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Fast Development of Molecular Manufacturing Products

 

The 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.

How 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.

Today, 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.

 

The 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 of overheating.

 

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.

 

Another 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.

 

Modular 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.

 

What 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?

 

Would 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.

 

Chris has studied nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing for more than a decade. After successful careers in software engineering and dyslexia correction, Chris co-founded the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology in 2002, where he is Director of Research. Chris holds an MS in Computer Science from Stanford University.

Copyright © 2004-2005 Chris Phoenix

 


The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology(TM) (CRN) is an affiliate of World Care(R), an international, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization. All donations to CRN are handled through World Care. The opinions expressed by CRN do not necessarily reflect those of World Care

 

 

The contents of this page, including the views expressed above, are the responsibility of the author. They do not represent the views or policies of Nano Tsunami Dot Com, except where explicitly stated.

 

 

Chris Phoenix

CRN Director of Research

 

 
 


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