12 out 2015
7 Disruptive Technologies
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The age of disruption has led to the creation of some quite breathtaking technological advances
No assembly required
You’ve heard of 3D printing? Good, but you’re already behind the times.
4D printing is what happens next, and it can be best defined as 3D printing plus stimuli.
A 3D printed unit may still need some assembly before it is finished, but 4D printed materials modify themselves on the fly – clothing that becomes a looser fit when it gets warmer, for example.
MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab is a major player in 4D printing research and they are clear on its promise, arguing that: “Using only water, heat, light or other simple energy input, this technique offers adaptability and dynamic response for structures and systems of all sizes.” As research scientist Skylar Tibbits puts it more poetically: “This allows us to give materials a life.” The business environment, unsurprisingly, stands to gain.
Inventory is a constant concern for the modern business, but equipment that can change itself to suit the task and circumstances can streamline almost any process.
Golden Hammer 2.0
A synthetic material, carbon nanotubes offer the combination of great strength, light weight and excellent electrical conduction and have uses in fields as diverse as hydrogen storage, electrical shielding and next generation lithium-ion batteries to name just three.
The ramifications for business are significant and the potential for disruption in many fields is strong.US Secretary of Energy (and Nobel Prize winner) Steven Chu made headlines when he addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun in 2010 and noted that an electric car with a next generation lithium-ion battery which could be recharged in two minutes could be a realistic replacement for one powered by fossil fuels. Such an advance could turn electric cars from impractical curiosities to the next big thing, and the disruption this would cause would be major indeed.
From an investment perspective, the carbon nanotubes industry is also an interesting opportunity.One study by Grand View Research projected that global production will quadruple between 2014 and 2022 to US$3.42 billion, with 40 per cent of that growth in the Asia-Pacific region alone thanks to demand from the region’s electronics sector.
Reinventing the wheel
You’ve probably seen headlines about selfdriving cars and perhaps they were even in Dave Coplin’s exploration of them in this very issue.Estimates on precisely when self-driving vehicles will hit the market vary widely and it is rare to find two observers in agreement: Audi’s Head of Product and Technology Communications Stefan Moser has argued for 2017, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has speculated on 2018, Ford CEO Mark Fields and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn both think 2020 more likely and Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche has predicted 2025. That all of the above are global names is no accident: this is the future of transport, and whoever holds the right patents wins.
The logistics sector is one of the world’s biggest employers and the domino effect caused by disruption to this sector – can the US economy survive 3.5 million truckers abruptly becoming unemployed? – is simply too huge to be anticipated and, when magnified to the global scale, the instability will be immense.Are you ready?
Hydrogen fuel cells
Engine for change
The hydrogen fuel cell promises to be the biggest disruptive development to transportation since the internal combustion engine replaced the horse, and the transition to a hydrogen-based economy will force a once-in-a-century disruption to the energy market and knock-on effects for anyone connected to it.
In practice, that’s every business to varying degrees and the disruption could be gigantic.
For one thing, how exactly is a huge change in transport infrastructure away from a petroleum-based economy to a hydrogen-based economy to be achieved? Perhaps the most cutting summary came from Tesla CEO (and, incidentally, the Chairman of solar energy company SolarCity) Elon Musk: “Hydrogen fuel cells are the energy of the future – and always will be.”
Spanner in the works
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have seen steady improvements to the point where a disruptive expansion of robots’ involvement in various industries is getting closer by the day.
Professor Ayanna Howard of Georgia Tech explains: “Everything’s starting to line up… The actuations, electronics and motors that you need to make robots function in the real world are getting cheaper.
Everything’s kind of coming together.” Manufacturing, construction and transportation are the sectors where robotics will likely replace human workers first – physical tasks that are difficult, dirty or dangerous or where boredom or distraction is a serious issue.
Kawasaki, Yaskawa and Lincoln Electric, for example, all offer robots that can weld and thus replace a human worker who could become tired, make mistakes or just be inconsistent.
However, the other side of the coin is huge unemployment as entire sectors of the economy become permanently post-human.Is society ready for such upheaval?
Come for the sunshine, stay for the people
Has solar power’s moment in the sun come at last? With the cost of solar power falling to the point where it can now begin to seriously compete with established coal, oil or nuclear options and projected costs of a mere US$1.60 per watt by 2020 according to research by McKinsey (as opposed to coal’s current rate of approximately US$2.10 per watt according to the US Department of Energy), the next big shift in energy could be solar power taking a truly competitive or even dominant place in the market.
What does this mean for business? On the one hand, a solar panel or two on the office roof taking the sting out of energy bills will doubtless be welcome news to any CFO and keeping carbon footprint under control is a routine part of many a modern business strategy.
On the other hand, disruption in the energy market famously spreads to other areas and a shift in infrastructure away from traditional models won’t happen overnight, cheaply or easily.
Net-zero energy buildings
One hand gives, the other takes
Net-zero energy buildings offer a disruptive new take on architecture that could see huge savings in facilities costs. Simply put, energy used in a building’s operation is matched by energy generated through renewable means onsite, cutting the need for external power and making energy bills a thing of the past.
Interestingly, net-zero energy buildings are already experiencing a very promising growth in market share and industrial construction – a sector ever-conscious of the bottom line – is particularly fertile ground for net-zero energy approaches when conventional power options are cost-prohibitive or unreliable. Tesla, for example, won headlines the world over when their net-zero energy Gigafactory in the solar-power-friendly Nevada Desert was announced in September 2014.
As net-zero energy becomes more practical and economical with each technological advance, net-zero energy assets may become a routine sight in real estate portfolios for tomorrow’s businesses.