Technologies to watch in 2019: Predictions for the engineering year ahead
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What will 2019 hold for us? Will wearables make us fitter? Could Babyboomers become bionic? What effects will the likes of blockchain technology have on business? Will companies begin to harness the potential of the IoT? We ask experts to gaze into their crystal balls for the year ahead.
Dr Michelle Oye, associate professor of biomedical engineering at East Carolina University
“There’s a realisation with the ageing baby boomer population that the growth of biomedical engineering can help this generation. They absolutely do not want to retire or slow down and really want advancements helping them to stay active. Much of this technology exists already, but we are focusing more on how to apply it to medical problems.
“Where it will get interesting is with the human interface element. We’ve got used to wearable technology and doing simple things such as counting steps. Yet we will see a growing willingness to monitor our own health and convey our own data to medical practitioners. We’ve already seen this with pregnant women who are motivated to monitor their metrics and provide information for doctors – this will be an extension of that.
“This year we’ve heard how an artificial pancreas (a continuous glucose monitor, an insulin pump and a computer programme) can help diabetes sufferers better manage their glucose levels. Drug delivery becomes more automated, and patients no longer have to administer their own injections. This is a good example of using health monitoring and information and actually doing something with it – there will be advances in drug delivery.
“I think we will see developments in prosthetics too. An artificial arm is no longer a passive object – electrodes can connect to live muscles, so you can control a hand by, for example, moving your upper biceps in a way that’s very natural. Next steps would be to develop this technology to help someone who’s paralysed – a device can help move them in ways they’ve not been capable of.
“In the future the interest in neuroscience will continue. We are trying to understand the brain and make advances in neuro-engineering. Scientists are looking at the brain body interface and how that relates to devices we may be developing as engineers. But this is far into the future.”
Nelson Phillips, professor of Strategy and Organisational Behaviour at Imperial College Business School
“There’s much more to blockchain technology than cryptocurrencies. It could revolutionise how businesses manage their supply chains. It could have a huge impact in the efficiency and cost of complex transactions.
“With all new technologies, there’s always a tipping point, and it’s taking time to work out the best application. We’ve seen that in the recent past with cloud computing. Companies are experimenting with blockchain – ultimately they’ll have to convert the whole supply chain. Although it might not be adopted within 2019 we’ll certainly see it within the next five years.
“At a simple level, it could work brilliantly for fair trade goods. Blockchain – an indelible, incorruptible ledger – could track a coffee or cocoa bean from the moment it’s picked, telling you which farm it came from, which farmer picked it, and what happened to it right up to the moment it reached the store.
“Manufacturing is perhaps the most obvious example, but blockchain could apply also to the digital world. It could allow all points of the supply chain to be taken care of automatically – from payments to legislation, to taxes and contracts, within a highly secure environment – goods arrive, payment is sent. The more complex your supply chain, the more interesting this becomes.
“Blockchain is closely related to the Internet of Things (IoT). It offers a highly efficient way to keep track of information generated from connected sensors and devices. It could be used to generate many micropayments, for instance insurance costs for every time you use your car, or payment for road use or parking.
“Global payment systems used by banks that deal with millions of payments each day are potentially replaceable with blockchain. What’s really interesting here – and what everyone is waiting for – is to understand how the government might regulate these systems. It’s very early days and regulators are quite distracted at the moment.”
Frank Gillett, principal analyst serving CIO professionals and vice president at market researchers Forrester
“One thing we won’t see in 2019 is any simplification or standardisation of the IoT – it’s an extremely complex space and there is an enormous variety of technologies.
“Product companies will increasingly realise the IoT changes dramatically the way they understand and work with customers.
“There are three scenarios to adoption. Manufacturers for instance must design IoT within the product – be it a widget or a cement truck – and that is a whole exercise in itself. All companies must assess physical assets and how they can use them to improve business. Some businesses will want to look to the outside connected world and ask what relevant information they could use from other assets. It could be simple data such as looking at the effect the weather has on customers.
“Yet the most overlooked question is ‘can I improve my value to customers using IoT or is my opportunity only to become more efficient and save money?’. Most manufacturers are used to shipping products, collecting the money and hoping nobody ever calls them about it as that will cost them money. But we are going from an era when the customer is a sensor on the product to an era when the product is a sensor on the customer. Costs of moving from a ‘dumb’ product to a connected one, however, can be eye popping, and companies need to find ways to recoup their money.
“This means we will see a shift in how businesses operate. Intelligent parts will be able to monitor performance. This helps companies create new business models and choose to sell a service rather than product. So a producer of ‘intelligent’ ball bearings, for instance, can schedule maintenance when required – based on information from sensors within clients’ machinery. A washing machine manufacturer can partner with soap producers to order more when stocks run low by monitoring frequency of washing cycles.
“In 2019, product companies will be beginning to work through a long and complicated sequence of rethinking customer relationships and organisational structure. People responsible for operations will need to work with customer-facing teams, and think more holistically. Rather than simply looking to save costs, they must collaborate to improve customer metrics, and ultimately drive shareholder value.”
Luke Dormehl, technology commentator and author
“AI and its related hardware-centric field of robotics will continue transforming the workplace in 2019. Whatever profession you work in, whether it’s medicine, law, driving a taxi or working in a warehouse, you can expect to see a growing level of disruption from the steely hand of automation. According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, around 75 million jobs will be lost or massively disrupted by machines by 2025. AI promises to carry out the four ‘d’s’ more efficiently: jobs that are dangerous, dull, dirty or dear (read: expensive).
“The good news? Around 133 million jobs will be created during the same time. In other words, AI is going to shake up the jobs market more than ever, but there are enormous opportunities nestled among the threats.
“Many new jobs will involve computer skills. For instance, machine learners and coders will be poised to reap the rewards. However, not every new type of job will involve being the next Mark Zuckerberg. For instance, ‘high touch’ jobs that rely on interpersonal skills won’t be easily replaced. Some work, such as caring for our growing elderly population, may not be tasks we want to hand over readily to machines. The same is true of roles which require human creativity, something that computers may be able to augment, but will not replace any time soon. Then there are those jobs we cannot even conceive of at present. Who, 15 years ago, would have thought that in 2018 being a popular YouTuber would be one of the most aspirational career paths for teenagers? This will not be a seamless transition, but I’m also not convinced we are going to live in a world free from work in the immediate future. I believe jobs will still exist – they will hopefully just be more interesting and, ideally, better paid.”
Dormehl’s published work includes ‘Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Where It’s Taking Us Next’
Brian Kilkelly, development lead at EIT Climate-KIC
“Rapid innovation in renewables has caused prices of solar and wind power to plummet, blowing forecasts out of the water.
“Exciting innovations are emerging from our community, including an intelligent control system for battery storage (from Brill Power). There’s also a novel flywheel storage solution (from Adaptive Balancing Power). Another initiative has created an efficient hybrid solar panel that generates both electricity and heat (Naked Energy’s Virtu) – these are all projects supported by EIT Climate-KIC.
“We’re also going to hear more about carbon capture and storage, and here too we’re supporting exciting projects including Origen Power, a start-up that graduated from the London EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator in 2014. This is a new form of power station that uses natural gas to generate electricity in a way that removes CO2 from the atmosphere at the same time, effectively producing carbon-negative power. As chief executive Tim Kruger says: ‘If you were to generate all electricity this way, you would not only eliminate all emissions from power generation, but also remove another 15 billion tonnes of CO2 from the air, cutting overall emissions globally by about 60 per cent.’
“We’ve also supported a start-up working on direct air capture, which captures CO2 from the air.
“Other solutions to watch include new perovskite solar technology, which promises to be highly efficient (especially when layered on silicone), and floating solar farms.
“Carbon capture is no silver bullet, and making electricity is just one part of the decarbonisation and resilience puzzle.
“Promising ideas will emerge from other parts of the economy too. The use of wood in construction is going to increase substantially in 2019. Mobility as a service is also a part of our near future, and we’ve supported projects such as smartphone technology to make travel easier and smoother through to low-emission car clubs, which could replace private car ownership.
“Broad-based systems innovation is the most prudent hedge for avoiding catastrophic climate change.”
Jodie Hughes, entrepreneur development manager at NatWest in London
“We run accelerator programmes for businesses in all sectors, including fintech, and we anticipate changes to regulation this year will encourage strong growth in numbers of new businesses in 2019.
“Open banking has brought sweeping changes. Introduced in January, it means that banks must allow customers the opportunity to share their own financial information with other authorised providers. This has encouraged entrepreneurs to start businesses around these changes. They’ve created platforms using open banking that help analyse a customer’s data and allow them to make recommendations on how they could save money – by changing utilities or suppliers, for instance.
“Another change on the horizon is the potential regulation of cryptocurrencies. At the end of this year, the Financial Conduct Authority is due to issue a review. Currently, the market is unregulated, but if it were to be controlled, this would create an opportunity for businesses to use cryptocurrencies to raise equity in a business. This could prompt an influx of start-ups based around a brand new market of digital currencies.
“Entrepreneurs will have more help than ever – here in London, there’s the entrepreneur accelerator that gives wraparound support, our own digital studios where we are constantly testing innovations, and the likes of RocketSpace all in the same building. Last year, I hardly dealt with any fintech businesses and this year we’ve been inundated with applications. There’s lots of excitement and I’m optimistic the trend will continue.”
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