Sat, Aug

Small is beautiful

Walter Hale takes a look at how nontechnology is likely to impact the world at large, and the word of print in particular.

Small is Beautiful’ - that was the title of British economist EF Schumacher’s groundbreaking book, published in 1973, in which he argued that bigger was not necessarily better, that the modern economy was unsustainable and that small, appropriate technologies that empowered people - as opposed to organisations - were the wave of the future. Schumacher’s book was prophetic in its concerns and he has been partially proved right, albeit not quite in the way he imagined. Today, if you read a headline containing the phrase ‘small is beautiful’, it’s more likely to preface an article on nanotechnology than Schumacher’s thesis.

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level, between one and 100 nanometres (of which more later), to create materials with unique properties. In case you were wondering, the term ‘nano’ derives from ‘nanos’, ancient Greek for dwarf. In scientific circles, nano has long been used to describe a billionth - so a nanometer is literally a billionth of a metre.

The technological advantages of working on such a minute scale were first highlighted by the charismatic physicist Richard Feynman who, in a 1959 lecture to the American Physical Society, remarked: “There’s plenty of room at the bottom - an invitation to enter a new field of physics.” Size mattered, he suggested, though not in the way people usually assumed. Though Feynman didn’t use the term ‘nanotechnology’, his prescient address extolled the potential of integrated circuits, sequencing genes by reading DNA molecules and using machines to make other machines.

Fifteen years later, the term ‘nanotechnology’ was used for the first time by Japanese professor Norio Taniguchi who, describing how the dimensional accuracy with which we made things had improved over time, correctly predicted that we would be able to achieve accuracies of 100nm (as nanometers are abbreviated to) or less. His insight inspired physicists and engineers to develop semiconductors and information technology.

The Landa group, which unveiled the digital technology called Nanography at Drupa in 2012, has identified four key types of nanomaterials: carbon nanotubes (which have the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any known material), Buckyballs (molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms in a series of interlocking hexagons and pentagons that look like a very small football), quantum dots (semiconductors usually smaller than 10nm) and nanowires (thin one-dimensional molecular structures that are smaller than 10nm and resemble wires).

Believing that, as founder Benny Landa put it, “Everything that can become digital will become digital”, his group has developed Nanography which, it is convinced, will help digital print increase its share - which he estimates at just 2% - of the total print market. Though the Drupa launch was not an unqualified success - there was a lot of excitement but also some concern about quality and the timeline (by the time you read this, we should know whether a new machine will be on display at Drupa 2016) - the company believes that its technology could handle commercial print, direct mail, POS, publishing, folding cartons and flexible packaging.

The relevance of nanotechnology for wide-format print service providers is not wholly defined by Landa’s project. The technology is already making batteries, computer chips, digital memory and display screens perform better. It is also being used directly in the graphic arts - ink manufacturers use the reflective capacity of nanoparticles to make colours look more vibrant.

Since the turn of the century, BASF has invested significantly in this technology, pumping millions into start ups in the US and UK. Dr Andreas Kreimeyer, BASF’s research director, explains the rationale: “Nanotechnology is indispensable in finding answers to questions emerging from a number of different mega-trends: for example, how can we ensure a supply of clean water for our expanding world population? Or how can we meet the constantly growing need for energy and the rising demand for transport and individual mobility? Nanotechnology will play a decisive role in answering these and other key questions.”

Simply put, if we could become exponentially more efficient in the way we use each nanometer, it would be enormously good for a planet that, by 2030, will be home to nine billion people.

Nanotechnology could help print protect the environment in several ways. New tiny supercapacitors that can store masses of static energy and can work for thousands of charging cycles are being developed for smartphones but there is no reason why, further down the line, they could not be used in printing presses.

The principle of thinking small - in this case allying these new supercapacitors to microscopic coatings on photovoltaic solar panels, could make it much easier for the printing industry, which is pretty energy intensive, to use - and store - solar power. If the industry becomes less reliant on the national grid, it could reduce costs, make print cheaper and improve its environmental image, possibly even encouraging a wholesale switch to renewable energy.

Other potential uses for nanotechnology, as identified by Laurel Bruner in her 2014 article for Fespa, include aiding deinking and substrate recycling and helping coat glossy substrates so that smaller volumes of ink are required. This technology is already being touted as a game changer in fashion and textiles - the latter being a market that many wide-format printers already serve or want to be in.

More prosaically, nanotechnology could also be used to create active labels that warn users when a product, substance or material contains contaminants. Looking further ahead, they could be used to create machines that don’t need maintenance because they self-clean and self-repair.

As exciting as all this sounds, the development of nanotechnology has raised some alarm bells. As Andrew Maynard noted in the US magazine ‘Slate’: “History is littered with great technologies that also had an unexpected downside - just look at some of the health and environmental challenges plastics are creating, for instance.” Maynard cited a report in the ‘American Journal of Industrial Medicine’ that suggested one chemist had suffered throat irritation, nasal congestion, facial flushing and skin reactions to jewellery containing nickel after working with a powder comprising nanometre-sized nickel particles. This was cited as “case one in our modern economy” of someone becoming ill after being exposed to nanotechnology.

As there have been several thousand studies into the health risks of nanotechnology, the real surprise may be that there haven’t been more such cases. Many risk assessors, like Maynard, believe that the one area that merits much more research - because we don’t know as much about this as we would like to - is how dangerous might the products containing nanotechnology be to the consumers who are exposed to them?

His conclusion was that it was difficult to construct many plausibly scary scenarios about how products containing nanotechnology could release hazardous materials into the environment. That said, he noted: “Just because the risks of many nanotechnology products seem mild doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent. There’s still the possibility that someone will create a dangerous new material or use a material that seems safe in a dangerous way.”

The other difficulty here for the wide-format print sector is that, as with digital technology, nanotechnology is not being developed specifically to suit its needs. While the big money is focused on the way it could benefit computers, the military or healthcare, others are calling for it to address other issues of broad social concern, such as access to safe water.

In the midst of this swirl of conflicting global priorities for nanotechnology, wide-format print may struggle to make its voice heard. That is why the most likely benefits to the industry - and these will be realised in the next five or ten years - may well be environmental, where its concerns over use of resources (machinery, raw materials and energy) are shared by many larger, more influential and free-spending sectors.

Nanotechnology could transform everything - from the way we fight diseases to the way we power our factories and run our presses. If even half of the predictions come true - and it is being tipped to impinge on everything from space travel to the way we fight gum disease - small will be more beautiful than ever.

The real challenge for any PSP will be figuring out how, and when, these changes will take place and how best to make use of them. It won’t be easy because there will be a lot of hype about potential, some early disappointment and much confusion about timelines, but for the shrewd and the lucky the opportunities will be there to be seized.

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