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Science and technology
Nanotechnology - nano-assembly, nanomaterials, nanostructuring, smart materials, claytronics
Nanoscale physical materials that can be automatically assembled into useful configurations by computer instructions could usher in a new era in manufacturing.
New nano-materials with unique properties and functions could significantly change many segments of the materials manufacturing industries, impacting on the way goods are manufactured and designed. Using a variety of electronic, mechanical, and biological techniques, nanoscale building blocks, with precisely controlled size and composition could be assembled into larger structures in a process called nanostructuring.

Nanoscale manufacturing could also enable the development of structures not previously observed in nature. It could allow us to synthesize materials by design, develop new bio-inspired materials, introduce cost-effective and scalable production techniques, and determine at the nanoscale the reasons for materials failure. Potential applications of nanoscale manufacturing include the following:

  • Manufacturing of nanostructured metals, ceramics, and polymers in exact shapes without machining
  • Improved printing brought about by nanometer-scale particles that have the best properties of both dyes and pigments
  • Nanoscale cemented and plated carbides and nanocoatings for cutting tools and for electronic, chemical, and structural applications
  • Nanofabrication on a chip with high levels of complexity and functionality


  • Proliferation of lighter, stronger programmable materials to be used in everything from construction to computing and health care
  • Advent of a new manufacturing paradigm based on small-scale molecular assembly
  • Reductions in life-cycle costs of materials due to lower failure rates
  • Emergence of innovative devices based on new principles and architectures
  • Possible decline of traditional manufacturing regions and emergence of new ones in developed and developing economies

Early Indicators:

  • Current work by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University on 'claytronics', the term they use to describe using reconfigurable nanoscale robots (claytronic atoms, or 'catoms') to form much larger-scale machines or mechanisms
  • Completion of preliminary design and modeling studies by General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of a useful self-replicating system (SRS) -- a system of kinematic cellular automata (KCA) cells that are configured as a limited implementation of a universal constructor

What to Watch:

  • IBM or Motorola announces commericial availability of self-assembled nanocrystal flash chips (both have lab prototypes now).
  • A nanomaterials research laboratory demonstrates self-assembling nanowires and a 'nanofactory' capable of building a larger version of itself.
  • A biological research laboratory demonstrates self-assembling materials, which mimic biologic growth processes.


  • Rapid development of microscale manufacturing, primarily for semconductors, during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s


  • Massive international investment in nanotechnologies


  • Carnegie Mellon University (launching of the Synthetic Reality Project [link])
  • Seldon Technologies (proposal for a water stick, filtering water with nanotubes)
  • Nanostructuring Research Group [link]
  • Intel Claytronics project [link]
  • CSIRO Australia [link]
  • UCLA Active Materials Lab [link]
  • University of Leeds, Centre for Self-Organising Molecular Systems [link]
  • University of Birmingham, Collaborative Research Network in Nanotechnology [link]
  • Oxonica (Oxford University spinout) [link]
  • Metal Nanopowders (Birmingham University spinout) [link]


  • none

  • "National Nanotechnology Initiative - The Initiative and its Implementation Plan." National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology, Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology. July 2000. (PDF file) [link]
  • Luther, Dr. Wolfgang. 2004. "International Strategy and Foresight Report on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Final Report." VDI Technologiezentrum GmbH, Future Technologies Division. March 19. (PDF file) [link]
  • Goldstein, Seth and Todd Mowry. 2004. Claytronics, Synthetic Reality, and Robotics. Carnegie Mellon University. (PDF file) [link]
  • Toth-Fejel, Tihamer. 2004. "Modeling Kinematic Cellular Automata, Final Report." NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. April 30 2004. (PDF file) [link]
  • Radhika Nadpal, MIT, Programmable Materials [link]
  • P Milani, Nanotechnology and New Materials: Trends and Industrial Opportunities, Metallurgia Italiana, 95, 1, 11-14, 2003 [link]
  • Wil McCarthy, Hacking Matter, Basic Books 2004, ISBN 0465044298 [link]
  • A K Pandey et al, Smart Materials: An Overview, SPIE Proceedings 3903, 288-297, 1999
  • "The replicator: create your own body double" by Tom Siegfried, New Scientist (Magazine issue 2503, 11th June 2005)

At A Glance:
11-20 years
How Fast:

Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.

Posted at Dec 21/2006 09:50AM:
Bleyddyn: For a much more detailed discussion of how "Manufacturing with Programmable Materials" might impact society and individuals in the future try visiting The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology at

One good example is:

Posted at Dec 21/2006 11:22AM:
Chris Phoenix (CRN's Director of Research):

A couple of clarifications:

CRN's main website is Our blog has lots of good stuff too--thanks, Bleyddyn.

This article appears to talk about a broader set of manufacturing techniques, which will start by building less advanced (though still useful/interesting) products. The "sweet spot" that CRN focuses on is the use of nanoscale tools to build more nanoscale tools by covalent synthesis. That promises a number of interesting implications including low-cost fully-automated exponential manufacturing.

Several trends are leading toward that sweet spot. CRN's timeline is pretty aggressive, but I've studied this for a decade and a half, and I believe most nanotechnologists haven't fully realized the extent to which the molecular manufacturing approach can simplify a lot of nanoscale problems.

In any case, it's not either-or, it's a continuum.

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