Nanotechnology: Just-in-time nanomanufacturing at home

The Harvard Business Review has named its top 20 Breakthrough Ideas for 2007, and home-based, atomically-precise manufacturing makes the list. Business in the Nanocosm, by UC Berkeley business prof Rashi Glazer, does a good job of conveying the future of home-based nanomanufacturing. Excerpts:

Conventional manufacturing carves or distills a purpose-suited device from a mass of raw materials. Nanotechnology, like nature, assembles objects atom by atom, following a design that calls for only what is needed: a place for every atom and every atom in its place. This method of constructing objects (which themselves do not have to be small) will reshape the future not only of manufacturing but also of distribution, retailing, and the environment.

Nanotechnology, like nature, assembles objects atom by atom, following a design that calls for only what is needed.

Because conventional manufacturing begins with large and unformed inputs, it needs scale, and economies of scale push factories to become larger and more centralized. If, however, manufacturing is “additive” (assembling products atom by atom) rather than “subtractive” (distilling them from a mass of materials), factories can be quite small—small enough to be no more than a set of tiny machines and production blueprints—and can be operated almost anywhere. The marginal production costs of these factories should approach zero, and their production processes should create no pollution or waste…

Already what are called synthesizers, assemblers, or automated fabricators have been developed to create items, such as prosthetics, using nanotechnology’s additive approach. In the next few decades, we may see the domestic, user-friendly successors to these machines—personal manufacturing units, or PMUs—become standard home appliances.

Consider this scenario: In preparing for a dinner party the following day, a couple decides to create a new set of dishes. They sit down at the console of the family PMU (essentially a keyboard, a display screen, and a manufacturing chamber containing the atoms to be assembled). Working with design software (the manufacturing blueprints), they input the instructions and watch as the atoms in the chamber are organized into plates, bowls, and cups. Since the number of atoms used to manufacture the dishes is the same as the number composing them, all the costly steps—extraction or collection of raw materials, transportation, transformation, waste disposal—that currently precede a product’s use or consumption are eliminated.

Ever since Adam Smith laid out their essential characteristics, market economies have been understood to rest on specialization: Individuals are producers of one thing and consumers of everything else. In what is sometimes called the nanocosm, by contrast, consumers could become the sole producers of finished products of all kinds. Consequently, they would continually evaluate whether to make or buy. We are all aware of the decentralizing and personally empowering effects of PCs and the Internet. By making individuals largely self-sufficient, the nanocosm would push these effects to the extreme, in essence creating a Robinson Crusoe economy…

Competitive advantage would lie in knowing the customer and designing the manufacturing blueprint and software. We might also anticipate the emergence of a new entity, midway between the traditional make-and-sell, command-and-control organization and the more modern sense-and-respond, adaptive organization. This new entity would function as a systems integrator, focusing on “menu design,” component acquisition and assembly, and efficient coordination of the activities and interactions of the market-savvy designer, the PMU maker, the PMU operator, and the provider of the atomic building blocks.

Most of these ideas may sound familiar to Foresight members, but the last point is new to me. In any case, it’s good to see this picture of the future — what we call productive nanosystems — being explained to a wider audience. (Credit: Nanowerk) —Christine

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