Physicist Nils Bohr once famously said “It’s difficult to predict – especially the future.” True enough, but it’s not difficult to see the future coming on strong in the field of nano (all puns intended for those old enough to remember Robin Williams’ stint as Mork from years past) – as in nanotechnology.
Ten years ago, there were just about 50 nanotechnology-based products listed in the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Consumer Products Inventory (CPI). Today there are nearly 2,000 including:
- 900+ health & fitness products
- 300+ home & garden products
- Over 200 automotive products
- Over 100 more each in food & beverage… coatings… and electronics
These nanoparticle products are defined as having one or more components that utilize nanotechnology – the very small scale control and restructuring of matter at the molecular or even atomic scale. Most of these nano products consist of particles from 1 to 100 nanometers – a nanometer being a billionth of a meter: a newspaper page is about 100,000 nanometers thick. There are over 25 million in an inch.
Materials at these levels are known to have significantly different properties than they do at larger scales, as noted in a recent article in the Jan/Feb 2016 APICS Magazine entitled “Starting Small.” Their relatively larger surface areas at these small scales cause inert materials to become active, thus affecting their strength and electrical properties. Nano particles also have a penchant for affecting optical and magnetic properties of their environments.
Why does this even matter, especially in the world of supply chain and ERP? Because, according of a report to the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, nanotechnology will usher in “the next industrial revolution, a wholly different approach to the way human beings rearrange matter.“
Nano dates back to Richard Feynman’s speech to the American Physical Society in 1959 entitled “There’s Pleny of Room at the Bottom,” wherein he described a process scientists would be able to use to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. Modern nano was born 20 years later when scientists in 1981 were first able to actually see atoms. (When some of us were in high school, teachers could only hypothesize about them, but they’d not yet actually been seen.)
Today, nano is popping up everywhere, including…
- Lightweight, ultra-strong materials for boat hulls, sporting equipment and automotive parts
- Space saving insulators
- Catalysts for chemical manufacturing processes
- High-performance electronic devices like transistors and computer chips
- Dental implants, and to fill holes in diseased bones
- Improving the absorption rates of new drugs
- Scratch-resistant eyeglass lens coatings
- Fabrics to make clothing stain resistant and easier to care for.
The whole field is growing, and will continue to grow. And as APICS notes, as with most disruptive technologies, the potential benefits are attractive enough for scientists and engineers to keep pressing ahead.