Four Trends: Nanotechnology and 3D Printing

Last week I discussed the Robotics Revolution as one of four technology trends identified by Erik Peterson, of A.T. Kearney. Two trends that I may discuss in the future are:

  • Big data and hyper-computing, focused on Sequia, the world’s fastest supercomputer.
  • Biotech, including the fruits of the Human Genome Project.

This week I will address nanotechnology and 3D printing.

Futurist Christopher Barnatt explains that nanotechnology manipulates matter at the near-atomic scale.  Nanotechnology may involve processes that are either “bottom-up” or “top-down.”

“Bottom-up” nanotechnology refers to construction at the atomic level. It may involve future “nanobots” assembling new products at the atomic scale, “and potentially turning one material into another, self-replicating, or being injected into the human body to repair damage and target disease at the cellular level.”

At present, “Top-down” nanotechnology is more prevalent. It involves atomic-precision manufacturing using more conventional “large scale” production processes such as those used in making microprocessors. According to Erik Peterson, traditional manufacturing has been subtractive.  Raw materials are subjected to processes that use a portion of the materials, leaving behind waste.  Nanotechnology has the potential to make manufacturing additive, at the molecular or even the atomic level.  “The term additive manufacturing refers to the way 3D structures are built layering very thin materials.” 

Christopher Barnatt describes 3D printing:

3D printers create real, solid objects from digital data by building them up in layers. The first 3D printer was created in 1984, and since that time various 3D printing technologies have been used in industry to create rapid prototypes and mould masters. However, today 3D printers are also starting to be used in the direct digital manufacturing (DDM) of end-use components and final products.

Possible uses of 3D printers include nanofactories printing three-dimensional solid objects from plastics and even molecules for a universal chemistry set.

One of the challenges has been how long it takes to print an object, but researchers at the Vienna University of Technology recently announced a major breakthrough in speeding up this printing technique.

Disney recently brought attention to 3D printing, announcing that it would use 3D printing in the lighting of some of its toys.


The Verge describes Disney’s innovations as follows:

A group of engineers at Disney Research in Pittsburgh has demonstrated a range of new 3D printing techniques, allowing for the integration of elements such as displays and sensors into cheap, printed objects. The new approach takes advantage of recent developments in the types of materials that can be employed in 3D printing, focusing in particular on “high resolution transparent plastics with similar optical properties to plexiglas.”

According to BBC News:

The engineers used computer software to make objects which included innovative lighting elements. They explained that creating the toys on 3D printers allowed them to create a real-world prototype within minutes, rather than having to wait for a factory to be retooled.

Check out a Disney video that highlights Disney’s pioneering work.  In addition, the images below illustrate Disney’s work in the area.

In the example below, illuminated hollow tubes look like a beating heart.

Light pipes enable the eyes of the toy figure below to express different emotions.

In another example, the engineers built “light pipes” into the interior of chess pieces as a 3D-printed alternative to optical fiber.

So what makes Erik Peterson believe that nanotechnology in general, and in particular 3D printing and other “top down” processes will have a significant economic impact?  For one thing, it’s happening already. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, reports there are already over 1,000 “manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market.” These include plasma screens with their glass strengthened with carbon nanotubes, tougher car paints, improved golf clubs, more effective sun creams, and OLED displays and longer-lasting batteries for mobile phones. The size of the nanotechnology manufacturing market exceeds $9 billion.

Nanotechnology has also garnered the attention of the federal government.  According to Nanowerk, the Obama administration recently launched a $1 billion investment in advanced manufacturing technologies, including creating the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, with $30 million in federal funding, to focus on 3D printing.

Stay tuned …


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