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Monthly Archives: March 2014

From 3D Printers to ‘Nanofactories’: A branch of technology with revolutionary potential

From 3D Printers To Nanofactories tom hook

3D printers are becoming more and more widely used, with the inherent technology being developed persistently and rapidly. These devices already have practical purposes, even with their use still in its early stages. How conceivable is it that the technological capacity of 3D printers will increase to the atomic level, with their owner able to build literally anything (including food)? It’s practically a certainty, according to those at the forefront of nanotechnology. What’s more, these ‘nanofactories’ will be in every home, affordable for everyone. If true, this will make each household completely self-sufficient, turning modern society on its head.


Nanotechnologies are already able to achieve astounding feats. Lockheed Martin, for example, have developed a membrane just one atom thick, which can be used to desalinise and purify sea water, potentially solving the global drought problem. Nanotechnology’s potential is also being steadily unlocked for use in pharmaceuticals, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it vastly increases the effectiveness of drugs in the fight against superbugs, and their growing resistance to antibiotics.


The commercial prospects of 3D printing are also progressing rapidly. Asda, for example, have recently toured the UK offering a 3D scanning and printing service, allowing customers to make a model-sized ceramic replica of themselves. Websites are also cropping up which now operate almost in an Amazon style, where customers can browse objects, such as mobile phone cases and, instead of having the item delivered, can instantly download the 3D design and print it on their household 3D printer.


Combining 3D printing principles with more complex technology is already being explored, as bioengineers are now using living cells in the printing of functional liver segments. With the ability to 3D-print whole, functioning organs seemingly not too far away, it’s clear that the commercial potential of this technology will expand far beyond building your own mobile phone case.


The possibilities, according to Broadcaster and Technology Commentator James Burke, are limitless. He recently predicted that in 40 years, everyone will have their own nanofactory (an atomic-level 3D printer), and we will be able to produce anything we could ever want, including food, for free. This, he explains, is because the ingredients soil and water atomically provide everything needed to build any physical object (provided you have electricity and some acetylene gas). Houmous, a t-shirt, crockery; anything you want, this technology can create from almost nothing – a concept identical to Star Trek’s on-board Replicator, but this time non-fiction.


The ability to personally produce our own goods, according to Burke, will abolish the need for money, as the population will be totally self-sufficient. If people no longer need money to make purchases, they won’t have to work in order to earn money. This would bring about total economic collapse and, Burke argues, the abolition of government (as the main purpose of the state is to ensure appropriate redistribution of wealth, which will no longer be needed).


Burke’s claims also include the gradual disappearance of cities, as the only need for people to live in large collectives now is to be near their place of work, or source of food (i.e. shops). He says that people can choose to live self-sufficiently anywhere they want (including in the most idyllic and remote locations in the world), and will most likely spread out to live as individuals, or in simplistic medieval-style communes, as opposed to built-up cities.


Overall, the most important change is that resources will no longer be scarce, as the world will literally be able to create as much ‘stuff’ as it desires. Perhaps the most vital result will be that the problems of the one in eight people in the world currently suffering chronic undernourishment will disappear.


The time and cost it will take to get the technology to this point, however, will be enormous, and the only way that traditional food sourcing and manufacturing techniques will be abandoned is if they are more expensive than nano-production. It’s impossible to say if enough funding will be focussed on making this happen. What is clear is that technology companies can’t invest in this without the prospect of financial return at the other end. This means that nanofactory equipment will be prohibitively expensive to customers. On top of this, there will be a need for the design of complex software and atomic-level ‘blueprints’ for the catalogue of physical objects that customers will produce.


Because of the gradual development of the technology, and the costs this brings to developers, customers will need to be charged for using these devices. The scientists designing these complex product blueprints won’t work for free, so to pay for their efforts, developers will most likely need to charge customers in order to download the designs to their nanofactories. Whether this charge will be one-off for the design (and then unlimited printing), or for every single print of the design, depends on the company. With the extensive development cost and infinitely higher earning potential, it’s likely to be the latter. So every time a customer wants to print, say, an apple, they’ll have to pay.


Once this charging model becomes the norm (which isn’t too far away from the current websites where customers buy and download mobile phone case designs), it’s hard to see how it could suddenly change and become free to use. The need for money would therefore always be with us, it will just be used in a different way. In effect, we’ll all have vending machines in our homes, capable of dispensing anything we like.


Of course, with the fierce competition to provide customers with this service, it’s possible that companies will find a way to offer lower and lower prices. A ‘free’ option may even emerge, similar to Linux, with open source software and the molecular blueprints becoming widely available for nothing; all you need to buy is the hardware. This would be a game-changer, and Burke’s vision of a totally self-sufficient life seems more likely, without the need for money.


Whichever way this plays out, it’s clear the technology will change society in some way. Whether we have to pay for the things we print with our nanofactories or not, the delivery of products could easily transform to being electronic, rather than physical. The same thing that happened to music (i.e. the transition from vinyl or CD purchase, to downloads), could therefore happen to every other physical thing that we could imagine wanting.


It’s impossible to know how the world will develop in light of this technology, but it is likely to transform into something unrecognisable to us, particularly with the near disappearance of the manufacturing and retail industry. These areas would come under the umbrella of ‘IT’, as a wealth of IT products and services will be needed to support the nanofactory’s function. The IT industry would therefore grow exponentially and will be relied upon for the delivery of food and supplies. The world of IT has always explored and realised astounding achievements in the past, but with the possibility of solving world hunger and allowing the public to be entirely self-sufficient, it could be the cause of an unprecedented period of transition.


For a Radio 4 interview with James Burke discussing his predictions for the nanofactory, click here:

Author: Tom Hook


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