Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs) are active metallic materials classified as “smart” or “intelligent” materials along with piezoelectric ceramic and polymers, electro-active plastics, electro-rheological and magneto-rheological fluids and others. SMAs show a multitude of different and dependent properties interesting for technological applications. These properties depend on the peculiar deformation mechanisms, accounting for the so-called shape memory effect. SMAs are nowadays used in quite different fields, like thermo-mechanical devices, anti-loosening systems, biomedical applications, mechanical damping systems, in some cases employed for large scale civil engineering structures. These multifunctional materials can be naturally considered as sensor-actuator elements demonstrating large possibilities for applications in high-tech smart systems. The use of SMAs in actuators offers an excellent technological opportunity to develop reliable, robust, simple and lightweight elements within structures or as stand-alone components that can represent an alternative to electro-magnetic actuators commonly used in several fields of industrial applications, such as automotive, appliances, consumer electronics and aerospace. NiTi-based SMAs demonstrated to have the best combination of properties, especially in terms of the amount of work output per material volume and the large amount of recoverable stress and strain. However, there are several limiting factors to a widespread diffusion of SMAs to technological fields. For instance, SMAs display a critical dependence of the shape-memory related properties, like transition temperatures, on their actual composition. For this reason, a great care in the production steps, mainly based on casting processes, is required. Another critical aspect, that is to be considered when dealing with SMAs, is the strong influence of their thermo-mechanical history on their properties. This may disclose interesting perspectives of application to smart devices in which different aspects of the shape memory phenomenology, like one and two way shape memory effect, pseudoelasticity, damping capacity, etc., are used. Last, but not least, one of the most debated aspects around NiTi alloys is microcleanliness. This concept is becoming increasingly important as the industrial market moves to smaller, lower profile devices with thinner structures.
In this work a general overview about the peculiar behavior of NiTi alloys along with their main issues, the shape memory components under development, and the main efforts and directions for materials improvement will be presented and discussed. A bird’s-eye view on the future opportunities of NiTi-based shape memory actuators for industrial applications will also be given.