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Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver


Molecular Manufacturing Design Software


Nanofactories, controlled by computerized blueprints, will be able to build a vast range of high performance products. However, efficient product design will require advanced software.

Different kinds of products will require different approaches to design.
Some, such as high-performance supercomputers and advanced medical devices, will be packed with functionality and will require large amounts of research and invention. For these products, the hardest part of design will be knowing what you want to build in the first place. The ability to build test hardware rapidly and inexpensively will make it easier to do the necessary research, but that is not the focus of this essay.

There are many products that we easily could imagine and that a nanofactory easily could build if told exactly how. But as any computer programmer knows, it's not easy to tell a computer what you want it to do—it's more or less like trying to direct a blind person to cook a meal in an unfamiliar kitchen. One mistake, and the food is spilled or the stove catches fire.

Computer users have an easier time of it. To continue the analogy, if the blind person had become familiar with the kitchen, instructions could be given on the level of “Get the onions from the left-hand vegetable drawer” rather than “Move your hand two inches to your right... a bit more... pull the handle... bend down and reach forward...
farther... open the drawer... feel the round things?” It is the job of the programmer to write the low-level instructions that create appliances from obstacles.

Another advantage of modern computers, from the user's point of view, is their input devices. Instead of typing a number, a user can simply move a mouse, and a relatively simple routine can translate its motion into the desired number, and the number into the desired operation such as moving a pointer or a scroll bar.

Suppose I wanted to design a motorcycle. Today, I would have to do engineering to determine stresses and strains, and design a structure to support them. The engineering would have to take into account the materials and fasteners, which in turn would have to be designed for inexpensive assembly. But these choices would limit the material properties, perhaps requiring several iterations of design. And that's just for the frame.

Next, I would have to choose components for a suspension system, configure an engine, add an electrical system and a braking system, and mount a fuel tank. Then, I would have to design each element of the user interface, from the seat to the handgrips to the lights behind the dials on the instrument panel. Each thing the user would see or touch would have to be made attractive, and simultaneously specified in a way that could be molded or shaped. And each component would have to stay out of the way of the others: the engine would have to fit inside the frame, the fuel tank might have to be molded to avoid the cylinder heads or the battery, and the brake lines would have to be routed from the handlebars and along the frame, adding expense to the manufacturing process and complexity to the design process.

As I described in lat month’s essay, most nanofactory-built human-scale products will be mostly empty space due to the awesomely high performance of both active and passive components. It will not be necessary to worry much about keeping components out of each other's way, because the components will be so small that they can be put almost anywhere. This means that, for example, the frame can be designed without worrying where the motor will be, because the motor will be a few microns of nanoscale motors lining the axles. Rather than routing large hydraulic brake lines, it will be possible to run highly redundant microscopic signal lines controlling the calipers—or more likely, the regenerative braking functionality built into the motors.

It will not be necessary to worry about design for manufacturability.
With a planar-assembly nanofactory, almost any shape can be made as easily as any other, because the shapes are made by adding sub-micron nanoblocks to selected locations in a supported plane of the growing product. There will be less constraint on form than there is in sand casting of metals, and of course far more precision. This also means that what is built can contain functional components incorporated in the structure. Rather than building a frame and mounting other pieces later, the frame can be built with all components installed, forming a complete product. This does require functional joints between nanoblocks, but this is a small price to pay for such flexibility.

To specify functionality of a product, in many cases it will be sufficient to describe the desired functionality in the abstract without worrying about its physical implementation. If every cubic millimeter of the product contains a networked computer—which is quite possible, and may be the default—then to send a signal from point A to point B requires no more than specifying the points. Distributing energy or even transporting materials may not require much more attention: a rapidly rotating diamond shaft can transport more than a watt per square micron, and would be small enough to route automatically through almost any structure; pipes can be made significantly smaller if they are configured with continually inverting liners to reduce drag.

Thus, to design the acceleration and braking behavior of the motorcycle, it might be enough to specify the desired torque on the wheels as a function of speed, tire skidding, and brake and throttle position. A spreadsheet-like interface could calculate the necessary power and force for the motors, and from that derive the necessary axle thickness. The battery would be fairly massive, so the user would position it, but might not have to worry about the motor-battery connection, and certainly should not have to design the motor controller.

In order to include high-functionality materials such as motor arrays or stress-reporting materials, it would be necessary to start with a library of well-characterized “virtual materials” with standard functionality. This approach could significantly reduce the functional density of the virtual material compared to what would be possible with a custom-designed solution, but this would be acceptable for many applications, because functional density of nano-built equipment may be anywhere from six to eighteen orders of magnitude better than today's equipment. Virtual materials could also be used to specify material properties such as density and elasticity over a wide range, or implement active materials that changed attributes such as color or shape under software control.

Prototypes as well as consumer products could be heavily instrumented, warning of unexpected operating conditions such as excessive stress or wear on any part. Rather than careful calculations to determine the tradeoff between weight and strength, it might be better to build a first-guess model, try it on increasingly rough roads at increasingly high speeds, and measure rather than calculate the required strength.

Once some parameters had been determined, a new version could be spreadsheeted and built in an hour or so at low cost. It would be unnecessary to trade time for money by doing careful calculations to minimize the number of prototypes. Then, for a low-performance application like a motorcycle, the final product could be built ten times stronger than was thought to be necessary without sacrificing much mass or cost.

There are only a few sources of shape requirements. One is geometrical:
round things roll, flat things stack, and triangles make good trusses.
These shapes tend to be simple to specify, though some applications like fluid handling can require intricate curves. The second source of shape is compatibility with other shapes, as in a piece that must fit snugly to another piece. These shapes can frequently be input from existing databases or scanned from an existing object. A third source of shape is user preference. A look at the shapes of pen barrels, door handles, and eyeglasses shows that users are pleased by some pretty idiosyncratic shapes.

To input arbitrary shapes into the blueprint, it may be useful to have some kind of interface that implements or simulates a moldable material like clay or taffy. A blob could simply be molded or stretched into a pleasing shape. Another useful technique could be to present the designer or user with several variations on a theme, let them select the best one, and build new variations on that until a sufficiently pleasing version is produced.

Although there is more to product design than the inputs described here, this should give some flavor of how much more convenient it could be with computer-controlled rapid prototyping of complete products. Elegant computer-input devices, pervasive instrumentation and signal processing, virtual material libraries, inexpensive creation of one-off spreadsheeted prototypes, and several other techniques could make product design more like a combination of graphic arts and computer programming than the complex, slow, and expensive process it is today.


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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