, grain boundaries become predictable, and predictability increases productivity, which should increase profit. We can help companies succeed by helping them know their boundaries!


CEX: Do you anticipate that these demands will continue to be your biggest growth drivers for the next three years, or are you anticipating new trends?

MH: We strongly feel that advancing grain boundary science and engineering will continue to impact the ceramics industry, and there will be a persistent need to identify and control how grain boundaries influence performance. Critical tools to study grain boundaries are also becoming more readily available, and we anticipate that more companies will appreciate the need to custom-design their grain boundaries.


CEX: Can you briefly explain how this works in ceramic materials?

JR: To date, we have applied our approach to a number of problems. Two examples are illustrative. First, we have been able to highlight important processing parameters in doped alumina powders that lead to abnormal grain growth in the final product. In most cases, abnormal grain growth is undesirable, and so this analysis is especially useful for avoiding such microstructures. Second, we have related the detailed microstructural features in CuInSe2 thin films, the so-called grain-boundary character distribution, to the electrical and optoelectronic properties of these films. These results are important in understanding the impact of a material’s microstructure on conversion efficiencies in thin-film solar cells. Given the generality of our approach, it can, of course, be applied to many different problems.

MH: Another consideration is fine-grain materials: many of the next-generation materials have much finer grain sizes, sometimes approaching the nanoscale. This is driven by better, sometimes dramatic, improvements in properties, but a simultaneous increase in the number of grain boundaries; the number of grain boundaries exponentially increases with decreasing feature size. For example, nanocrystalline ceramics can have up to 1,000x more grain boundaries than large-grain materials.

Overall, we have invested in big-data analytics to meet the short- and long-term future demands of our customers. GrainBound is the only drop-in R&D partner that has the requisite expertise in grain boundaries, ceramic processing and big-data analytics.


CEX: What products will you be featuring at the show this year?

MH: We will feature Grain Boundary Informatics, which is a new statistical data analysis approach for materials processing. Recently we have begun developing a software package and will be exhibiting the latest prototype at Ceramics Expo 2017. It is used to make sense of the big data and how it relates to processing parameters. To the best of our knowledge, such big-data informatics has never been utilized in the ceramic powder industry or the manufacturing industry at this scale.

The software takes several common processing parameters and ultimately ranks them in their importance toward microstructural development and material properties. We are also designing a generic toolbox that can be customized to meet any customer’s specific requirements. A complete package will be launched within a year. At this point we are utilizing this technique to understand how ceramic powders can be produced with higher reliability, but we also believe it can be utilized to produce ceramic parts with predictable properties, such as mechanical strength, dielectric breakdown strength or electrical impedance, at the industrial level. Ultimately, we are confident that this technique will be of significant value to the materials manufacturing industry.

GrainBound, Inc. will exhibit on Booth 135.

View Ceramics Expo exhibitor list 2017