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SME Speaks: Nanotechnology and Manufacturing






By James R. Von Ehr, II
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Zyvex Corp.
Richardson, TX 

Four years ago, words like "impossible," "futuristic," and "science fiction" filled discussions about nanotechnology. Since the announcement of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, though, worldwide investment in nano research and development has raced forward, with $8 billion invested in 2004 alone. That kind of growth has leaders at major companies sitting up and taking notice of a technology that can help them develop enviable market positions.

The US National Science Foundation forecasts that nanotechnology could become a trillion dollar per year business by 2015, with advanced materials alone making up $340 billion of that figure. And there is no doubt that nanotechnology will soon change the way we manufacture. We hope you'll want to reap the benefits. Numerous industries--including automotive, aerospace/defense, cosmetics, clothing, computers, sporting goods, and pharmaceutical--are already using the technology to improve their products.

Nanotechnology is defined as the ability to control matter at the atomic or molecular scale of one to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, about the size of a large molecule. To provide you with some perspective, a virus is about 100 nanometers long and a bacterium is ten times bigger; a human cell about ten times larger than that. Advanced nanomanufacturing requires precise control of materials and structures from the nanoscale all the way up to the macroscopic scale.  

Nanoscale materials can exhibit superior and even unexpected properties. Partially a result of the atomic perfection possible at small scales, and partially due to nanoscale quantum effects, nanomaterials can be far stronger than their bulk constituents. Natural nanostructured materials like wood and seashells are thousands of times tougher than their raw materials. They go far beyond the chemistry of simple self-assembly, and are actively constructed out of molecular building blocks by the biological machines in the cells. For that reason, synthetic nanostructured materials should perform even better. Steel is one example of an early manmade nanocomposite material with better performance than its primary components of iron, carbon, and manganese.

Soon we'll be engineering far better materials.

Nanotechnology's champion material so far is the carbon nanotube. Discovered in 1991, these little tubes of carbon measure about one nanometer in diameter. They can be 100 times stronger than steel, can conduct heat better than any other material, and can be excellent electrical conductors, or semiconductors even better than silicon. Sensors made with nanotubes can be thousands of times more sensitive than bulk-scale sensors, and researchers are designing multifunctional materials that combine the properties of strength, sensing, and actuation.


Some companies are already moving nanomaterials into real products. Samsung is producing prototype computer displays using nanotubes as electron emitters. Eikos uses thin films of nanotubes to create an electrically conducting, but transparent, coating on glass to replace the industry-standard ITO film. You may have already hit a Wilson tennis ball containing nanocomposite clay for more bounce and a longer life, ridden an Easton bicycle made tougher and lighter by nanotubes, used a Kodak digital camera featuring a brighter, more power-efficient display built from carbon-based molecules, or worn stain and wrinkle-resistant Eddie Bauer khaki "nanopants" to work.

Even simple nanomaterials such as bulk nanopowders are finding markets. Nanoscale titanium dioxide decomposes most organic material when ultraviolet light falls on it. Several firms use this to create self-cleaning paint and glass products. Nanoscale aluminum oxide coatings on eyeglasses make their surfaces as hard as sapphire without affecting transparency.   

These examples of "bottom-up" nanotechnology rely on molecular interactions to self-assemble structures at larger scales. As simple applications of advanced materials, they are just the beginning.

Developing "top-down" systems that build smaller and smaller systems, down to the molecular scale, will eventually enable us to use software to precisely control the positioning of chemical building blocks. Massively parallel nanomanufacturing systems will allow us to engineer and build extremely complex and highly functional materials, and devices, with atomic precision.

New materials and new ways of putting them together will be nanotechnology's next big success stories.

While today, we cast, grind, mill, etch, and cut to move large chunks of atoms at once, nanomanufacturing will ultimately enable us to:

  • Build products with essentially every atom in its designed location,
  • Make almost any stable structure consistent with the laws of physics,
  • Do this at a manufacturing cost near that of the required raw materials and energy.

There is no doubt that whatever you are manufacturing now will be touched by nanotechnology in the next five years. Making things better, faster, and cheaper is industry's constant goal, and nanotechnology can help manufacturers surpass competitors who aren't paying attention.    


SME and ASU Offer Six Sigma Certification               

Through a special agreement with Arizona State University (ASU; Tempe, AZ) and Mikel J. Harry of the Six Sigma Management Institute (SSMI), SME is bringing a new generation of Six Sigma training and certification to manufacturing professionals worldwide--affordably. This new Six Sigma curriculum, "Generation III," is based on more than 20 years of Harry's research, and SME's role supporting the program demonstrates the Society's commitment to helping manufacturers increase quality, reduce costs and, overall, gain a competitive edge.

The agreement brings three powerful Six Sigma players together to benefit developing and experienced Six Sigma professionals, and standardizes Six Sigma Generation III assessment, training, qualification, and certification of practitioners at the same time. The Six Sigma Management Institute is a leading consulting and training venture associated with the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering at ASU. Harry, who was distinguished by ASU with the 2002 Engineering Excellence Award for achievements in the engineering profession and notable contributions to society, is president and co-founder of the Six Sigma Management Institute and has been widely recognized and cited in many publications as the principal architect of--and world's leading authority on--Six Sigma. SME, in its role in providing manufacturing education resources to professionals at every level of their careers, delivers Six Sigma training and information through technical papers, newsletters, videos, and books, seeking to help individuals, as well as companies, advance their capabilities when it comes to implementing this critical methodology in their careers and businesses.

Visit to learn more about the program, to join SME, and to take advantage of the program's SME-members-only benefits: reduced pricing on integrated offerings for training, assessment and Six Sigma Generation III certification, and membership in the prestigious Six Sigma Global Registry.


This article was first published in the February 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.


Published Date : 2/1/2005

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