Cover Story: Emerging Technology Trends

September 8, 2015 No Comments
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by B Kyle

This article is the first of two on the topic of emerging technologies.

toc_features50pxAny coach worth his or her salt will tell you that lesson #1 is to “keep your head up.” You’ve got to see the ice in front of you, track where your teammates are, and watch for the lanes to open up.  Like the Great Gretzke, you position yourself where the puck will be.

Leaders in business must be equally attentive. They look into the marketplace, study trends toward the future, and capitalize on those trends whenever possible. It is worth noting that the most successful companies constantly reinvent themselves through such a process. The product you manufacture today may be replaced by something else tomorrow. The challenge is to continue moving forward by making sure you are prepared to address that “something else,” so you don’t find yourself in the historical files alongside other companies who crumbled over time. In other words, standing still really means losing ground.

Even great companies can lose their edge or their founder. They also can shrink, become obsolete, or be acquired by another company. Does anyone even remember Wang? Control Data? What happened to the companies who made folding maps, Polaroid cameras, dial-up modems, or public pay phones? I am still bitter over Blackberry’s disappearance because they stopped producing a competitive product. Blackberry had control of the market. Only Enron fell further south and faster. And according to Paul Rauker, vice president at Daikin Applied Americas, when iPads first were introduced, Intel thought that they would be “just a phase.” So they weren’t in the game. Today they are, and are playing catch-up as a result.

Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and co-author of The Other Side of Innovation, describes the three traps successful companies tend to fall into that make their glory days fleeting. First is the physical trap, in which big investments in old systems or equipment prevent the pursuit of fresher, more relevant investment.

Next is the psychological trap, in which company leaders fixate on what made them successful and fail to notice when something new is displacing it.
Finally, there is the strategic trap, when a company focuses purely on the marketplace of today and fails to anticipate the future. Some unlucky companies manage the trifecta and fall into all three traps.(1)

Given the pace of technological change today, companies rise and fall more rapidly than ever before. Are you vulnerable to any of the above three traps? If so, take some time to consider thoughtfully these emerging trends as potential markets your company could explore for tomorrow’s opportunities. How could you participate in even one of these sectors with a product or part or additional certifications to qualify for bidding on work?

My intent is to highlight technology sectors that are making giant leaps forward. That’s where innovation is happening: the creation of something new to market that delivers economic and customer value through research, creativity, and invention. Innovation can be incremental or it can be transformative/disruptive. In either case, technology change continues to shape our future. And those changes are happening faster than ever. Are you ready?

  1. Energy and Water
  2. IT / Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. Healthcare

#1 Energy and Water

The current energy outlook in America is positive. This clearly is due to the outstanding combination of American entrepreneurship and government-supported research and development (R&D). But there is a need to use this “time of plenty” to plan for significant challenges a few decades ahead. “Two of these challenges are highly linked,” said Allan Hauer of Innovation, a journal of technology commercialization. “The clear pressure [is] to move toward cleaner energy sources and the need for advanced water management.”(2)

ENERGY: Power Production and Storage

Alternative energy sources continue to develop and commercialize. The predominant sources continue to be biogas, geothermal, solar, wind, and hydropower. New research is introducing a game changer in the areas of nanoparticles: carbon nanotubes. (3)

Thermopower waves. A powerful new way to generate electricity eventually could make electric cars and electronic gadgets run longer. About four years ago, researchers in Michael Strano’s chemical engineering lab at MIT coated a short piece of yarn made of carbon nanotubes with TNT and lit one end with a laser. It sparkled and burned like a fuse, demonstrating a new way to generate electricity that produces phenomenal amounts of power.

At the time, no one understood how it worked, and it was so inefficient that it was little more than a “laboratory curiosity,” Strano said (4).

Now, Strano has figured out the underlying physics, which has helped his team improve efficiencies dramatically—by 10,000 times—and charted a path for continued rapid improvements. One day, generators that use the phenomenon could make portable electronics last longer, and make electric cars as convenient as conventional ones, both extending their range and allowing fast refueling in minutes.

The new generators exploit a phenomenon that Strano calls a thermopower wave. The conventional way to generate electricity by burning a fuel is to use heat to cause expanding gases to drive a turbine or a piston. In Strano’s system, as the fuel burns along the length of his nanotubes, the wave of combustion drives electrons ahead of it, creating an electrical current. It’s a much more direct and efficient way to generate electricity, since no turbines or conventional generators are required. (5)

The efficiencies of the lab devices made so far are still low compared to conventional generators. Strano’s latest device is a little over 0.1 percent efficiency, whereas conventional generators are 25 to 60 percent efficient. But Strano says they could be useful in some niche applications, where a sudden burst of power is needed. Broader applications soon could be feasible as efficiencies continue to improve.


The development of energy storage technology is going to be one of the defining features of the 21st century’s energy landscape. It will allow nations to decarbonize their economies by integrating renewable energy into their grids, reduce peak power demand, and make all forms of power generation more efficient.

Indeed, in a 2012 Renewable Electricity Futures study funded by the National Renewal Energy Laboratory (NREL), “interest in energy storage technologies, which has reemerged over the past decade, has been motivated by at least five factors:

  1. Advances in storage technologies
  2. Volatility of fossil fuel prices
  3. Development of deregulated energy markets
  4. Challenges to siting new transmission and distribution facilities
  5. The perceived need and opportunities for storage with variable renewable generators and their role to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”(6)

Until now, battery technology has been grabbing the headlines, even though 99 percent of the world’s energy storage capacity currently is in the form of pumped hydro-electric power. There is good reason for this—thanks to the demand of both personalized electronics and electric vehicles, the pressure for better lithium ion battery capacity continues to grow and costs are starting to come down, making the technology increasingly viable.

That said, according to Mike Scott, of Forbes, “batteries are far from being the only new energy storage technology out there,” and GE has just placed a massive vote of confidence in “liquid air.” A tiny UK company called Highview Power stores energy by using cheap, off-peak energy to cool air to -196°C using a conventional industrial refrigeration plant, turning 700 liters of ambient air into a liter of “liquid air” that can be stored in a simple insulated tank. When you need the energy, you simply open the tap: the liquid air turns back into a gas, expands in volume, drives a turbine, and creates electricity. If you add heat when you release the gas, you make the process more efficient.”(7)

Other storage technologies include sodium sulfur batteries, vanadium redox batteries, and lithium sulfur batteries (they can store much more energy while weighing very little. Ideal for the aerospace industry). Storage solutions depend on the need they are meeting, typically categorized by the discharge time required of them.

The Business of Water

“The dynamics of the world’s water situation are well understood: fresh water is increasingly scarce; it is diminishing in quality at an unacceptable rate; we do not have enough of it where we need it; and demand is increasing as populations rise, demographics shift, and the climate changes. It’s clear that global fresh water scarcity poses significant physical, economic, regulatory, and reputational risks. These are risks that impact not only businesses, but also the communities that rely on the same, often-dwindling, water sources,” said Ecolab’s vice president of corporate sustainability, in its July 2014 Corporate Ecoforum.(8)

In May 2015, Ecolab and Dow Chemical, along with the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, hosted a seminar in partnership with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) on “Business Growth in an Era of Water Scarcity.” As these experts see it, water and energy are the lifeblood of manufacturing—adequate, secure, and affordable water and energy are necessary to compete. Businesses and governments now are recognizing that water scarcity poses immediate and future risks to industry.

In March, more than 130 leaders from Minnesota’s water businesses, academia, and the public sector gathered at Ecolab’s Allan L. Schuman Campus at a Water Technology Business Summit, to discuss just how Minnesota can capitalize on its unique expertise in water to position the region as a formal “water cluster.” The concept, coined by a Harvard researcher, focuses on supporting growth of existing water tech companies, attracting new investment, expanding the talent pool, and leveraging natural resources to attract industry to the region.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) hosted the event in partnership with Greater MSP, a nonprofit dedicated to regional economic development. The event featured University of Minnesota research on the characteristics of the state’s emerging water cluster. Ecolab Chairman and CEO Doug Baker provided the keynote remarks, outlining recommendations to strengthen the industry in the state.

Regional water stats:

  • Four of the world’s top seven companies for membrane technology (a water treatment system) are in Minnesota.
  • Ecolab, GE, and Pentair were identified by City Research & Analysis as the top water reuse companies in the world.
  • Minnesota ranks among the top 10 exporters of water and water technology in the United States, with more than $729 million in foreign sales in 2012.
  • The water technology sector employs more than 15,500 people in Minnesota.
  • Minnesota ranks fifth nationally for employment in manufacturing water pumping equipment.
  • The Twin Cities has the largest concentration of hydrologists in the United States. (9)

#2 IT/ IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) may be at the core of the next industrial revolution. IoT is about the connectedness of everyday things to a network—vehicles, machine tools, health monitoring equipment, wearable devices, GPS devices, machine tools—even your home’s systems like heat, light, and cable. If it as an on/off switch, chances are it can be part of the IoT. And all are accessible via mobile phones or other “smart” devices.” And, most certainly, “connectedness” is sure to be the “Word of the Year” for 2015.

The socioeconomic implications of IoT, in general, are astounding. George Konstantakis is the president of Brooks Stevens, Inc., a product design company. The company offers one data point from which to extrapolate the potential power of IoT: “wide deployment of IoT in the auto industry alone can contribute $100 billion annually in accident reductions.” According to Jon Olson, host of a 2014 summit on The Internet of Things, “Cities will spend 41 trillion dollars in the next 20 years on infrastructure upgrades for Internet Things.”(10)

Brian Isle, Professional Engineer and Senior Fellow, Adventium Labs and U of M Technology Leadership Institute (TLI), is the foremost expert in the country on IoT. “The IoT has the potential to drive new innovation in products, services, and improve how things are done in manufacturing. However, IoT also brings to light safety and security issues when purpose-built computing and network devices are exposed to the Internet. The Internet was designed originally to share data; it has morphed into the battle for control of the data. The new mantra: ‘he who owns the data wins the war.’”

Even more interesting in light of Isles’s comment above: in 2014, Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion—to control the data. Microsoft’s “88-Acre Project” involved the use of sensors literally to connect their 88-acre campus for the data they would accumulate. Intel is working with the city of San Jose to implement Intel’s sensors and other tech to measure everything from pollutants in the air, to help traffic flow, improve water quality, and save energy. (11)

And Apple has made it clear: at their 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference, the theme was: “The Connected Home is the Future.”

One striking example of IoT is the increasingly interactive nature of buildings. Paul Rauker, VP and GM of Systems and Controls at Daikin Applied Americas, Inc., spoke at a 2014 Internet of Things conference. “Daikin is focusing on a lot of its attention on this new paradigm of interactive buildings. They are becoming more intelligent, as is the equipment. Buildings can understand and predict the needs of the occupants themselves. Daikin is designing processes for moving data to the cloud. From that, optimization analytics actually manage the building.” Other companies in this market include Johnson Controls, Honeywell, Tridium, Alertron, Distech Controls, Siemens, Daikin, and more.

Other fascinating applications for this connectedness continue to develop. You will see further interaction in gaming; smart technology regarding vehicle driving and safety; wearable technology to track health parameters; and even neuromorphic technology that allows the user to control a device by thought alone. (12)

#3 Healthcare

New technologies are constantly in development to help people stay healthy, better diagnose disease, treat illness, and provide a better quality of life. Here are some examples:
Intelligent Pills Deliver Medication to Specific Locations: Philips Research has developed an intelligent pill that can be programmed to deliver targeted doses of medication to patients with digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, and colon cancer. (13)

Sensor Technology Tracks Medication Adherence: Proteus Biomedical is working on technology that incorporates a tiny sensor into pills for targeting medication adherence for organ transplants, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, diabetes, and psychiatric disorders. (14)

Brain Implants Prevent Seizures: The RNS System, a responsive neurostimulator from NeuroPace, detects abnormal electrical activity in the brain that signals the onset of a seizure, and delivers a specific pattern of mild electrical stimulation to block the seizure. (15)

Printing New Skin: Wake Forest University’s scientists have discovered how to apply ink-jet printer technology to ‘print’ proteins directly onto a burn victim’s body for faster and more thorough healing. (16)

Video Games Hone Medical Student Decision-Making Skills: The University of Texas, Corpus Christi, and BreakAway Ltd., have developed a “serious” video game that lets professionals and students practice on 3D video patients using the same interactive techniques and decision-making processes they would use with real patients.
Robot Care Givers: MIT’s “Huggable” teddy bear robot can serve as a medical communicator for children. Packed with electronic sensors and sensitive skin technologies, the robot can distinguish between cuddling for comfort or agitation by sensing the strength of the squeeze. (17)

Lab-on-a-Chip: Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have created a lab-on-a-chip for HIV testing that does not require expensive resources and can deliver results in seconds. The portable and less expensive lab-on-a-chip is a holographic, lens-free imaging mechanism that counts specific molecules and blood cells to determine if the blood is HIV positive.(18)

Internet of Things Connection: Health and clothing companies are blending wearable technology with IoT to track health—from an insulin pump that sends data to the hospital, to a bicycle helmet with an accelerometer that tracks movement and alerts an ambulance if a crash is detected. (19)

The November / December issue of Precision Manufacturing will highlight trends 4 -6, which include:

  • Transportation
  • Robotics
  • Manufacturing

pm_endmarkblue-e1320337140493A list of references can be found online at or by contacting Molly Barrett at

B Kyle  is the vice president of strategic development at the Saint Paul Port Authority. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2015 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Molly Barrett, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.

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