21/04/2017 – Independent / Innovation / Technology / Frost & Sullivan / TechVision

When Worlds Converge

Following the launch of Frost & Sullivan’s annual ‘Top 50 Emerging Technologies’ report, Rajiv Kumar – Senior Partner and Global Head at TechVision, the firm’s global tech-focused practice – sheds light on a handful of highly prospective innovations that are set to revolutionise the industrial landscape as such worlds converge. Industry Networker’s Sarah Pursey reports.

 

From venture capitalist Marc Andreesen famously stating that “Software is eating the world” back in 2011, to marketing guru Clive Humby proclaiming that “Data is the new oil” and computer scientist Andrew Ng asserting that “AI is the new electricity”, buzz-quotes in the business and tech spheres point towards the dizzying rate at which technology is advancing to challenge the old world order. To TechVision’s Global Head, Rajiv Kumar, it is the convergence of emerging technologies that is by far the most exciting prospect, however. “Consider what Steve Jobs did in 2001 when he introduced the first iPod to the world – it wasn’t a new invention; it was more about bringing together existing and emerging technologies of the time to create a combined product and service that nobody even thought they needed. More recent examples include the likes of AirBnB and Uber – neither invented a new technology, but rather they brought to the fore new ways of monetising technologies by combining them to provide something new. The key to innovation is therefore knowing what your customers want – even before they know it.” 

 

Speaking to Industry Networker from Frost & Sullivan’s Santa Clara office in the heart of Silicon Valley, TechVision’s Global Head is obviously in a good position to observe any number of nascent innovations at the bleeding edge. Now in its seventh year, TechVision’s ‘Top 50 Emerging Technologies’ report is the product of a global team of tech analysts spending thousands of hours poring over a tremendous number of data points to select the hottest technologies from over 600 possible contenders. Using proprietary selection methodology, the research firm rated and selected technologies that would have the greatest global impact over one to two years – and the potential to collectively generate trillions of dollars over the next five years. The chosen technologies are spread across nine tech clusters – Micro-electronics, ICT, Health & Wellness, Medical Devices & Imaging; Sensors & Instrumentation; Chemicals & Advanced Materials; Advanced Manufacturing & Automation; Environment & Sustainability; and Energy & Utilities – which Mr Kumar says account for around 90 per cent of R&D and innovation activity today. 

 

“In my view, all 50 technologies are like stars in the universe – each one has their own ecosystem,” suggests Mr Kumar. “However, when you join the dots – when you combine AI with wearable electronics, lithium batteries and smart glass, for example – the sum becomes greater than its parts. So, it’s less about invention and more about innovation – combining technologies that already exist to create something new.” Accordingly, TechVision’s report looks deeply into the application and convergence potential of each multi-billion-dollar emerging technology via ‘scenario visioning’, enabling stakeholders to initiate transformational growth. Below is a snapshot of four such prospective innovations.

 

Nano 3D printing – size matters

 

“3D printing has become a well-established buzzword in recent years, although the next year or two will see the emergence of numerous variations, including nano 3D printing,” informs Mr Kumar, who describes the technology of producing miniaturised parts through additive manufacturing processes.

 

Nano-sized devices with high strength and lightweight features can be developed using an appropriate combination of inks and printing technologies. Such a process would allow manufacturers to produce components as small as 10 nanometres (nm) – very small-scale, when you consider the diameter of a human hair is roughly 75,000nm. It would also allow for the production of such tiny parts via a single-step manufacturing process (thus limiting the amount of scrap produced). As a result, TechVision expects such technology to find a multitude of applications in consumer electronics (flexible electronics and micro-optics, for instance) and healthcare (miniaturised implants). Researchers at the University of California have already developed a 3D piezoelectric nanoparticle printing technique that they intend to 

use for printing natural and artificial bio implants. Meanwhile, Israeli company Nano Dimension uses the inkjet deposition technique to 3D print electronic PCBs (printed circuit boards) that can be incorporated into electronics and instrumentation parts. 

 

Automotive is another prospective area, given the increased amount of sensors in new models, and the trend towards reducing device/component size in cars, including EVs. TechVision’s study notes that Czech researcher Jan Prochazka has already developed a nano 3D printed battery to be used in the automotive sector.

 

In its entirety, the global nano manufacturing market is expected to grow at more than 22 per cent CAGR to reach US$16bn by 2021 – and 3D printed nano looks set to claw an expanding share of that segment as the limitations of traditional nano manufacturing processes prompt greater adoption of nano printing techniques.

 

From robots to ‘cobots’

 

“Another interesting emerging technology is that of collaborative industrial robots, or ‘cobots’,” continues Mr Kumar. “Developing the ability of robots to work alongside people is a fascinating feature that, over the next five years, we expect to become a key growth opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises in particular.” Certainly, with the promise of increased production efficiency, reduced operational costs, and reduced error rate – alongside enhanced health and safety for workers, cobots could revolutionise industrial automation and consumer markets alike, predicts TechVision’s study. It notes that component technologies involved in cobot innovations include vision-based systems (2D and 3D sensors), force and torque sensors, tactile sensors, obstacle detection sensors, actuators, end effectors, and simulation and programming platforms. Some cobots even feature tactile electronic skin to provide an enhanced sense of touch.

 

Collaborative robot technology feeds in to three of the ‘mega-trends’ identified and defined by Frost & Sullivan’s global team in separate research. The first relates to the exponential rise of e-commerce retail, in which the requirement for fast and quick services is a given. The incorporation of cobot services within the logistics and industrial environment would boost speed, efficiency and ultimately customer satisfaction for that sector. One example of this in action is Rethink Robotics’ cobot – ‘Sawyer’ – which has been deployed by logistics giant DHL in its European warehouse to support warehouse workers with their activities and to improve productivity.

 

The second mega-trend is that of Health, Wellness & Well-Being, with healthcare-related services increasingly leveraging smart robots that have user-friendly systems, thus providing instant services. German robotic firm KUKA has developed a cobot capable of assisting surgeries in hospitals, functioning as a support to doctors and as a potential guardian for patients in rehabilitation centres.

 

The final mega-trend into which cobots taps is that of ‘Connectivity and Convergence’ – the rise of industrial IoT means that automated technologies will have access to more data as the number of connected devices increases, opening the doors for a wide array of sectors to benefit. Aside from healthcare and logistics, other industries within which TechVision expects cobots to have a high impact include aerospace and defence, consumer electronics, and the automotive sector. One example of the latter is carmaker Ford, whose founder invented the moving assembly line over a century ago – it continues to adopt progressive manufacturing processes to this day, having incorporated cobots to support testing-related activities at its Cologne assembly plant. 

 

Materials, heal thyself

 

Over the next five years, the TechVision team sees self-healing materials developing into a US$10.3bn opportunity. “Self-healing materials have the capability to increase durability and functionality, and as such have already garnered considerable interest from stakeholders across industries, although particularly in the fields of paints and coatings, textiles and the automotive sector. If a car gets a little scratched, for example, it could self-heal that surface damage,” advises Mr Kumar. His study also highlights the development by Stanford University researchers of a super-stretchy self-healing elastomer material that, in partnership with Samsung Electronics, could help develop highly durable, next-gen wearable electronics, and medical implants. 

 

“In critical infrastructure too, self-healing materials hold much potential – for healing cracks in pipelines, on roads and runways, and in offshore applications,” he continues. Indeed, the oil & gas sector could benefit considerably, given the oft high-risk, inaccessible nature of such operations. Cement sheath failure, for one, is a major concern in oil wells, leading Schlumberger to recently commercialise a self-healing cement technology (‘FUTUR’) that offers continuous, long-term well integrity. The cement formulation activates its self-healing capabilities upon contact with hydrocarbons and repairs cracks and micro-annuli, thereby eliminating the need for high cost remedial action.

 

Another sector set to benefit will be aviation, given the need for scratch-resistant, durable exteriors, and the attractive prospect of aircraft wings that could heal themselves when exposed to harsh impacts (thus extending the part-replacement cycle). Rapid growth is also expected in the use of reversible polymers for electronic devices up to 2021. Indeed, Apple has already filed a patent application pertaining to a self-healing elastomer, which combines flexibility, water-proof, and self-healing characteristics to enable the development of smartphone parts and components that are all-terrain compatible. Other key innovations in the arena include Samsung’s self-healing flexible lithium-ion battery, Goodyear’s Eagle 360 Urban concept levitating tire with self-healing bionic skin, and a multi-purpose self-healing coating from SLIPS.

 

“If self-healing technology can be combined with sensors, that would allow a predictive maintenance function to come into play,” points out Mr Kumar. “In textiles, for example, there are specific applications where it would be advantageous for sensors and self-healing materials to combine and create an alarm or alert, should there be exposure to certain fumes, chemicals or heat, for example. It is therefore an exciting technology – there’s no doubt about it.”

 

Signalling progress

 

“Certainly, many self-healing material developments will actually revolve around having sensors in place to detect changes – and sensors are actually an area experiencing considerable growth at present,” advises Mr Kumar, highlighting biosensors as a particularly prospective segment within the field. Indeed, Frost & Sullivan research forecasts that global revenues for the biosensors market will almost double from 2016 to the end of 2021, to reach $28.78bn.

 

Consisting of a transducer that picks up electrical signals generated through the interaction of a biological element and an analyte, a biosensor effectively measures and quantifies electrical signals (with its signal processor) and converts them into a digital form that can then be read on a local or remote computer. Such technology is already widely used in healthcare, which accounts for over 68 per cent of the technology’s global market today.

 

Now, biosensors are poised to impact the food and chemical sectors, predicts TechVision. In the food industry, biosensors are improving quality control in supply chain management. They have also become integral in agriculture and plant biology applications, with crops routinely tested to prevent plant diseases. Beyond that, a research team from Washington State University recently developed a simple, portable device integrated with its ‘nanoflower’ biosensor, which detects and amplifies the signal of E.coli – a dangerous food pathogen. Meanwhile, in the chemicals sector, due to their very high sensitivity, biosensors can be used to detect minute traces of chemicals – even at parts-per-billion ranges – opening up a world of possibility for enhancing safety and quality.

 

Elsewhere, smart wearables are expected to be a key biosensor application, with driver fatigue status and biometric health-tracking devices set to be widely implemented by 2021. This will be bolstered by the advent of the IoT, whereby convergence of biosensor tech with the ability to instantaneously communicate the data will result in real-time monitoring of patients, as well as providing fatigue-level monitoring in vehicle drivers, factory workers and mining personnel with enhanced accuracy. Beyond that, biosensors will likely play a prominent role in a mega-trend that Frost & Sullivan dubs ‘Innovate to Zero’. TechVision’s study notes that biosensors will help in improving existing sensor technologies used for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) threat detection.

 

Everything that rises must converge

 

“The concept of ‘Innovate to Zero’ is really one of using technologies to get to a perfect world whereby there are zero accidents, zero errors and zero breaches of security,” explains Mr Kumar, who notes there already exists many technologies that, once combined, would achieve zero manufacturing defects, or zero errors in healthcare, for instance. Artificial Intelligence, he points out, represents a perfect example of a technology that will contribute considerably to achieving an ambitious goal that most people across a spectrum of industrial sectors would perhaps assume to be unobtainable.

 

And while an article of this length obviously cannot explore each and every star innovation that TechVision has put forth in its extensive new report on emerging tech, it nonetheless hopefully provides a glimpse into the globally-reaching, sector-spanning potential of those technologies that it does touch upon. Moreover, what becomes most evident from speaking with Mr Kumar about TechVision’s new report is the strong potential for convergence between such technologies to create new and previously unimagined benefits and applications that will transform our world in the years to come. In terms of the way in which tech is evolving, he advises to ‘Look beyond what you see’ – “While you may be focused on a specific technology, cluster, or industrial silo, there is a need to focus beyond that. Instead, look for potential and possibly unlikely collaboration partners – both with other companies and even within the same business across subsidiaries that may not collaborate or share IP. Beyond that, there may even be the potential to collaborate with competitors. In contrast to just holding on to your technology or product, the shift is more towards co-creating.”

 

For more information, or to order Frost & Sullivan’s ‘Top 50 Emerging Technologies: Growth Opportunities of Strategic Imperative’, visit: www.frost.com/d6f5

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