The concept of nanotechnology—the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale—has been described as the ‘sixth revolutionary technology’ disrupting our modern world.
Following the application of the first nano-production technologies in the semiconductor fabrication field back in the late 1990s, the past decade has witnessed the fast-paced commercialisation of products based on advancements in nanoscale technologies. Today, nanotechnology applications are being utilised to great effect in a range of fields extending from consumer electronics to bio tech, cosmetics, and clothing.
Increasingly viewed as a key driver for transformation across a multitude of use-cases, working with nanoparticles—between a scale of just 1-100 nanometres—enables manufacturers to unlock enhanced or unique, physical, chemical or biological properties. Alongside unlocking new innovations, the technology is set to make it more economical to produce superior products composed of novel materials that have remarkable properties.
Here, we take a look into the future of nanotechnology, the benefits it holds for the manufacturing sector, and the barriers that must be overcome to unlock its potential.
Manufacturing at nanoscale
From fully recyclable crisp packets to targeted medicines with minimised side-effects, and car engines that produce cleaner exhaust fumes, a number of manufacturing sectors—including healthcare, automotive, packaging, and food production – are already taking advantage of nanotechnology. Just last year, researchers were able to create a nanoparticle influenza vaccine, whilst others used a ‘hierarchically nanostructured gel’ to exploit solar energy to purify water at a record rate.
By introducing improved mechanical properties within existing materials, nanomaterials will be essential to manufacturers when developing more efficient and usable products. In aerospace, for example, materials with increased stiffness and reduced weight will be favoured over heavier but weaker structures. Nanomaterials will enable manufacturers to raise future developments and innovation to a new level, making products faster, lighter, cheaper, and easier to manufacture.
Future developments in nanotechnology will help manufacturers improve efficiency in a number of operations, from design, processing, and packaging, through to transportation of goods. This could also help manufacturers reduce their environmental impact by saving raw materials, energy, and water, reducing greenhouse gases and hazardous wastes. As climate change remains a top concern, innovations such as these will propel manufacturing firms light years ahead of the competition—whilst providing a more sustainable future.
Overcoming the barriers to adoption
Whilst it is clear that the manufacturing industry will continue to see huge developments when it comes to nanotechnology, the technology itself is currently very much in its infancy. Despite its many use-cases, there remains a lot to learn about the long-term impact of manipulating materials at nanoscale. As it’s easily inhaled, concerns about the health effects of nanoparticles and nanofibers, for example, mean that calls for the tighter regulation of nanotechnology are growing.
Similarly, knowledge gaps relating to the long-term environmental side effects of exposure to engineered nanomaterials means current regulatory regimes are set to intensify around the globe. One example of this is the bacteriostatic silver nanoparticles used in socks to reduce foot odour. When washed, these particles can enter the waste water stream and have the potential to destroy beneficial bacteria that is essential to natural ecosystems, farms, and waste treatment processes.
Consequently, to utilise this technology effectively and safely traceability will be key. For manufacturers using nanoparticles, implementation of robust standard procedures—supported by fully-integrated computer systems—can help pinpoint any issues in a matter of seconds and prevent other end users of the product from being impacted. This will be particularly crucial for manufacturers using nanotechnology within products such as food or cosmetics that could directly impact consumers. Whilst nanotechnologies could eventually be used to enhance the microbiological safety and quality of products, having full visibility will be essential to ensure standards are met.
Labelling these products accurately and having full traceability—throughout the production process through to the end user—will enable manufacturers to manage recalls and end-of-life product responsibilities effectively, reducing the impact to customers, the environment and the business itself.
As the use of nanoparticles within manufacturing continues to grow, ERP software will play a key role in the quality control and traceability of these products. Businesses that integrate a modern industry-specific enterprise resource planning (ERP) system across the factory floor will be able to retain full visibility over all operations for both workforce and consumer safety. By improving data accuracy and ease of data retrieval, businesses will be best-placed to keep up with regulatory compliance, whilst revolutionising the way the industry manufactures goods, and the goods themselves.