Cover Story: Emerging Technology TrendsNovember 4, 2015 No Comments
This article is the second of two on the topic of emerging technologies. Read about trends 1-3 in the September/October 2015 issue of Precision Manufacturing.
Our September/October cover story talked about the need to “keep your head up”, to be on the lookout for new opportunities, and to mimic the Great Gretzky’s special ability to position himself to where the puck will be.
This article will continue our exploration of technology trends that can shape the future. The challenge, of course, will be to figure out how to capitalize on them. Not all breakthroughs are created equal. Some arrive more or less as usable things; others mainly set the stage for innovations that emerge later, and we have to estimate when that will be. But every one of the milestones on this list will be worth following in the coming years.
Are you ready?
5. Advanced Robotics
Innovative transportation technologies help improve mobility, relieve congestion, increase safety, save money, and enhance a community’s economic efficiency. Being that transportation is so important to commerce, because—literally and figuratively—so much is riding on it, it has been the focus of an enormous amount of inventive activity over the years.
Extensive research is being conducted across the globe in improved mass transit options. Consider the Hyperloop, a theoretical system with a top speed of 760 mph, to take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Or the Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT), an airless and frictionless system that essentially puts people in a tube and shoots them off to their destination. Hitting speeds of 4,000 mph, you can get from Los Angeles to New York in 45 minutes. (1)
Other research is being done on dual mode vehicles (to operate on multiple transport systems), and even “levitating” vehicles. In 2000, Denmark presented its first dual mode prototype electric vehicle, designed to operate on the street and on a rail facility. (2)
And, pun intended, the trend accelerates. Particularly in the European and Asian markets, where congestion is such that a car increasingly will get you only part of the way to your destination, manufacturers are developing vehicles offering dual modes of transport. For Chinese consumers in particular, it seems that having a primary vehicle contain a smaller electric “transportation appliance” offers a more comprehensive solution.
General Motors’ Flextreme Concept from 2007 carried two Segways in tunnels under the car. Among the products revealed at the 2015 Auto China in Beijing were BMW’s i8 Spyder with two matching BMW three-wheeled electric kick scooters in the rear and the Geely McCar2 with bikes in the back.
Is there enough of a market, you ask? In China alone, the electric scooter has been the most prolific form of motorized personal transport by a fair margin for several years. Hence, it’s not hard to see why manufacturers might want to create a bridge between two and four-wheeled transport. (3)
In recent decades, research and development related to transportation has focused on the development of high efficiency, clean, and safe transportation: electric vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, even compressed air hybrid vehicles. Many insist that electric vehicles are the long term solution for reducing fossil fuel consumption. Also, certainly, steady advances are being made in battery technology. Despite strong criticism, some automakers are placing a long-odds bet on other options.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles
A fuel cell model actually is an electric car with one important difference: instead of a plug-in battery that draws power from the electrical grid, a fuel cell generates power from an electrochemical reaction between onboard hydrogen and oxygen in the air. Clean water trickles out the tailpipe as the only byproduct. (4)
Most battery electric vehicles generally travel less than 100 miles on a charge, and take several hours to recharge. Fuel cell cars operate as conveniently as do gasoline models. They travel roughly 300 miles on a tank, and their strong carbon-fiber tanks can be pumped full of hydrogen in less than 10 minutes. (5)
Who’s placing that bet? Hyundai has been first in the latest wave of fuel cell models, with the fuel cell version of its Tucson. Revealed at the January 2015 North American International Auto Show, Honda announced its plans to introduce a mainstream hydrogen fuel cell vehicle along with a new plug-in hybrid vehicle and a new battery electric vehicle over the next several years. Toyota, too, is placing a large bet on hydrogen fuel cell cars. They plan to introduce the 2016 Mirai yet in 2015 as well. (6)
On paper, hydrogen cars indeed can appear to be a green dream. So why aren’t more people driving them? Proponents note that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. But deriving that element efficiently has been a major catch, along with a dearth of places to refuel. The cars’ onboard fuel cells and storage tanks have been exorbitantly expensive. When Honda tested its first FCX fuel cell cars in California in 2002, analysts estimated the cars cost up to $1 million each to produce. But prices seem to be coming down. In 2015, nearly 70 California families are leasing Hyundai Tucsons for much more manageable prices. (7)
Compressed air-powered vehicles
These vehicles have been under development easily for the last 10 years. But with few exceptions, major automotive manufactures have shied away from such technology. PSA Peugeot Citroen is bucking this trend with its “Hybrid Air” powertrain that addresses the limited range of compressed air energy storage technology by combining it with a gasoline powered internal combustion engine (ICE). The company plans to have Hybrid Air powered vehicles on the road by 2016.
PSA’s Hybrid Air technology is similar to current battery electric hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, but it uses compressed air for energy storage rather than batteries. A hydraulic pump/motor unit recovers energy generated by the internal combustion engine and from braking and deceleration, storing it in a compressed air energy storage unit. (8)
Connected cars demonstrate another application of the Internet of Things (IoT). Indeed, according to Thilo Koslowski, vice president and founder of the automotive practice at Gartner Inc., “The connected vehicle is leading the automotive industry to its most significant innovation phase since the creation of the automobile itself.” Vehicles are becoming the ultimate mobile device. In five years, there could be 250 million connected cars on the road as the Internet of Things (reviewed in the September/October cover story) grows to include 25 billion devices. (9)
Certainly, the opportunity is huge, but new business models will need to be developed. The first challenge is coordination with the mobile industry. For example, smartphone software can be updated constantly; vehicle manufacturers work on five-year cycles. Customers need to be taught how to use a car’s advanced technology. And who will pay for the data usage? Wrestling through these hurtles, Chrysler is partnering with Sprint Nextel to connect their vehicles; General Motors has selected AT&T. (10)
But what are they? “Connected vehicles” are cars that access, consume, create, enrich, direct, and share digital information between businesses, people, organizations, infrastructures, and things. Those “things” include other vehicles, which is where the Internet of Things becomes the Internet of Cars.
For example, by 2015, all cars in Europe must be equipped with eCall, a system that automatically contacts emergency services and directs them to the vehicle location in the event of a serious crash. Similar safety systems likely are to be required in the U.S. and other countries. (11)
Government regulators, meanwhile, see connected cars as a way to alleviate congestion by giving motorists timely information about traffic delays, work zones, etc. (12)
Features like adapted speed and braking technologies are emerging now as well, along with controlled steering and better GPS systems, which soon will enable hands-free driving. Longer term, the technological advances behind the connected car eventually will lead to self-driving vehicles.
As these vehicles become increasingly connected, they become self-aware, contextual, and eventually autonomous. Those of you reading this probably will experience self-driving cars in your lifetime — though maybe not all three of its evolutionary phases: from automated to autonomous to unmanned. (13)
Governments are using the IoT to connect vehicles and thereby improve efficiencies and safety of public transportation systems. Examples of some applications are highlighted in a 2014 paper on emerging smart transportation technologies, published by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Intelligent Transport Systems:
- Dublin, Ireland—using smartphones and tablets to better manage traffic technology;
- Sunderland, England—running a transport and weather information pilot to improve traffic and travel throughout the region;
- Hampshire, England—introducing a smarter street lighting system for over 100,000 lights and signs, which has reduced Hampshire’s CO2 emissions by 4,000 tons—the equivalent to the CO2 emitted from 1,600 cars per year. (14)
#5 Advanced Robotics
Advanced robots, those increasingly capable with enhanced “senses,” dexterity, and intelligence, can take on tasks once thought too delicate or uneconomical to automate.
Emergent Artificial Intelligence/Brain Controlled Computers
Yes, it’s possible. Computers and devices can be controlled with the brain. Though still very much a prototype technology, as far back as 2004, scientists have successfully hooked up brain controlled computers to direct PC commands.
Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology is a potentially powerful communication and control option in the interaction between people and systems. Consider the potential to manipulate computers or machinery with nothing more than a thought. It isn’t just about convenience; for severely disabled people, development of a BCI could be the most important technological breakthrough in decades. (15)
Wheelchairs have their limitations. They are difficult to maneuver, they keep its user seated, and they can’t climb stairs. All of that could change with powered exoskeletons. Today, alternatives are available such as the ReWalk, the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL), and Tek RMD.
The ReWalk, specifically, allows paraplegics to stand and walk around, allowing for more exercise, a healthier lifestyle, and the ability to see eye-to-eye with their peers. Larry Jasinki, CEO of ReWalk Robotics, had this to say about his company’s tech: “This revolutionary product will have an immediate, life-changing impact on individuals with spinal cord injuries. For the first time, individuals with paraplegia will be able to take home this exoskeleton technology, use it every day and maximize on the physiological and psychological benefits we have observed in clinical trials.” (16)
Larger and stronger powered exoskeletons have many more uses. Emergency responders can use exoskeletons to increase their strength, allowing them to lift large amounts of rubble and save survivors in collapsed buildings or rock slides, or allowing them to lift larger patients by themselves.
The US military also is funding exoskeleton ventures meant to help soldiers walk further and carry more. One example is Lockheed Martin’s HULC, which allows users to carry heavy loads over all terrains with minimal human exertion. (17)
To the military, they are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). However, they are more commonly known as drones. Drones are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. Outside of the military, the last decade has seen an evolution in small unmanned aerial vehicles. According to 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson, the UAV civilian drone community soon will have more than 15,000 drones flying, compared to some 7,000 drones in use worldwide by military forces (18).
- 1. Farming is tough, and drones are making it easier
With their aerial abilities, UAVs are being used by farms to check their irrigation systems, the condition of their crops, and even the health of those crops using infrared technology. Such improvements can equate to cents per acre, or translate into much greater amounts in terms of efficiencies and precision crop analysis. (19)
- 2. Going to Hollywood – or
UAVs are being adapted by film makers looking to capture more innovative shots with fewer limitations. (31) Similar innovative shots and videos are providing “drone tours” of even the most mundane homes. Such ads already are quite popular throughout California. (20)
- 3. Capturing Nature
Given its aerial abilities, drones have been able to capture things in ways never before seen. The result? Something truly breathtaking. Take for instance, Dave Anderson. The charter captain runs whale-watching charters out of Dana Point, Calif. He recently used a small camera-equipped drone to capture video of a “mega-pod” of hundreds of common dolphins as well as three gray whale migrating off the coast of San Clemente. In a separate venture, the drone returned footage of a family of humpback whales off of Maui. (21)
- 4. Helping in Disaster Relief
In a disaster, drones can assess a situation quickly, create a map, locate survivors, deliver supplies, provide an Internet signal, and provide long term monitoring and alerts. (22)
Hurricane Katrina saw the first deployment of drones in a disaster, setting the stage for such drone deployments worldwide—from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident to the Nepal earthquake. The hurricane was a landmark for drone technologies, pivotal in their development for emergencies. (23)
Drones are becoming an incredibly useful tool for fighting wildfires as well. Not only are the aircrafts being used to spot the fire and tracking its movement, but they also can actually fight fires as well, ultimately keeping people out of harm’s way. In the 2007’s Southern California wildfires, UAVs equipped with infrared sensors penetrated walls of smoke to relay information about the size of the blaze.
After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, the Air Force dispatched its “Global Hawk” drone to map the damage in Port-Au-Prince so that relief agencies could establish target areas for their work.
And even more recently, drones were deployed after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Unlike helicopters, which can take up to an hour to arrive on the scene and gather information, drones are operational within three minutes. (24)
EDAIR, a disaster relief organization, used drones to create maps of the typhoon-devastated areas after Super Typhoon Haiyan.
3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing
If you haven’t heard of it by now, you haven’t been paying enough attention. Engineers and designers have been using large and expensive 3D printers for nearly three decades, making rapid prototype parts for aerospace, defense, and automotive companies.
Over the years, 3D printers of plastics have spread to the medical field and come within reach of entrepreneurs, schools, and DIY inventors for all kinds of at-home experimentation.
To bring the 3D printing of metal to the shop floor, DMG MORI has developed the Lasertec 65 3D. They have integrated additive manufacturing into a high tech 5-axis milling machine. This hybrid machine combines laser metal deposition with the precision cutting process.
Paul Rauker, the vice president and general manager of systems and controls at Daikin Applied Americas, Inc., insists that “3D printing is the future, to be sure.”
An August 2015 report by Stratasys Direct Manufacturing (SDM), Stratasys’ service arm, states:
New 3D printing processes have reduced the time it takes for designers and engineers to conceptualize, create, and test prototypes. But for 3D printing to catch on the rapidly changing manufacturing industry, it will have to be seen by companies less as a fascinating technological upgrade and more as an everyday business decision. (25)
“Today, 3D printing is still perceived as a technology solution, but the future of 3D printing is as a business solution,” wrote Joe Allison, CEO of SDM.
In other words, according to a September 2015 article by Fortune, “the next phase of 3D printing development within manufacturing companies will involve bringing 3D printing out of the realm of rapid prototyping and into the assembly line, where additive processes are used to make parts that end up on the final product.” (26)
This already is happening in some industries. In November 2014, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory installed parts 3D printed by Stratasys onto one of its satellites bound for outer space. Airbus is using Stratasys’ production-grade printers to print flight parts for its new A350 XWB airplane; the first one of these planes delivered in December 2014 had more than 1,000 3D-printed parts installed in it. (27)
“Within 10 years, every commercial airplane will have 3D printed parts on it,” wrote Allison in the introduction to SDM’s new report.
Of the 700 companies SDM interviewed for its new report, 73 percent said they plan to increase the use of additive manufacturing, especially with metals, to manufacture end-use parts. This trend is more pronounced in the aerospace and medical industries.
And printing in metals is key. According to Jim Bartel, senior vice president of strategy, marketing, and business development for SDM, “customers are asking for and using aluminum and titanium, lightweight metals with considerable material strength. SDM’s report bears this out: At 84 percent, respondents ranked metals as the leader when it comes to which materials they’d like to see developed further for additive manufacturing in the future. SDM predicts additive metal use overall to double in the next three years.” (28)
Nanotechnology is a broad term that covers many areas of science, research, and technology. In its most basic form, it can be described as working with things that are small. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. In comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers in diameter.
How could nanotechnology affect us?
Health: Nanotechnology may have its biggest impact on the medical industry. Patients will drink fluids containing nanorobots programmed to attack and reconstruct the molecular structure of cancer cells and viruses. According to the International Journal of Surgery, they also could be programmed to perform delicate surgeries, a thousand times more precise than the sharpest scalpel. Nanorobots even could be programmed to perform cosmetic surgery, rearranging your very atoms to change your ears, nose, or eyes without leaving scars. (29)
Stronger materials: Nanotechnology is able to reinforce materials to make them stronger and lighter. Carbon nanotubes are one hundred times stronger than steel, but six times lighter. They can be used in a host of structural engineering applications, or to make body armor that is many times stronger than steel but unbelievably light. (30)
These applications remain in the realm of possibility rather than reality, at least for the foreseeable future. But one Caltech materials scientist, Julia Greer, is making breakthroughs today. Greer designs and builds nanomaterials that are among the strongest and lightest substances ever made. And they are not brittle.
Materials like Greer’s could replace composites in a range of applications. She can space the nanoscale walls in light-emitting materials or thermal insulation to control the flow of light or heat. And she is teaming with biologists to see whether the nanostructured ceramic could serve as a scaffold for growing bones- such as the tiny ones in the ear whose degeneration is one cause of deafness. (31)
The question for now is: how do you scale this?
Not every emerging technology will alter the business landscape—but some truly do have the potential to disrupt the status quo. The goal, then, is to pay attention; keep your head up and your eyes forward. You don’t want to miss an opportunity or be taken out by an opponent you didn’t see coming.
B Kyle is the vice president of strategic development at the Saint Paul Port Authority. She can be reached at email@example.com.