Survey says: Manufacturing, government keys to U.S. success
First-ever UMass Lowell-Small Times analysis explores nanotech industry priorities
Although nanotechnology is generally considered a long-term research priority for the United States and other nations, most U.S. nanotechnology industry executives said that high volume manufacturing of nano materials and products is the most important activity required for the United States to strengthen its nanotech capabilities. The focus on high volume manufacturing outpaced long-term research by a factor of more than two to one.
The results were part of a survey of nanomanufacturing executives conducted by the University Of Massachusetts Lowell and Small Times. Of the 407 executives interviewed, 39 percent said that if the U.S. were to strengthen its R&D capability, high volume manufacture of nano materials and products would be most important. Only 15 percent chose “basic long term research.” A majority of executives (63 percent) said they see the U.S. as leading the world in nanotechnology research and development, with only 7 percent seeing the U.S. as lagging behind other countries.
Moreover, the respondents don’t expect industry to go it alone. In fact, the vast majority of nanotech executives think government should play a role - either take the lead in R&D and commercialization incentives or at least participate in a limited fashion. But they are split between the two approaches, 45 percent wanting government to take the lead and 43 percent saying government’s role should be limited. Eleven percent said government should “stay out of it.”
More executives said their companies are integrating nanotech materials (88 percent) rather than currently manufacturing those materials (47 percent) themselves. (The overlap is companies that are involved in both manufacturing and integrating.) Nanocrystals, followed by nanotubes and nanoparticles, are seen as the most important nanomaterials to develop, manufacture and purchase over the next three years, and most companies currently manufacture or use those materials in that order.
The survey also clearly showed that nanotech industry executives think the role of government is not only to foster technical innovation, but to monitor its social and environmental side effects. In fact, there was near-unanimous consensus on the issue: 97 percent of executives think that government has an important role in addressing potential health effects and environmental risks of nanotechnology.
This likely follows from the observation by 64 percent of the respondents that the risk to the public, environment and workforce of exposure to nanoparticles is currently unknown.
Despite the perceived environmental uncertainty, many of the respondents were also bullish on their own firms’ potential sales in nanotechnology. Twenty-five percent said they expect sales of $10 million or greater next year and a full 56 percent expect those sales levels in three years.
In order to build those products, most executives (58 percent) said their firms plan to share facilities with universities in developing nanotechnology materials. Yet, an overwhelming percentage of respondents (77 percent) said their firms are currently developing nanotech products and processes using their own internal R&D, rather than through collaboration with universities (7 percent), suppliers (5 percent) or others.
A majority of respondents (58 percent) utilize or plan to utilize shared use facilities at local universities; with science and engineering labs (25 percent), electronics labs (24 percent) and biotech labs (17 percent) topping the list; followed by specific diagnostic equipment (14 percent) and microfabrication labs (12 percent). Training and workforce development were not perceived as huge barriers. Seventy-six percent of executives said the lack of a knowledgeable workforce was not a significant impediment to capitalizing on the opportunities of nanotechnology. In fact, most executives rated their companies as having an excellent or very good supply of labor (61 percent), capital (58 percent), and infrastructure (58 percent) for commercializing nanotech products and processes.
Rather, the most significant barriers to growth that were cited included lack of financing (45 percent), intellectual property issues (46 percent) and lack of available prototype facilities (43 percent).
The UMass Lowell survey team included Barry Hock, Dane Netherton, Edward March and David Kassel.
The data summarize findings of a national telephone survey conducted from August 23, 2006 through September 19, 2006. Interviews were conducted under the supervision of a university-trained field supervisor.
A total of 407 respondents identified as business leaders in the nanotechnology industry were interviewed by telephone. The respondents’ companies were taken from a listing of Small Times Magazine nanotechnology-identified subscribers. The cooperation rate for this survey was 33 percent of the companies contacted.
Results from the total sample can be interpreted as accurate to within ±5 percent with a 95 percent level of confidence. Sub-samples have a greater margin of error.
Survey respondents were located in roughly equal proportions in each of the nation’s regional U.S. Census divisions. These regional proportions are consistent with those found in a National Science Foundation funded survey of nanotechnology leaders conducted in 2005 by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) in Ann Arbor, Mich. The NCMS survey determined its geographic distribution “generally correlated well with the U.S. regions receiving the highest infusion of NNI funds and other private investments”.
Percentages may not total to 100 due to missing responses or rounding.