Why The Future Of Manufacturing Could Be Green Goo And Microscopic Bots
Technologies like 3D printing and augmented reality are creating a wave of disruption in the manufacturing industry. Further into the future, bio-manufacturing and nanotechnology await, ready to change manufacturing from the ground up.
The reason is, simply, stuff. Manufacturing, boiled down to a fine sauce, is about putting stuff together. The quality and abilities of the different materials rely on what elements you use and how you combine them. Nanotechnology, including nanobots, and bio-manufacturing have the potential to alter how we produce materials and combine them into parts and/or products.
The shift would be so profound that some have likened it to the emergence of plastics, semiconductors or even electricity.
Small stuff with a huge impact
Nanotechnology mainly relies on chemical reactions, while bio-manufacturing uses plants and/or other kinds of biological matter (sometimes genetically modified). Both aim to control and manipulate the creation of materials down to the atomic/molecular level. Manipulating matter at such a minute scale makes it possible to create materials with unique physical, chemical or biological properties. For example, some materials will be able to conduct electricity or heat better than anything we know today. Others will be incredibly sturdy, and others again enable more efficient chemical reactions.
While it sounds like manufacturing processes from science fiction, they are very real. Nanocomposites are used in various products, and pharmaceutical companies use bio-manufacturing processes in their production lines.
However, the full impact of these technologies is still some ways off. In the future, they will enhance products ranging from sunscreen to jet engines. They will provide the key to unlocking advances in material performance, longevity for products and boost efficiency in almost all industries, including the likes of construction, electronics, energy, transportation - and manufacturing.
The world of tiny tech and microbots
The scale of nanotechnology is measured in nanometres - a billionth of a meter. For comparison, an average newspaper page is 100,000 nanometres thick. The industry is expected to grow at 16.9 CAGR and reach $12.83 billion by 2021.
That is just the beginning, though. As mentioned earlier, nanotechnology already has a vast variety of possible applications. As the technology develops, the ways it can be employed will continue to grow. Little wonder, then, that the U.S. Government has spent more than $22 billion on researching it.
Nanobots looks like particularly promising. Some nanobots are self-replicating, other capable of combining into structures and others again work like tiny construction robots. Due to their size, it would take literally millions of them to build something like a car engine. However, you would then have control over the manufacturing process on a molecular level.
At a larger scale, a project run by the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard illustrates how such a construction project would look. The group’s four-wheeled construction robots work in unison and can erect walls by picking up bricks, climbing a wall and laying the bricks. They work similarly to termites. No-one controls them. Instead, they are programmed to work in unison to build a specified design.
The possible applications for such robots are endless and especially useful in connection with construction or manufacturing on a scale where other technologies struggle or in high-risk environments.
Turning on biology’s machines
The use of biology to manufacture new materials and create new abilities is attracting a lot of funding. Pharmaceuticals are using bio-manufacturing to create chemical compounds and medicinal solutions that are difficult and/or expensive to create in other ways. Further afield (pardon the pun), Bayer has invested in technology that aims to programme crops to make them fertilise themselves.
Bio-manufacturing is making strong progress with emerging solutions aimed far beyond pharmaceuticals. U.S. company Zymergen is a good example of this. The company makes new polymers with bio-processes, using genetically engineered microbes. In a recent interview with Plastics News, president of Zymergen’s product business, Richard Pieters, opened up about how the company sees the future for itself as its first product is about to go commercial.
"For example, there are companies trying to make scratch-resistant cell phone screens that are also flexible. You need a new polymer to do that," Pieters said, adding that: "There are thousands of opportunities. We have quite a pipeline of products in development."
Without getting specific, he mentioned areas like electric vehicles, consumer electronics and military products.
Ginko Bioworks illustrates just how excited Silicon Valley is about bio-manufacturing. The biotech startup uses similar technology to Zymergen and makes organisms produce different kinds of fragrances. It has just reached the land of unicorns with a $1 billion valuation.