For decades industrial manufacturing has meant long assembly lines. This is how scores of workers—human or robot—have built really big things, such as automobiles and aircraft, or have brought to life smaller, more complex items, such as pharmaceuticals, computers and smartphones.

Now envision a future in which the assembly of digital processors and memory, energy generators, artificial tissue and medical devices takes place on a scale too small to be seen by the naked eye and under a new set of rules. The next few years begin an important era that will take us from manufactured products that simply contain nanotechnology—sunscreen with UV-blocking bits of titanium dioxide, as well as particles for enhancing medical imaging, to name two—to products that are nanotechnology.

Successful manufacture of these crucial nanotechnologies will require a better understanding of how matter behaves at the atomic scale, along with new tools and processes for assembly.

One approach is bottom-up directed self-assembly, which joins small or subordinate units such as atoms and nanoscale modules (nanotubes and the like) into larger, more substantial components. Scientists can also use DNA strings or other natural or engineered molecules as programmable building materials for precise, molecular-scale devices and motors. Another high-efficiency method is roll-to-roll assembly, in which miniature devices are printed on continuous rolls of polymer-based sheets.

Nanomanufacturing also requires ultraprecise tools. Some tools will be chemical catalysts; others will be biological, optical, mechanical or electromagnetic. Further in the future, the nanomanufacturing toolbox will very likely include novel molecules and so-called metamaterials engineered to have properties that seem to defy nature—for example, a material that refracts light in an unexpected way.

Here is a look at some of the most exciting nanoscale technologies on the horizon and how we will make them.

Cyborg Tissue Scaffolding

Artificial tissue laced at the cellular level with nanoscale electronics could someday take on a “cyborg-ish” role within the human body. Instead of implanting electronic devices into existing organs, synthetic tissues could be grown from scaffolds that contain multiple nanoscale electronic sensors. Such nanoelectronic scaffolds could become the foundation for engineered tissues that are used to detect and report on a variety of health problems. They could connect part of the nervous system with a computer, machine or other living body. Scientists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a scaffold from very fine and elastic nanowires that can interface with individual cells. The researchers say their goal is to merge tissue with electronics in such a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.

Minuscule Memory

Nanomanufacturing has great potential to deliver smaller, more powerful electronics with denser, more efficient and less expensive memory. That is good because at some point scientists and engineers will no longer be able to shrink computer chips and cool circuits via the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology they have used for decades to make integrated circuits. One work-around is to use electron spin as the information carrier in both memory and logic devices. IBM, Intel and other companies are developing so-called spintronic memory and logic devices that promise to be reliable, fast and low in power consumption. Many other approaches involve writing and storing data with help from nanoscale magnets. A Cornell University research team has demonstrated an energy-efficient way to switch the magnetic polarization of a nanomagnet, a step toward creating a tiny form of magnetoresistive random-access memory, or MRAM, which devices can use to store data even when they are powered down. The team applied current to a lithographically patterned layer of tantalum. This current led to a deflection of electron spins large enough to flip the magnetization of a neighboring magnet. To flip the spin back, the researchers simply reversed the current. When no current flowed, the magnet stayed in place and retained data even if the device was dormant. This research could yield devices such as an instant on/off smartphone or notebook computer with no standby battery drain.

Plastic Muscles

Artificial muscles help human eyes blink, robotic fish swim and floating buoys extract energy from the ocean. Soon chemists will use threadlike “dendronized” nanoscale polymers, which expand or contract when heated or cooled, to act as cell membranes, drug delivery agents and artificial heart fibers. University of Pennsylvania researchers led by Virgil Percec have already shown that these thin polymers can be made strong enough to lift a dime about 250 times heavier than the polymer itself. The key challenge to manufacturing this technology is finding the building-block polymers that can predictably self-assemble into structures—heart tissue, for example—that behave like mini artificial muscles.

Laser-Fast Communication

Photonic integrated circuits that use light to carry information should speed up our shrinking electronic devices. Yet photonic devices still face a fundamental challenge: there is a limit to how small you can make them. The diffraction limit of light prevents confining light into spaces smaller than half of its wavelength, yet light wavelengths would be at least 10 or 100 times larger than any nanoscale electronic devices themselves.

Researchers are working to defy these limitations using a solid-state “plasmon” laser to ferry data. The plasmon laser consists of a grid of nanoscale semiconductor wires and similarly sized metal wires. The grid intersections form square cavities that are used to confine light. These cavities can be as small as 1 percent of the diffraction limit—coincidentally, about the size of a transistor on a computer chip. If the scientists can successfully coax the cavities formed between the wires to produce tiny bursts of laser light, the advance could serve as the basis for optical systems small enough to nestle among these microscopic transistors. The work is being led by Xiang Zhang and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley.

Power Plants Made of Viruses

Viruses can be used to build energy-generating nanoscale devices. The genetically engineered M13 bacteriophage virus is especially good at this. The rod-shaped virus, roughly seven nanometers in diameter and 900 nanometers long, converts mechanical energy to electric energy (and vice versa). Experiments led by U.C. Berkeley bioengineer Seung-Wuk Lee have used the virus to build a piezoelectric biomaterial that can pull enough juice to power a 10-square-centimeter LCD screen. The nanomanufacturing approach here is based on nature's unique ability to synthesize biomaterials in viruses, which can self-replicate, evolve and self-assemble with atomic precision. Virus-based piezoelectric materials could power future nanoscale sensors and other medical devices (either outside or within the human body) by harvesting vibrational energy from, for example, a heartbeat.