The Incredibly Shrinking Plant?

Nov. 1, 2002
Miniaturization and nanotechnology for building machines are coming to the rescue as the ability to shrink silicon-based devices slows.

It's nearly 2003. According to electronics experts and Moore's law, that means we have about 12 to 14 years to go before we reach the end of engineers' ability to miniaturize silicon-based devices. Unless something changes, you may no longer see computers with ever faster processing speeds. Nor will you see computers, controls and other electronic devices with an increasing array of functions at lower prices and in smaller packages. Miniaturization has held a crucial role in the development of computing and in our ability to improve productivity. For example, in eight years, computers went from needing one hour to process a complex CAD drawing to handling the task in less than 1/3 of a second. It was the shrinking of the microprocessor chip that directly led to faster processing. It also led to microprocessor-based devices with more and better features at continually dropping prices. And, because controls shrank in size, electric panels and motor control centers took up less floor space, helping to reduce warehouse and distribution center square-footage needs. But, if we've reached the physical limitations of silicon, does that mean we will no longer see better, faster, more capable controls, computers and systems? Not if today's physicists and electrical and mechanical engineers have their say. Chemists, too, are involved in some of the newer technologies under development. These technologies include microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and molecular nanotechnology, also known as nanotechnology. MEMS are already found in many devices, although few know it. So small that you need a microscope to see them, these tiny machines trigger automobile airbags during an accident or control ink spay on bar code printers. There are differential gears, motors, linear actuators as well as simple sensors from the micro world operating in everyday equipment and appliances. There's even a micro "lock" similar to those found on safes that prevents unauthorized access to software programs. (Such a device could be handy for cybersecurity.) And they don't take up any floor space. The nanometer level, which means devices measuring about a billionth of a meter, shows promise for even greater changes. The main difference between these two technologies is this: MEMS works from the top down, shrinking devices as far as is physically possible. Nanotechnology works from the bottom up, literally building machines atom by atom! This is not science fiction. In 1959, noted physicist Richard Feynman told a dinner audience that physics does not rule out the control of individual atoms. Scientists and engineers hearing this have been pursuing the dream ever since. Companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard have programs for nanotechnology in the works. Some groups, like the NanoBusiness Alliance, claim this technology will have profound effects on manufacturing and business, similar to the revolutionary changes the computer and personal computer brought to the business world. There's a problem or two to work out with this technology, first. For example, building machines atom by atom can take a painstakingly long time, but engineers are working on a faster way. The current route under pursuit is to have these nano machines replicate themselves. Imagine having hundreds of microscopic machines building other machines simultaneously. Electrical, mechanical and electromechanical equipment will never be the same. Who really knows what will result from this research? Expectations are high for some. The NanoBusiness Alliance is forecasting a $700 billion market by 2008 and a $1 trillion market by 2015. The Alliance further claims that nanotechnology will result in smaller, cheaper manufacturing plants, which may eventually translate to more dollars to the bottom line for you.

Leslie Langnau, senior technology editor

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