extremely high performance of the products of molecular
manufacturing will make the technology transformative—but
it is the potential for fast development that will make
it truly disruptive. If it took decades of research to
produce breakthrough products, we would have time to adjust.
But if breakthrough products can be developed quickly,
their effects can pile up too quickly to allow wise policymaking
or adjustment. As if that weren't bad enough, the anticipation
of rapid development could cause additional problems.
quick is “quickly?”
Given a programmable factory that can make a product from
its design file in a few hours, a designer could create a
newly improved version every day. Today, building prototypes
of a product can take weeks, so designers have to take extra
time to double-check their work. If building a prototype
takes less than a day, it will often be more efficient to
build and test the product rather than taking time to double-check
the theoretical design. (Of course, if taken to extremes,
this can encourage sloppy work that costs more time to fix
in the long run.)
In addition to being faster, prototyping also would be far
cheaper. A nanofactory would go through the same automated
operations for a single prototype copy as for a production
run, so the prototype should cost no more per unit than the
final product. That's quite a contrast with today, where
rapid prototyping can cost thousands of dollars per component.
And it means that destructive testing will be far less painful.
Let's take an example.
a research rocket might cost hundreds of dollars to fuel,
but hundreds of thousands to build. At that rate, tests
must be held to a minimum number, and expensive and time
consuming efforts must be made to eliminate all possible
sources of failure and gather as much data as possible
from each test. But if the rocket cost only hundreds of
dollars to build—if a test flight cost less than $1000, not counting
support infrastructure—then tests could be run as often
as convenient, requiring far less support infrastructure,
saving costs there as well. The savings ripple out: with
less at stake in every test, designers could use more advanced
and less well-proved technologies, some of which would
fail but others of which would increase performance. Not only would the product be
developed faster, but it also would be more advanced, and
have a lot more testing.
equivalence between prototype and production manufacturing
has an additional benefit. Today, products must be designed
for two different manufacturing processes—prototyping and
scaled-up production. Ramping up production has its own costs,
such as rearranging production lines and training workers.
But with direct-from-blueprint building, there would be no
need to keep two designs in mind, and also no need to expend
time and money ramping up production. When a design was finalized,
it could immediately be shipped to as many nanofactories
as desired, to be built efficiently and almost immediately.
(For those just joining us, the reason nanofactories aren't
scarce is that a nanofactory would be able to build another
nanofactory on command, needing only data and supplies of
a few refined chemicals.) A product design isn't really proved
until people buy it, and rolling out a new product is expensive
and risky today—after manufacture, the product must be
shipped and stored in quantity, waiting for people to buy
it. With last-minute nanofactory manufacturing, the product
rollout cost could be much lower, reducing the overhead
and risk of market-testing new ideas.
There are several other technical reasons why products could
be easier to design. Today's products are often crammed full
of functionality, causing severe headaches for designers
trying to make one more thing fit inside the package. Anyone
who's looked under the hood of a 1960 station wagon and compared
it with a modern car's engine, or studied the way chips and
wires are packed into every last nook and cranny of a cell
phone, knows how crowded products can get. But molecular manufactured products
will be many orders of magnitude more compact; this is true
for sensors, actuators, data processing, energy transformation,
and even physical structure. What this means is that any
human-scale product will be almost entirely empty space.
Designers will be able to include functions without worrying
much about where they will physically fit into the product.
This ability to focus on function will simplify the designer's task.
The high performance of molecularly precise nanosystems
also means that designers can afford to waste a fair amount
of performance in order to simplify the design. For example,
instead of using a different size of motor for every different-sized
task, designers might choose from only two or three standard
sizes that might differ from each other by an order of magnitude
or more. In today's products, using a thousand-watt motor
to do a hundred-watt motor's job would be costly, heavy,
bulky, and probably an inefficient use of energy besides.
But nano-built motors have been calculated to be at least
a million times as powerful. That thousand-watt motor would
shrink to the size of a grain of sand. Running it at low
power would not hurt its efficiency, and it wouldn't be in danger
It wouldn't cost significantly more to build than a carefully-sized
hundred-watt motor. And at that size, it could be placed
wherever in the product was most convenient for the designer.
potential advantage of having more performance than needed
is that design can be performed in stages. Instead of planning
an entire product at once, integrated from top to bottom,
designers could cobble together a product from a menu of
lower-level solutions that were already designed and understood.
For example, instead of a complicated system with lots
of custom hardware to be individually specified, designers
could find off-the-shelf modules that had more features
than required, string them together, and tweak their specifications
or programming to configure their functionality to the
needed product—leaving a lot of other functionality
unused. Like the larger-than-necessary motor, this approach
would include a lot of extra stuff that was put in simply
to save the designer's time; however, including all that
extra stuff would cost almost nothing. This approach
is used today in computers. A modern computer spends
at least 99% of its time and energy on retroactively
saving time for its designers. In other words, the design
is horrendously inefficient, but because computer hardware
is so extremely fast, it's better to use trillions of
extra calculations than to pay the designer even $10
to spend time on making the program more efficient. A
modern personal computer does trillions of calculations
in a fraction of an hour.
design depends on predictable modules—things that
work exactly as expected, at least within the range of
conditions they are used in. This is certainly true in computers.
It will also be true in molecular manufacturing, thanks to
the digital nature of covalent bonds. Each copy of a design
that has the same bond patterns between the atoms will have
identical behavior. What this means is that once a modular
design is characterized, designers can be quite confident
that all subsequent copies of the design will be identical
and predictable. (Advanced readers will note that isotopes
can make a difference in a few cases, but isotope number
is also discrete and isotopes can be sorted fairly easily
as necessary to build sensitive designs. And although radiation
damage can wipe out a module, straightforward redundancy
algorithms can take care of that problem.)
With all these advantages, development of nano-built products,
at least to the point of competing with today's products,
appears to be easier in some important ways than was development
of today's products. It's worth spending some thought on
the implications of that.
if the military could test-fire a new missile or rocket
every day until they got it right? How fast would the strategic
balance of power shift, and what is the chance that the
mere possibility of such a shift could lead to pre-emptive
military strikes? What if doctors could build new implanted
sensor arrays as fast as they could find things to monitor,
and then use the results to track the effects of experimental
treatments (also nano-built rapid-prototyped technology)
before they had a chance to cause serious injury?
this enable doctors to be more aggressive—and simultaneously
safer—in developing new lifesaving treatments? If new versions
of popular consumer products came out every month—or even
every week—and consumers were urged to trade up at every
opportunity, what are the environmental implications?
What if an arms race developed between nations, or between
police and criminals? What if products of high personal desirability
and low social desirability were being created right and
left, too quickly for society to respond? A technical essay
is not the best place to get into these questions, but these
issues and more are directly raised by the possibility that
molecular manufacturing nanofactories will open the door
to true rapid prototyping.