A more cost-effective method of manufacturing microchips will gradually replace multi-billion-dollar foundries with table-top boxes, marking the end of the silicon era and the potential death of many factory-floor jobs, a nanotechnology expert predicted Wednesday.

Advances in 3D manufacturing

using nanotechnology are already taking place, Douglas Mulhall, author of Our Molecular Future, told an Ottawa audience during a morning presentation entitled “”How Nanotechnology is Transforming Ottawa’s IT Horizon.””

“”We now see hundreds of companies around the world manufacturing products by printing them three dimensionally. It looks like this technology will become as common as bubble-jet printing technology is now.””

Bubble-jet printing occurs at billionths of a metre — every page has literally tens of millions of ink drops on it, said Mulhall. When the same concept is applied to the manufacturing process using nanotechnology as a catalyst, it “”allows us to accurately translate CAD drawings, for example, into something (tangible) . . . that actually functions.””

A key example of this ability is the printing of microchips, he said. “”We’re already printing chips on a board in a box. So you can imagine the disruptive influence if you replace a $4-billion factory with boxes that sit on a table-top and cost anywhere from $75,000 to $750,000.””

Such boxes are already being used to manufacture some types of programmable chips, surgical models, and car parts, resulting in “”tremendous cost-savings”” for those that are taking advantage, said Mulhall.

But with any automation effort comes the destruction of jobs, he added. While the obvious hope is that new jobs will be created during the mainstream introduction of nanotechnology, Mulhall said, the over-arching question is: Will these jobs be created in India and China instead of North America?

“”Nanotechnology is breaking out all over the planet. So it’s not a case of the rich western world going into these other countries. South Korea, India and China are leaders in the nanotechnology field and they’re the ones that Canadians have to compete against.””

Jay Myers, chief economist of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, agreed that “”nanotechnology is a huge disruptive technology that will replace the existing manufacturing process.

“”I think companies will have to adapt to the challenges and the opportunities,”” he said, adding North American companies cannot afford to be complacent about the outsourcing of local design and engineering jobs to Asia. “”But we have some time to go. People just don’t jump into a new technology. It has to be proven . . . and it has to be at a stage where the value of the product produced by it is better than what the existing technology can deliver.””

Myers said there aren’t a lot of manufacturers jumping into nanotechnology because the upfront costs can be pretty steep. “”But when the cost and risk of using it is manageable, then you will see nanotechnology . . . really become more prominent.””

For Mulhall, the business model of top-down nanotechnology – using big machines to produce smaller ones – has already been proven. In the next 15 to 20 years, bottom-up nanotech will result in molecular assembly, where atoms on top of atoms are used to build machines that then build other machines, he said. This ability, combined with the rise of artificially intelligent software, will “”radically transform”” the economy and prompt national governments to “”completely revise their entire legislative and economic structure,”” said Mulhall.

Soon to come will be the end of the silicon era, marked by a move to alternatives such as diamonds, he added. Silicon runs too hot for the “”tremendous increase in (production) speeds that we’ll start to see””, he said. “”Diamonds can run 100 times faster at a tenth of the heat. And there’s a quantum leap in the capability of diamond materials to carry signals compared to silicon.””

Possible barriers to the development of nanotechnology include pollution from nano-scale materials, which could have a deleterious impact on the environment, said Mulhall. If you have these products slipping into the environment in the trillions, they could physically enter humans, he said, adding any regulatory measures could slow future R&D and commercialization efforts.

But the environmental impact of any mass release of nano-particles is still unknown, said Mulhall.

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