High-Throughput Nanomanufacturing:
Small Parts (with videos)

by Eric Drexler on 2009/02/27

A stylized representation of a machine processing molecules on a conveyor belt
Specialized, high-throughput
molecular assembler
(schematic and prettified)

A robot-free image I prepared for the cover of C&E News, 1 Dec 2003

In a post about molecular assembly lines, I discussed non-ribosomal (hence non-programmable) peptide synthetases, a form of specialized molecular manufacturing machinery found in some cells, and added that

In the molecular-manufacturing architecture described in Nanosystems, simple assembly-line mechanisms — not elaborate, programmable machines — perform the overwhelming majority of fabrication operations.

Actually, the term “assembly line” isn’t quite right to describe the class of hard-machine systems that I analyzed in Nanosystems. The overwhelming majority of fabrication operations would be performed by machines like those that make the parts that are fed into an assembly line.

In the US, factory automation is a foreign subject to most people, so earlier today I spent some time searching for videos that vividly show how really high-throughput automated manufacturing works, since the same principles will apply to high-throughput nanomanufacturing. As a starter, I chose this YouTube video; the title is “How to make a bolt”, and it’s set to music:

Now, picture a robot making bolts. The ratio of cost and speed would be…?

Where molecular assembly is concerned, the way to achieve high throughput and efficiency is by using simple, repetitive operations (and these can be extremely reliable, despite thermal fluctuations). Any operation that requires computation would be far to slow and expensive — we live in a world where machines are huge compared to the circuitry in a microprocessor. In the nanoworld, it will be the digital computing systems that are huge compared to the machines. This is why machines of the general sort in the video — fast and brainless — will become essential.

The video above shows metal forming; in a later post I’ll show fast parts orientation and assembly. By the way, when I say the machines in the videos are “fast”, it’s worth keeping in mind that analogous nanoscale machinery for nanomanufacturing will be much faster. Basic mechanical scaling laws raise the natural operating frequencies by roughly a factor of a million.

Bonus videos:

If you’d like to see more, here’s a narrated video showing machines making a wider range of small parts:

And here’s a short video showing machines making complex shapes by executing very simple motions. The secret is in the tools:

More time, more complex, high precision: the manufacture and assembly of ball bearings:

See also:
High-Throughput Nanomanufacturing: Assembly (with videos)
Assembling larger products (with videos)
The Physical Basis of Atomically Precise Manufacturing

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

jim moore February 27, 2009 at 7:16 pm UTC

Watching the videos got me thinking about your posts on building blocks (or starting materials more generally). I noticed that you have been exploring purely additive approaches to atomically precise artifacts.

What do you think about using graphene as a starting material then use a hot iron probe to cut atomically precise patterns out of the sheet of graphene? You have the incredible stiffness of graphene but you start with a “building block” one atom thick but hundreds of nanometers wide and long. Wouldn’t that make graphene a much better building block than pyrite or protein (bigger and stiffer)?

And when you need to use additive processes you have carbon – carbon double bonds that can be made more reactive by bending the sheet of graphene. I think that the row of bonds at the point of maximum bend between atoms should be the most reactive.

Eric Drexler March 1, 2009 at 5:48 am UTC

I like graphene a lot, and intend to do a post on it in the materials series. It’s stiff, fine-grained, smooth, and has a very unreactive surface, all of which are attractive for various reasons, and access to both sides of an unsaturated structure allows a lot of nice chemistry at the edges. Controlled synthesis of small, precisely formed graphene sheets (hundreds of atoms) has made considerable progress. Interest in graphene for nanoscale electronics has been growing quickly, and for good reason.

I agree that non-additive approaches deserve more attention, and as you suggest, graphene may be a suitable material for trimming and carving. I can see some advantages.

On a related topic, Zyvex is pursuing a subtractive mechanosynthetic approach to net-additive synthesis: using controlled removal of H atoms to deprotect an Si surface to create active sites for subsequent reactions. With this general approach, there’s no need to transport anything to or from the reaction site; Brownian motion does the long-range transport, but the results of synthesis are nonetheless mechanically directed. This approach parallels a common pattern in organic chemistry in which controlled deprotection is a central part of controlled synthesis.

Andrew March 16, 2009 at 6:01 pm UTC

Hello Eric. After reading for some time about our endless technological progress. It occurred to me that we are in a transition. Not just for mankind but the basic meaning of life it self. From the expanse of space came large chunks of rock like the one we live on, then primordial slime, plants, animals and so far this progress has led to us. Plants and animals can adapt to the environment, but we have the smarts do do that pretty well. After using a bone as a mallet, then stone tools to steel we have carved our way down to precisely moving individual atoms. The same can be said for the progress we have made in just about every other task we have set our minds to. So we are pretty tricky. Our little tools and tricks have also brought together the minds of everyone on the planet to make some sort of super knowledge. Like a giant brain that is experiencing rapid evolution. So stepping on from our biological selves is our man made synthetic evolution. A transition from blind natural selection being top dog to intelligence being number one, An entirely new force of nature. This has to cause some friction with the old regime. Which I think we can see in the death throws of life´s little incubator, our planets environment. With everything happening around us I think people have the right to be suspicious. Even little mundane transitions like breaking up with your girlfriend can be pretty rough. But creating an entirely new paradigm for dominance in the universe has to be a fairly daunting task. (Dude thats awesome are we actually doing that?) This is a truly fantastic ride. But I think we have no idea what so ever whats going to come out of this. So even silly questions a worth a thorougher look.

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