Business, academia prepare for the age of nanomanufacturing

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April 30, 2003 — When scores of business and academic researchers convened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently, they agreed on one point: All those nanoscale sketches on the white board look promising. But this meeting tried to answer nanotech’s more vexing question: “Now that we know what we want to build, how do we actually build it?”

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In what organizers said was the first-ever symposium on nanomanufacturing, an estimated 80 researchers from around the world gathered at MIT to discuss the challenges in making nanotech dreams a reality. From dissecting technological obstacles to gauging the real business need for nanoscale products, the group wanted to develop a firmer understanding of where nanotech should go in the immediate future.

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“A lot of people can make really small squares,” said Richard Weiss, technical director of the microreplication lab at 3M Co. and a speaker at the event. “Making it by the square mile is much harder.”

Bob Doering, a senior fellow at Texas Instruments (TI), said it is now critical for businesses like his to tell nanotech researchers where they plan to be in 2010 or 2015 so researchers can start delivering proven nanoscale manufacturing processes “just about the time it really gets tough to extend our existing techniques any further.”

Without industry-university collaboration, Doering warned, researchers might develop a technology with few practical applications or one that cannot deliver more cost-effective products than traditional chips.

“Lots of university people are working on it. … My goal is to tell them where their targets should be,” he said in an interview before the symposium.

One force working in nanotech’s favor is the deep pre-existing knowledge about semiconductor manufacturing, which will give scientists a huge leg up as they develop nanomanufacturing. (Unlike semiconductors, which were a revolutionary advance at the time.)

Doering calls the line between nanoscale manufacturing and current chip-making techniques “pretty blurry.” He expects the basic concepts for chip-making — deposit a metal on substrate, create basic patterns with photolithography, layer structures through etching — will carry over into nanoscale. “Some of these techniques will find use in almost any nanomanufacturing process,” he said.

The hardest part to replace, he believes, will be photolithography. For making intricate patterns on a small scale, “it’s hard to imagine some process other than the photolithography we use today.”

Doering is optimistic about a technique called nucleated growth, where molecules are layered on top of each other from one “seed point.” Scientists already use this process to make carbon nanotubes from metallic cones, and similar approaches using several seed points might lead to more complex structures.

An equally formidable hurdle will be developing manufacturing systems that work cost-effectively. The real threat to nanotechnology’s success, industry observers say, is not some other new technology knocking it aside, but rather existing technology getting just a bit better so that businesses and consumers stick with what they know. 

Weiss said one crucial step will be to identify nanotech’s “killer apps.” For example, 3M already dabbles in nanoscale structures for optical components, thin-film coatings and abrasives. Weiss believes the field has a bright future, but he also knows that many 3M customers are perfectly content with the products they have now.

“I get asked that all the time, ‘Why do we need to do this when it already works at the microscale?'” he said. “You’ve got to ask who really cares? Who really can’t do something any other way?” 

Holger Schlueter, director of technology at TRUMPF Inc. and another symposium speaker, stressed that equally important to new technologies are the other business functions that customers value: brand name, distribution, customer service. Inventions count, he said, “but new inventions are only 10 percent of the equation. The guy with the other 90 percent is usually more successful than the one with the invention.”

The National Science Foundation, and the research dollars it doles out through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, will be another vital player as nanomanufacturing develops. Mike Roco, head of the NNI, said the agency will spend about $22 million on various nanomanufacturing projects in fiscal 2003.

Next year’s budget is still undecided, but Roco hopes that its current funding of $221 million will jump at least 10 percent. The NNI plans to fund two nanoscale science and engineering centers next year, each worth $2.5 million to $3 million annually for five years.

“Many discoveries are moving into technology innovation,” he said, but “it’s a long way from the basic concept to economic processes on the large scale.”

TI’s Doering sees the real potential for nanoscale manufacturing another 10 or 15 years away. “Even five years would really surprise me.”


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