If you think 3-D bioprinting is a weird idea, you'll probably be totally dumbfounded by another, even more innovative concept: the notion of reproducing an object, or creating a new one outright, by putting it together molecule by molecule. Molecular manufacturing, as it's known, could revolutionize our entire civilization by enabling us to build machines or even buildings quickly and cheaply, according to precise specifications, and with virtually no defects.
The physics principles behind molecular manufacturing are maddeningly complex, but in greatly oversimplified words, it basically would involve creating a workforce of scores of tiny robots, called assemblers, who would guide chemical reactions and put together a few atoms at a time to create molecules, which in turn would become the building blocks of the object [source: Drexler]. We'll actually be able to "control the structure of matter," says Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, which promotes research into the technology [source: IMM].
If and when molecular manufacturing becomes practical, it could radically alter the global balance of economic power, erasing the advantage that developing nations with low labor costs have in commodity manufacturing, and shifting the advantage to technological innovators [source: Wadhwa].