THE EVER-INCREASING PACE of technological change is a fact of our times. Each year, advances impact individuals, businesses and nations in various—and not always anticipated—ways. To help CEOs prepare for the threats and opportunities new technologies will bring, Chief Executive talked to experts to identify and explore the seven most significant technological trends shaping business today.
1. 3D Printing
The ultimate disruptive technology, 3D printing cross-pollinates traditional printing with advanced manufacturing, revolutionizing the manufacturing process. Today’s 3D printers extrude products made from materials ranging from titanium to human tissue, allowing companies to custom-produce jet engine components and human prosthesis, human cells and hydroponic gardens.
By producing prototypes without tooling, 3D printing enables multiple product configurations, slashes R&D costs and truncates launch times. Low-cost mass customization becomes possible. 3D printing is poised to upend the supply chain by transforming aftermarket service. Why maintain a warehouse full of spare parts for legacy products when a third-party printer will license your specs, take over logistics and generate positive cash flow?
Gartner says worldwide shipments of 3D printers will double in 2015 over last year, exceeding 217,000 units, driven largely by enterprise demand. Overall, sales of 3D printers will reach $1.6 billion this year, on the way to exceeding $13.4 billion in 2018. The transformation from niche to mass printing has begun; industry giant HP announced plans to enter the market next year with a new technology, Multi Jet Fusion, hyped as 10 times faster than the quickest 3D printer today.
2. Internet of Things
The most aggressively hyped tech buzzword of 2014, the Internet of Things (IoT)—a.k.a. the Smart Web of Everything, a.k.a. the Internet of Everything—will go right on buzzing through 2015 and beyond. ABI predicts more than 30 billion devices with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses will be connected by 2020.
“Growth has been in the increasing digitization of all businesses,” notes Gartner vice president Joe Skorupa. “The value is getting different systems to work together and getting and using real-time data more advantageously.” IoT means manufacturers’ integrating more (and better) data about inventory supply, customer demand and manufacturing processes and then delivering it to more tablets, laptops and smart phones. In the process, this approach will reduce manufacturing waste and accelerate production cycles.
IoT essentially involves brand managers’ instituting demand-responsive pricing to better align supply and demand and public-sector transportation officials’ untangling traffic jams by integrating real-time data flow into flexible road directionals and implementing smart traffic-signal timing. On the consumer level, homeowners are upgrading to smart locks and reducing energy costs with smart devices like the Nest, which Google acquired last year for $3.2 billion. To preview the future, head over to one of five IoE Innovation Centers that Cisco has opened around the world. The latest opens in Berlin later this year.
3. Wearable Electronics
Google Glass’s introduction in 2014 launched Wearable Electronics into the stratosphere. After years, this sleepy category, laden with fitness bands and medical devices, was suddenly leading the news stream. Media coverage went gaga over Glass’s “Suddenly-the-Future-Is-Now” functionalities: Get GPS directions, record and transmit your voice, view weather information and of course, the Big One: take and transmit photos and video with just the wink of your eye. Google touted Glass as ideal for mobile work processes, such as automotive repair functions and even medical surgery.
Not surprisingly, public questions about privacy shadowed the launch and will continue to shape R&D and production in the category. Google is said to be exploring a contact-lens version of Glass, perhaps an end-run around privacy issues. Got the time? Apple’s entry into the Smart Watch market, expected early this year, will likely raise the bar. Early-to-market products, such as the Pebble Steel Smartwatch, Motorola Moto 360, Samsung Gear Live and Sony SmartWatch, won over early-adopters. By late October, Apple and Microsoft had launched competitive products.
Smart clothing, or e-textiles, continues to hold promise. Researchers continue to develop wearables that enable health-monitoring and behavior-adapting technologies. Misfit has introduced what it calls the high-performance technical t-shirt. Microsoft is working on a bra that can send bio-feedback information to help suppress appetites. Other products focus on tracking your sleep, diet, heartbeat, glucose levels and more. Expect products like haptic shoes, which will incorporate GPS systems using vibrating-sole interface and customized fitness systems designed to each user’s specifications.
4. Predictive Analytics
The brainier sibling to Business Intelligence, Predictive Analytics (PA) involves collaboration in collecting and merging continuous daily-activity data. Industry guru Eric Siegel, whose 2013 book Predictive Analytics is smart data mining’s Freakonomics, defines the field as “driving operational decisions via many individual per-individual predictions.” In other words: encoding experience.
Using analytics, online retailers can deploy “more sophisticated solutions” than discount come-ons to reduce the abandoned-cart syndrome, says consultant Dean Abbott. For example, they can woo walkouts by substituting offers for products recently purchased by “people like themselves.”
Talent Analytics predicts not just who will pass their tests but how many tries a candidate will require, says co-founder Greta Roberts. Expect to see growing industry focus on persuasion rather than prediction. Consultants will earn fees by guiding you in applying the Uplift Model to undecided purchase-decision modalities with variable weighted criteria. (That’s PA-speak for: Convince shoppers to buy your brand, not Brand X.)
5. Smart Dust
Sensors have been around for decades, but recent R&D has advanced the field by emphasizing integration with wireless data-transfer protocols, digitization and other technologies. Packets of microscopically scaled nano-sensors are clustered in mobile pods and used to track environmental data—temperature change, air quality and ambient movement; identify patterns instantaneously; and send data upstream. Smart dust has become a tool of environmental-cleanup specialists, emergency-relief teams, military strategists and oceanographers, as well as energy-efficiency experts and industrial-automation engineers. While currently restricted by limited power capacity, evolving 3G technologies will greatly accelerate data-transmission speeds—making smart dust smarter—and more essential—than ever.
6. Brain-Computer Interfaces
Products that allow the human brain to control a computer without physical movement continue to evolve. John Donoghue’s work at the Brown Institute’s BrainGate project has produced remarkable breakthroughs, such as enabling a completely paralyzed woman with sensor brain implants to use a robotic arm to pour herself a cup of coffee by visualizing the process. Last fall, a research team at Chalmers University of Technology announced the first mind-controlled prosthetic arms that “work in daily life” through computer interface bone implants.
At Colorado State, researchers at the Brain-Computer Interfaces Laboratory have produced a prototype where a user can don a headset and control a small, mobile robot hands-free; real-time instructions are on a pie-menu screen interface. In Brooklyn, New York, two computer scientists used Kickstarter last year to fund Phase I of a populist, open-source brain-computer interface that promises to “give anybody with a computer access to their brainwaves.” They’re back on Kickstarter for Phase II. Look for further entrepreneurial commercialization of recent academic research funded through crowdsourcing platforms.
7. Private Social Networks
The appeal of private social networks is not hard to figure out. Compare an exclusive country club with a crowded catering hall. You might be served similar food at both, but not just anyone can walk into the country club. These elite networks offer such lures as greater privacy, ad restrictions and—let us hope—a ban on user-posted videos of cats sliding off tables. Niche social networks like ASmallWorld beckon with exclusive event invitations and the lure of meeting “like-minded people and building long-lasting relationships.”
Elixio is a gated online community (membership to senior business executives by invitation only) that claims over 80,000 members worldwide. Affluence positions itself as the LinkedIn for the corner-office crowd, a self-described “network built around introducing…like-minded individuals all around the world.” Netropolitan Club joined the ranks of private networks in September. Pay its $9,000 induction fee plus annual $3,000 renewal fees and you’re free to socialize virtually in its private, secure and courteous environment, where online decorum is maintained by staff moderators.
Ad-free? Not exactly, but commercial messages are restricted to individual postings; no corporate brands are allowed. Expect more choices of elite networks in the future, including some developed by traditional, high-end hospitality brands.