Saturday, October 19, 2013

Is Manufacturing Going Away?

I think I've said this before, but I've been working in electronics manufacturing around Florida for a long time, almost 38 years.  There have been two constants during that time: one is a continuing refinement of processes to run more automatically and require fewer but higher-level people and the other constant is people telling me "we don't manufacture anything in the United States".  People assume that since TV production moved offshore and nobody has a portable MP3 player that wasn't made offshore, that we don't do anything here.  Nothing can be farther from the truth.  My career has been in industrial electronics, with some time in government work (10 years) and that's what is still being built in the US.  Our competitors are all here as well. 

Credit this rant to Og, the Neanderpundit, who posted a story with links (to Sarah Hoyt) and a debate on whether coming changes completely eliminate heavy industry - what many people think of when you talk about manufacturing.  The replacement is a sci-fi concept of universal assemblers that move atoms around one by one to build everything.  The whole concept of assemblers/nannites/grey goo (the apocalyptic extension of the concept) may be new to people who don't read much speculative work, but here's the short version:  instead of building things from steel or aluminum alloys or the plastics we use today, we can create microscopic robots - nanorobots or nannites - which take the exact atoms needed to assemble something and put them in the required place.  A blob of these nannites, perhaps resembling a fluid or a goo, would eventually produce a fully built thing.  Imagine dumping tons of powdered iron and other metals into a tank, pouring a fluid of nannites over the powders and eventually a working locomotive emerges.  

I think that's way more far-fetched than any of the advocates do.  It shows pretty basic ignorance of the reality of engineering.  Anything you see around you is very different on the atomic scale from the macroscopic scale, and different at scales between the atomic and visible to the naked eye.  Locomotives (or cars, or...) aren't made from iron, they're made from steels.  Steels in turn are made from iron, carbon and other elements.  The properties that make them useful are derived from the specific treatments that the alloy is given.  Pure aluminum is rarely used industrially; all structural uses you're familiar with use aluminum alloys, again the result of aluminum with specific metals and very specific treatments.  Very often, these are specific heat treatments that require lots of energy input. 

I can see some sort of mining being done by a goo that gets poured onto an ore and separates out the desired metal atoms into a new solid while putting the impurities elsewhere.  Imagine going to a copper deposit and having nanorobots pull all of the copper atoms off and stick them together into chemically pure copper "lumps" while putting the other components of the rock: silicon, oxygen, aluminum, or other resources, into separate places.  Even that is exotic programming.  At the atomic scale, or the larger nanoscale, these concepts aren't well defined.  There are no edges, and there are no surfaces.  Where does it put the copper?  How close to the oxygen?  How does it know?  How do we tell the nannites when to stop?  What happens when they don't find copper atoms?  Do they keep expanding infinitely trying to find more copper?  Do they just "die" if they don't find copper in a certain time frame?  How do these things get powered?  It takes energy to break the bonds in the ore, it takes energy to move the atoms around and when it tries to put copper atoms in a "pile", their charges will repel each other, which will take energy to overcome.  Where does the energy to do all that come from? 
The hype cycle on 3D printing is farther along than the hype cycle for nannites, and will be playing out for quite a while.  I've come to agree more and more with the MIT Tech Review article I quoted here, that
...the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a "mature" technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.
Most likely for now, 3D printing will become a technology that gets integrated into manufacturing, to produce components which get built into other things.  A different sort of "machine tool"operation, as I've often written about the difference between additive and subtractive machining. 

I think the ability to either 3D print, or have nannites build, your next computer, your iPhone27, or anything more sophisticated than simple plastic items you might use around the house is science fiction we're not likely to see. 


  1. Very well put.

    While interesting to read and speculate on, most of these sci-fi stories tend to ignore some of the basics, as you point out, like how do you power the damn things?

    I'd be more tempted to go for biological organisms to do some of these activities, but then I'm no futurist.......

  2. My guess (we are all guessing about the future, no one really knows) is that the nano revolution will be similar to the revolution that began in the 70's with computers. No one really thought that computer prices would drop so dramatically while at the same time their speed, capacity and usefulness would grow just as dramatically. We expected growth and that individuals would actually get computers in their homes but who knew we would all get computers and they would be more powerful then the state of the art big iron of the 70's and they would be sold at Walmart for under $300? It is too soon to know where the nano-revolution is going. It will probably fill some niches perfectly and in ways never imagined. It will probably also have a dark side such that we will have to change "NBC" (nuclear, biological, chemical) to NBCN (or maybe NNBC).

  3. When you can accumulate static electricity from water pipes and kinetic energy from blades of grass moving and thermal energy from the difference in temperature between a swimming pool and the hot concrete around it energy is everywhere.
    We are making massive improvements in capacitors and batteries.
    Let's take some current military projects as examples. There are wearable garments and boots that are designed to generate electricity from the movement of a given soldier to charge suit electronics and recharge batteries.
    Take that and apply it to the idea that you can program nannites to form electrical conductors along tree branches and then form whatever type of electrical generator you would like at the base of the stem of each leaf on each tree in a forest. When the wind blows you could generate a moderate amount of electricity from each tree. You could accumulate all of the electricity from a tree in a capacitor at the base. Then you could have the nannites form conductors from each capacitor to a larger capacitor near where the electrical energy is to be used. As far as powering each individual nannite, you could use inductive charging with really small and really efficient batteries on each nannite and for every 20 nannites have a handful that collect static electricity or solar energy or thermal energy based on the environment and time of day and season. The energy collectors would have inductive chargers that would be used to charge the worker bee nannites.

    And I truly believe that the people who worked in industries supporting the first computers would never have dreamed that you could pick one up and carry it in a pocket and run it for eight or more hours off of a battery the size of a deck of cards.
    And I truly believe that the people who worked in industries supporting the space industries in the fifties and sixties would never have believed that commercial space launches would become viable without an entire nation's resources to back the process.
    And I truly believe that the people watching the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk would never have envisioned a Boeing 787 or an SR-71 Blackbird.