Imagine machines tiny enough to move through a patient’s bloodstream and clean clogged arteries; materials that generate efficient and inexpensive energy; or even devices that mimic human muscles. How do these futuristic innovations, some 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, get from the research laboratory to the consumer? What are the challenges and how does investment in this technology impact the economy?
“Today your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969 when it sent two astronauts to the moon. The Sony PlayStation of today, which costs $300, has the power of a military supercomputer of 1997, which cost millions of dollars.” – Michio Kaku, The Physics of the Future.
But an even more amazing aspect of rapid technology innovation is the increasing miniaturization of these new and increasingly powerful devices. Just as they’ve gotten more powerful, they’ve been getting dramatically smaller.
For many reasons, miniaturization makes a lot of engineering, social and environmental sense. Miniaturized systems can move and stop more quickly than larger systems due to low mechanical inertia, which makes them ideal for precision movements. And because of low thermal expansion, small systems maintain their shape better at higher temperatures. Best of all, miniature devices deliver more functionality with less materials and resources; require less packaging and are cheaper to transport.
However, as devices get smaller and the demand for increasing capabilities grows, engineers face challenges in moving from the macro scale to the micro and nano scales. Miniaturization will change the world, but new tools, processes and expertise are needed to tackle the challenges and embrace the promises of miniaturization.
Advanced manufacturing innovators work to solve these tough problems. And in materials technology, electrical engineering, biotechnology, and in the basic sciences (physics), advanced manufacturing experts are the super heroes of the industry, developing ways to quickly bring lab research into production at scale. If atomic force microscopes are the high tech tools used in fabricating and assembling miniature components, synthesized materials with exotic chemical and physical properties (like nanomaterials) are advanced manufacturer’s raw materials.
Transformational nanomaterial discoveries are leading to materials that have unmatched strength, flexibility and conductivity. In fact, the nanomaterial market is projected to rise to $5.5 billion by 2016. From miniaturized devices for diagnosing diseases to materials for cyber skin on robotic devices, nanomaterial has the potential to revolutionize how and what things are fabricated. Imagine a computer chip that self-assembles. Ray Kurzweil can. Advanced manufacturing applies these new materials at scale to revolutionize virtually all markets, led by healthcare, defense, transportation, energy and computer electronics.
Perhaps that’s why advanced manufacturing facilities look more like a science laboratory than a traditional high-volume manufacturing facility. In fact, today’s advanced fabrication techniques differ dramatically from those developed in the mid-1990s. Advanced manufacturing relies on cutting-edge science and technology innovations to build micro- and nano scale geometrically complex device components with high dimensional accuracy. Due to higher costs associated with miniaturization, it’s up to advanced manufacturers to solve problems related to electronics and the physics and chemistry of cooling, pc-board production, power distribution, and RF signal transmission.
Because advanced manufacturing nanomaterials requires, in most instances, disruptive high-tech research and development, the U.S. federal investment in nanotechnology over the past decade through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has positioned the US as a leader in the field. And recent reports by the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology have recommended new directions and funding towards effective technology transfer and commercialization of nanotechnologies emerging from research labs. In fact, the significance of innovative advanced manufacturing on the U.S. economy is huge according to Technology Review. Manufacturing companies shoulder about two-thirds of all corporate R&D and file the most patents. So, supporting continued growth of factories is strategically important, especially within the U.S.
According to Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “Factories may yield beneficial ‘spillovers’ of knowledge that improve the broader economy. Within this administration there’s been a reframing. The folks on the inner circles of the White House now are strikingly sympathetic to manufacturing and see it as critical. ”
With miniaturization, researchers hope to solve some of humanity’s biggest problems. Brilliant new breakthroughs from the world’s most respected research institutions promise longer, healthier lives, cleaner energy that will power everything from autonomous vehicles to space craft and everything in between. But without advanced manufacturing, this research will not find its way to consumers. Advanced manufacturing brings research to life, finding ways to fabricate at scale, minimizing costs, and leveraging massive engineering expertise. It may even energize a struggling global economy.