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Serious Science: nanotechnology to kill the “upgrade cycle”?

The advent of nanotechnology will change almost every visible and invisible part of our lives — from the way we treat illnesses to how we manufacture products. Soon, the “obsolete component” itself will be obsolete…

The advent of nanotechnology will change almost every visible and invisible part of our lives — from the way we treat illnesses to how we manufacture products. Soon, the “obsolete component” itself will be obsolete…

During the melee of success I enjoyed with my Star Trek article recently, Tristan Hambling of Knowledge Universe kindly pointed out that I’d forgot to include “replicator” technology.

I hadn’t forgotten, I just couldn’t find anything of substance at the time of writing.

“Replicators” in the real world

We already have devices similar to Star Trek replicators, which are machines that make use of stereolithography:

“Stereolithography, also known as 3-D layering or 3-D printing, allows you to create solid, plastic, three-dimensional (3-D) objects from CAD drawings in a matter of hours. Whether you are a mechanical engineer wanting to verify the fit of a part or an inventor looking to create a plastic prototype of an invention, stereolithography gives you a fast, easy way to turn CAD drawings into real objects.”

As advanced as stereolithography is, it’s still pretty crude when compared to the replicator technology of science fiction.

Still in the world of science fiction, but with an eye on becoming science fact, K. Eric Drexler, graduate of MIT and father of molecular nanotechnology first proposed the idea of replicator technology back in the 1970s.

So the ideas surrounding nanotechnology were both well founded and thoroughly researched before I was even born.

A future of micro-manufacturing

Thanks to Tristan, my article enjoyed some added value from his comment, which highlighted just where current thinking is regarding nanotechnology.

Specifically, he shared a video of a 3D animated illustration of nanoscale factories “growing” a sophisticated portable computer, layer by layer. A device broadly analogous to a Star Trek replicator.

However, in the Star Trek universe, we really only see the replicators used for materializing cups of green tea at a specific temperature, or the odd lime & lemon sorbet.

In our world, I have a feeling such devices would find themselves being employed to produce objects far less mundane.

Rather than producing individual “one off” items, manufacturers would be looking towards mass production.

The social cost of nanotechnology

Of course, the human impact would be significant, certainly in the developed world.

At the outset, because of the high cost of the technology, nanotech’ replicators would be confined to extreme precision tooling, micro-electronics, as well as medical and military grade products.

The process would be time consuming and relatively crude, in that rather than producing whole products, we’d still be producing individual parts, or collections of small parts, but enjoying the increase in precision and accuracy inherent to nanoscale micro-manufacturing.

Over time, the production methods would become more sophisticated, more complex and much faster. Other companies would enter into the market, driving the costs down, lowering the cost of entry to other industries.

Soon afterwards, the number of people working in factories in industries like computer, home electronics and even the automotive sector would dwindle to that of token supervisory roles, ensuring the micro-manufacturing machines themselves are running error-free.

Nanotechnology to help the environment?

The advantages to nanoscale mass production are many, such as a huge increase in precision and accuracy, which in itself means stronger, more reliable, flaw-free materials.

Also, because none of the constituent parts need to be created, there is no material wastage, no chemical by-products, no wasted parts or excess parts in inventory, no damaged parts & materials and practically zero impact on the environment.

For such factories to function, all that is needed is the nanoscale micro factories themselves, an ample supply of raw chemicals, energy and a little time.

Looking ahead, recycling products could also be totally revolutionized, too.

Instead of employing expensive techniques to strip unwanted products down into their constituent parts and raw materials, why not simply put them back through the very same process that brought them into being in the first place?

In the same layer by layer process, the product would be disassembled on the molecular level, each element of copper, silicon, varying types and grades of plastic and rubber, steel, glass and other additives would be meticulously carried away, sorted, graded and reduced into a solution to be used over and over again.

The obsolescence of the obsolete component

So you bought into the HD DVD idea, right? How’s that working out for you? Probably not too well. Before it’s even a standard, it’s obsolete.

Maybe you bought an Apple MacBook Pro like me. Now there’s new, faster models out. You’re no longer part of the in crowd. You’re yesterdays news .. just like me!

And for what? Have you ever considered what proportion of the device you just bought is actually considered as being obsolete?

You should, because it’s about 2-5% of its total mass. Which begs the obvious question: could nanotechnology make the obsolete component obsolete?

But what is the obsolete component?

It’s not in the interests of any manufacturer to supply you with something that will meet your current and future needs indefinitely. If they did that, you probably wouldn’t need to buy from them again!

Indeed, building something to be “future proof” would require an extraordinary level of effort — increasing parts and production costs considerably.

So they build their stuff to be sufficient for 1-3 years, tops. Beyond that, you need to upgrade.

In the world of computer electronics, the principle component that’s closely analogous to the obsolete component is the CPU (Central Processing Unit), the microprocessor.

This is at the heart of a computer — most if not all of the heavy processing is done here.

As video games become more sophisticated with the never-ending increase in the quality and realism of sound and visuals, computers need to be able to meet those needs.

Bridging both issues of environmental damage and the obsolete component, I’ll hand over to David Bradley of Sciencebase:

“If the creation of new products is part of the problem rather than the solution to sustainability in a world of climate change, overburdened landfills and dwindling supplies of inexpensive mineral resources, then does the designer have a role if consumerist society were to desist from its quest for novelty?”

I think these issues go someway beyond the designer and right into the heart of the manufacturing process itself.

Yes, people will always want that next great cool gadget, but novel enclosures and materials could ease the burden.

Beyond the upgrade cycle

So in our future world driven by nanotechnology, a world more environmentally aware than the one before, could certain products like computers contain self-organizing nanoscale factories and nanobots, capable of repurposing the microprocessor and other key components, to make them faster or more efficient?

I’d like to think so. And it’s not just a case of avoiding upgrade hell, but a legitimate way of using one type of computer to work on tasks that it might not ordinarily be equipped to deal with.

Certain tasks involving such things as the analysis of atomic explosions, the study of chemical reactions, or even rendering complex video games, require very different types of calculations, which no one computer can deal with collectively as efficiently as a computer specifically designed for that one task.

Now imagine your MacBook Pro of 2035, capable of performing base pair analysis on the DNA of a fruit fly one minute and hammering out the pixels & vectors in Halo Universe the next.

All possible because the quantum processor in your computer is actively rearranging atoms and circuits faster than you can kill Covenant enemy or sort nucleotides.

Our ability to harness the true power of nanotechnology will prove to be an inflection point in our technological evolution.

How our world will look on the side of this technological revolution is anyone’s guess. But with nanotechnology at our disposal, our world might just look however we want it to…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

2 replies on “Serious Science: nanotechnology to kill the “upgrade cycle”?”

I’ve seen examples of using stereo lithography in movies but it would be a great tool for animators and 3d modellers to be able to produce something on the computer and have it created as a physical sculpture. Exciting stuff.



I think Pixar and Disney may actually have stereo lithographic apparatus at their disposal for various toy and character development projects. I’m looking for a link / citation for that. Stay tuned!

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