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World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies For 2015 Include Distributed Manufacturing

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The World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies has released their Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2015 and their findings support the importance of additive manufacturing, 3D printing and distributed manufacturing to global economic growth.

To compile the list, the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, a panel of 18 experts, draws on the collective expertise of the Forum’s communities to identify the most important recent technological trends.  You can find the 18 members of the Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies here.

The top ten emerging technologies for 2015 include the following:

1. Fuel cell vehicles

The World Economic Forum analysis found that mass-market fuel cell vehicles are one of several emerging technologies that have the potential to scale rapidly and deliver sustainability and cost advantages. Revolutionizing large-scale freight, logistics and supply networks using fuel cell vehicles would lead to enterprises’ long-term sustainability goals being achieved faster, with the potential of seeing a drop in operating and maintenance costs over the long-term as well.

2. Next-generation robotics

The study found that the new age of robotics takes machines away from just automating the most manual manufacturing assembly line tasks and orchestrates them to collaborate in creating more advanced assemblies, subassemblies and complete products. Collaborative robotics can accelerate time-to-market, improve production accuracy and reduce rework.  The study also showed how using GPS technology that is commonly available in smartphones, robots are beginning to be used in precision agriculture for weed control and harvesting. In Japan, robots are being tested in nursing roles: they help patients out of bed and support stroke victims in regaining control of their limbs. The study also acknowledges that the next-generation of robotics poses novel questions for fields from philosophy to anthropology about the human relationship to machines

3. Recyclable thermoset plastics

Thermoset plastics has historically only been capable of being heated and shaped once due to molecular changes that lead to their retaining their shape and strength. Having recyclable thermoset plastics will contribute to greater levels of sustainability and a big reduction in landfill waste. The Council expects recyclable thermoset polymers to replace unrecyclable thermosets within five years, and to be ubiquitous in newly manufactured goods by 2025.

4. Precise genetic engineering techniques

Genetically engineering crops for higher yields using RNA interference (RNAi) has proven effective against viruses and fungal pathogens, and can also protect plants against insect pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Despite this and many other benefits, genetically engineering crops continues to be a catalyst of global controversy.  The council mentioned this as one of the top ten emerging technologies given its ability to scale crop yields, reduce waste, and improve crop quality. The ethical dilemmas this technology raises needs to also be addressed for genetic engineering to reach critical mass globally.

5. Additive manufacturing (3D Printing)

By definition, additive manufacturing starts with loose material, either liquid or powder, and then builds it into a three-dimensional shape using a digital template. The study makes the point of how 3D products can be uniquely tailored to specific customer needs, alleviating the constraints of mass production methods.  The study’s authors mention Invisalign, a company that uses computer imaging of customers’ teeth to make near-invisible braces tailored to their mouths. The study found that an important next stage in additive manufacturing would be the 3D printing of integrated electronic components, such as circuit boards.

6. Emergent artificial intelligence

The study defines artificial intelligence, in contrast to normal hardware and software, as the series of technologies that enables a machine to perceive and respond to its changing environment. Emergent AI is the nascent field of how systems can learn automatically by assimilating large volumes of information. An example of this is how IBM’s Watson system is now being deployed in oncology to assist in diagnosis and personalized, evidence-based treatment options for cancer patients.

7. Distributed manufacturing

The study defines distributed manufacturing as the continual strategy to replace as much of the material supply chain as possible with digital information. In manufacturing a chair for example, instead of sourcing wood and fabricating it into chairs in a central factory, digital plans for cutting the parts of a chair can be distributed to local manufacturing hubs using computerized cutting tools known as CNC routers. Parts can then be assembled by the consumer or by local fabrication workshops that can turn them into finished products.  Cloud-based platforms supporting two-tier ERP systems that have distributed order management capability will be one of many catalysts of distributed manufacturing growth.

8. ‘Sense and avoid’ drones

The study’s authors see “sense and avoid” drones as having the potential to complete tasks too dangerous or remote for humans to do.  These include checking electric power lines and delivering medical supplies in an emergency for example.  The meta-council also sees the potential for autonomous drones to improve agricultural yields by collecting and processing vast amounts of visual data from the air, allowing precise and efficient use of inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation.

9. Neuromorphic technology

Neuromorphic technology will be the next stage in machine learning according to the study’s authors. IBM’s million-neuron TrueNorth chip, revealed in prototype in August 2014, has a power efficiency for certain tasks that is hundreds of times superior to a conventional CPU (Central Processing Unit), and more comparable for the first time to the human cortex.  The challenge will be creating code that can realize the potential of the TrueNorth chip, which is an area IBM continues investing in today.

10. Digital genome

The study sees digital genomes as a means of gaining greater insights and intelligence into many of the most challenging, costly and complex diseases to treat today. From heart disease to cancer, all have a genetic component. The study’s authors point out that cancer is best described as a disease of the genome. With digitization, doctors would be able to make decisions about a patient’s cancer treatment informed by a tumor’s genetic make-up. The study concludes that this new knowledge is also making precision medicine a reality by enabling the development of highly targeted therapies that offer the potential for improved treatment outcomes, especially for patients battling cancer.

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