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Nanotechnology in manufacturing—How traceability will be essential for further development

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

Nanotechnology, defined as the production and application of structures, devices and systems at a scale of 100 nanometres or less, has been identified as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ to disrupt the modern world.

The discovery of higher resolution microscopes in the 1980s provided insight into nanoscale material structures and their properties, which has in turn fuelled further research into nanoscale activities. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, almost all developed countries had put nanotechnology initiatives into motion. Nowadays, the focus of research continues to be exploration into the development of this technology—to produce products with enhanced biological, chemical or physical properties, as economically as possible. This is already being seen within industries such as cosmetics, consumer electronics, clothing, and bio-technology.

With the use of nanotechnology progressively being seen as vital for transformation in a variety of manufacturing sectors, we take a look into the future of nanotechnology, the benefits it holds, and the barriers that must be overcome to unlock its potential.

The potential for nanotechnology in manufacturing

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.

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.

Traceability—the key to success

To be able to utilise nanotechnology efficiently, safely, and successfully, traceability will be vital. The implementation of robust standard procedures—supported by fully-integrated computer systems—can quickly help identify any issues and stop end-users of the product from being affected, which is crucial for manufacturers using nanoparticles. This will also be particularly important for nanotechnology in industries such as food or cosmetics, as this could directly affect consumers. Whilst the future of nanotechnology holds great potential, in order to reach this goal, complete transparency  will be essential.

Having completely traceability through accurate labelling of all products—from the very beginning of the production process to the point where that product meets the end user—will enable manufacturers to deal with recalls and end of life products effectively and efficiently. This will in turn minimise any potential impacts on the environment, the business, and its customers.

As the use of nanoparticles in the manufacturing industry continues to grow, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software will play an important role in the quality control and traceability of nano-based products. In order to achieve full visibility and control, businesses should look to implement a tailored ERP system across their company to ensure workforce and consumer safety. Businesses can keep up with regulatory compliance, revolutionise the manufacturing industry, and the products themselves through easier data retrieval and improved data accuracy.

Mark Hughes, Regional Vice President UK & Ireland, Epicor Software

Mark Hughes is the Regional Vice President UK & Ireland at Epicor Software.