Taking The NanoPulse -- Nano By The Numbers

Where is U.S. nano-manufacturing strong, what are the challenges, and where do we go next?

What's really going on in the United NanoStates of America? What do you see when you peek in plants, boardrooms and labs all across the country? Thanks to the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences we have a comprehensive report that gives us a good idea. The 2005 NCMS Survey of Nanotechnology in the U.S. Manufacturing Industry, funded by the National Science Foundation, surveyed nearly 600 industry executives from the real manufacturing world shaped this view. The full 75-page report is available at www.ncms.org. Let's hit some high points here...and while we do, ask yourself where you fit into the norms.

To begin, there's been a rise in urgency about nanotechnology in the two years since the last report. A majority of respondents ( 52%) now say nanomanufacturing is a high priority for them. Not surprisingly, the greatest emphasis larger companies, with nearly 60% of companies over 100 employees leading the way. Are you?

Now let's put some pins in the map of U.S. nanomanufacturers. You might be surprised to know they're almost evenly divided among the West, Midwest, Northeast and South. To be sure, there are some significant concentrations -- most particularly in the areas where government-funded research facilities are located: Silicon Valley in the West, for example.But there's nanotechnology in your backyard -- you just need to look for it.

Now that we know the "where," let's talk about "when." Right now, 39% of large companies and 29% of midsize companies are already marketing nano products. Better yet, nearly 60% of those surveyed expected to have products on the market within three years.

Consider getting something on your drawing board that matches what's on their product list: semiconductors, nanowires, lithography and print; nanostructured particulates and nanotubes; coatings, paints, thin films, and nanoparticles. In the 3-year outlook, add precision materials, manipulation tools and devices for enhanced manufactured goods, and equipment and sub-components such as defense and protection gear, plus telecommunications, displays and optoelectronics. When you get into the 5-year timeframe, nano-biotechnology and nanomedicine applications appear on the horizon as do energy products like fuel cells, among others.

Respondents overwhelmingly named collaboration as a key to success -- not surprising since nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary undertaking, combining chemistry, physics, materials science and electricity. The survey shows that over three quarters of companies are involved in outside collaboration activities, ranging from research consortia to product joint ventures to supplier networks. They name three goals in these partnerships, all of which mirror those you'd expect in any business undertaking. Companies are seeking access to global markets, new technology and capital equipment. Moreover, the way the goals align with product timelines is also predictable. Those with current products or products in the 1-to-3 year pipeline want market access. Companies in earlier phases of product develop need new technology to accomplish their goals or capital equipment to implement it. You can also see predictable trends by company size. Large companies are looking partners with technology they can incorporate into current product lines; small companies need big friends to integrate their product or components into existing products. By the way, the biggest concern about partnerships? Protecting intellectual property.

There's plenty of good news out there, but challenges also surfaced. While there are many early nanotechnology successes, there are significant barriers, particularly in the pursuit of next-generation disruptive technologies. Those barriers include insufficient investment capital, high processing costs, scalability, IP issues and the perception of lengthy times to market for nanotechnology products.

The report provides a full slate of recommendations to address the challenges, and one virtually unanimous opinion from the industry: there's a need for continuing government financial support. Federal dollars have helped make the U.S. the world leader in the generation and commercialization of nanoscale materials, manipulation tools and measurement innovations, but the work is far from finished. Ongoing robust investment is key to encouraging continued growth. The most-mentioned request? Strong and meaningful incentives for industrial adopters of nanotechnology.

And here's a recommendation you can take to heart -- and put to work in your own company. If we want to grow our base of support with the public and the government funders, industry should focus on applied nanotechnology that has impact on national concerns, such as energy resources, environmental protection, better pharmaceuticals, more capable information technologies, increased productivity and improved agricultural production. Are you ready to get started?

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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