Remembering why size matters


During the past couple of weeks I have heard the comment, “size doesn’t matter,” from a variety of sources. Sometimes meant to elicit laughter, the statement and its implications are actually worthy of serious consideration with regard to small tech.

The “size doesn’t matter” arguments are typically these: The problems solved by technology are more important than the dimensions of the solution. Micro- and nanotechnology are not market segments. In fact, the terms micro and nano are becoming irrelevant as science takes us down the scale toward the pico, femto, atto, and zepto realms.

Solutions and understanding

There is no disagreement from me that solutions are important. At some point the value of a technology is truly in its application. Finding an application may take 20 to 50 years, or the original research may be a dead end, but a new path is discovered along the way that leads to a breakthrough. The growing capabilities to image, manipulate, and manufacture at the micro and nano scales-with tools that didn’t exist two, five, or even ten years ago-is enabling exciting research advances and new commercial solutions.

Versions of the high-powered imaging equipment that were available only to the most exclusive universities 10 years ago are now being sold to colleges, companies, and even high schools, thus increasing the pace of technology discovery (see this month’s cover story, page 8). When companies such as Agilent, FEI, Hitachi, and Veeco all jump into the fray, you know that’s a market to watch closely.

Although being able to see what’s happening at the molecular scale is a giant step forward, the ability to understand what-and why-is even more critical. Rules governing the macro world don’t always apply at the micro and nano scales, which helps explain the excitement about possibilities that small tech enables. Cross-disciplinary teams are needed to understand the why and how at the atomic level and must involve chemists, physicists, biologists, and engineers of all types.

Market segments

Should MEMS/micro and nano be considered market segments? If you define a market as a group of buyers looking for similar products or solutions, then it is difficult to argue that there aren’t viable markets for products and services such as MEMS design, manufacturing, and packaging; molecular imaging; nanomaterials; characterization and analysis services, tools, and equipment; micro and nano scale production processes and equipment, etc. There are common sets of needs based on scale-and thus, in my opinion, real markets.

That’s not to say that micro- and nano-technologies aren’t “enabling platforms.” But so is information technology. There are companies focused on network infrastructure, consumer interface hardware, transaction services, e-commerce, authentication and encryption, productivity applications, etc. These technologies are relevant because IT-paired with the rise of the Internet-created a new world of opportunities. But in the case of micro- and nanotechnologies, the scope of impact is even greater. It is difficult to think of a field or industry where small tech can’t make an impact.

Does it matter to the sectors of micro- and nanotechnologies that science will continue its progress down the size scale? Not right now, and I predict it won’t-at least commercially-for quite some time. There are still so many discoveries to be made, solutions to be found, and problems to be solved at the micro and nano levels; having specialized knowledge and equipment will be necessary for the foreseeable future.

So, size does matter. Micro- and nanotechnologies are enabling new applications, products, and processes. And it takes a specialized community to deliver them-from the scientists and engineers doing the research, to the tools and equipment providers, to the manufacturing partners, and to the investment bankers, venture capitalists, and consultants that all play important roles in bringing these potentially world-changing technologies to fruition.

So, I predict Small Times will add value for many years to come. With the March/April issue we say goodbye to David Forman, long-time writer and valuable contributor to this sector, and we welcome our new editor-in-chief, Barbara Goode ( Barbara brings to the job a wealth of business-to-business market and technology coverage expertise.

Please don’t hesitate to introduce yourself and your company to her over the next few months, as Barbara jumps fully into the small-tech market segment. Small Times has always strived to know the companies that are enabling and making the commercialization of micro- and nanotechnologies a reality, and that won’t change. As the number of companies and organizations serving this market continues to rapidly expand, we invite you to contribute to our coverage and understanding of the dynamics driving these technologies forward.

Patti Glaza is vice president and publisher at Small Times. She can be reached at