Imagine that it’s a sunny Monday morning in June 1998. After a hot cup of Folders coffee, you drive to work listening to that new cassette tape you bought at the record store over the weekend. Upon arriving, it’s time to boot-up your desktop computer, and after a few minutes of staring at the familiar Windows 95 logo on the boot screen, you finally get to your desktop. Then, after checking no one is on the phone line, you impatiently wait for the dial-up connection to bring up your AOL account when you hear that famous phrase: “You’ve got mail!” Finally, you rifle through your desk to find the floppy disk with the files you were working on before the weekend.
It is easy to look back and say how different technology was fifteen years ago. It’s also not a stretch to say that technological innovations like laptops, broadband Internet, and USB drives have made the workplace more efficient. Computers are faster and more mobile, and information is more readily available and easier to store. It’s much faster now to send an email than to mail a letter or make a CAD drawing than to draw by hand. But what comes next?
There is a lot of speculation on how technology will evolve. What new tools will we use? How can we better understand the world around us? Below are 4 emerging technologies that should in the next 15 years make as much of an impact as the laptop computer had on the last.
1. 3D Printers and Scanners
What are they?
Image shows an original object (left), scanned into a 3-D model (on screen), and then printed using a 3-D printer (right). (Image by ALoopingIcon)
We are all familiar with what a 2-D scanner does. It takes a 2-D object, usually a piece of paper, and creates a digital representation of what was reflected in that space. A 3-D scanner does conceptually the same thing while incorporating an additional plane of space. So in addition to looking at the length and width of an object, it also measures the depth. The scanner then creates a digital model of what the object represents. It captures a large number of points and measures distance and sometimes color to reconstruct what the object would look like in model space.
A 3-D printer is effectively the opposite of a 3-D scanner. It takes a digital model and creates a physical object that the model represents. It does this by superimposing extremely thin layers of material (usually a plastic, resin, or metal alloy) on top of one another. In this way, it builds up layer by layer into any solid object.
Why are they important?
Creating a complex 3-D model using a CAD or drawing software is no easy task. By using a 3-D scanner to create a detailed digital model, you can save hours of engineering work. The scanners also makes reverse engineering a simpler task as the scanner can record all details of any visible surface.
3-D printers use a method of manufacturing called additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing has several benefits over traditional manufacturing. First of all, since the product is being constructed from scratch, the final product can be constructed fully finished in one step. This is good for small detailed parts that would be difficult to make in one process.
The second benefit is that 3-D printers are flexible, meaning they can easily make many different models without any physical changeover. This allows the manufacturing to be design driven, which is to say that the design determines the manufacturing process and not the other way around. These advantages have allowed 3-D printers to be the ideal tool for prototyping. If you want to create large numbers of unique detailed parts, 3-D printing is the way to go.
2. Augmented Reality
What is it?
Above is an example of a view using Monocle on the Yelp app. Monocle overlays what restaurants are nearby, how far they are, and how they have been rated. (Image by James Patrick Schmidt)
Augmented reality is the concept of overlaying a digital or enhanced images on a view of the real-world environment. In other words, augmented reality displays graphics, audio, and other sensory enhancements on the real world.
There are already several smartphone and tablet apps that use augmented reality through the on-board camera to capture the surrounding live image and generate graphics or information. An example of this is the monocle feature on Yelp’s mobile app. The monocle overlays the names, distances, and reviews of restaurants, bars, or stores in the direction you’re facing.
Augmented Reality is made even more relevant by wearable technology. Hardware like Google Glass allows for hands free access to this kind of information.
Why is it important?
The biggest potential upside of augmented reality from a work perspective is in training. This new technology would allow users to highlight steps in a process, access video tutorials, or connect socially to others for real-time video chat assistance. Digital directions could label parts in real space making it easier to understand the directives letting the employee get useful information without having to read through hundred page manuals. The technology would even allow the new operator to quickly identify a mistake and show how to fix it.
Other potential benefits include integrated GPS to map through both outdoor and indoor environments, and facial recognition software that could tag-team to give full customer or social information on sales calls.
3. The Internet of Things
What is it?
Illustration from quantumcinema.
One big difference between the world of fifteen years ago and the world today is how we access the Internet. Back then, most people were fortunate to have one device per family that could connect to the web. Internet surfing was limited to our desktop computers and nothing else.
Today, the number of web-enabled devices has skyrocketed. Almost everyone now has their own computer; some have separate home and work computers or multiple computers. You can also couple that with smartphones, tablets, netbooks, game consoles, and Smart TV’s. Some people even have smart refrigerators that show what food is left and what to pick up next time you go to the grocery store.
The Internet of Things takes this idea and expands it. At the current rate of growth, it’s projected that by the year 2020 there will be over 50 billion “things” connected to the Internet. And when they say things, they really do mean anything. For example, there is a Dutch start-up company called Sparked that is using sensors on cattle to monitor when they get sick, need to be fed, or milked.
The grand vision is to have everything on earth connected to the Internet and interconnected to create a smarter planet. Although this may sound like a Utopian (or according to some Dystopian) future, it’s closer to reality than you might think.
Why is it important?
The Internet of everything has a lot of potential benefits in the business world. From a business perspective, having everything interconnected makes tracking materials more precise. Products would be able to submit data describing performance, needs for repairs, and customer satisfaction while they are being used. This data would allow for a real-time customer satisfaction perspective. This could not only serve as a sales tool, but as an engineering one as well to design future generations of products to more perfectly fit consumers’ needs. Getting a better idea of customers’ preferences would make identifying ideal levels of output and inventory easier to identify as well.
From a manufacturing standpoint, it would allow monitoring of all material on site, from raw goods to finished products. This could make bottle necks and process improvements easier to spot and correct.
It would also make the supply chain easier to monitor. By analyzing the data from the traffic, weather, vehicle fuel levels, and driver’s aggressiveness on the roads, tracking shipments could be boiled down to a science.
4. Big Data
What is it?
Compared to the other 3 ideas, Big Data is by far the most abstract as it refers to a methodology rather than a specific innovation. Big Data refers to any data set too large to analyze using traditional data processing applications. The Internet of everything introduced the idea of receiving large amounts of data from unconventional sources; however, from the technology already integrated today, we already generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. (That’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or 2.3 billion gigabytes)
The data we can collect today can be truly remarkable in sheer quantity; however, the data alone doesn’t give you much information. Determining things like trends and preferences requires complex analysis. The scale of the data, by definition, is too much to handle for any one machine and will typically require use of software running on hundreds or even thousands of servers at a time.
Big Data is measured in four key dimensions: Volume– how much data, Velocity– how fast the data comes in, Variety– in what form is the data received, and Veracity (or Value)- how reliable is this information. These four dimensions shape how the data can be analyzed.
Why is it important?
Because Big Data is so large scale, it allows for decisions to be compared against more relevant samples. This is important because statistical analysis requires so much data for tests to become relevant. If there is not enough data available, it is impossible to tell whether observed trends are relevant or coincidental. By analyzing large amounts of data, it is much more likely that observed trends are relevant because they are in the aggregate.
Big Data is becoming the one of the most powerful tools in the business for two simple reasons. 1. It drives operational efficiency and 2. It helps in meeting consumer demand. By analyzing, for example, how many manufactured products move through the supply chain, you can identify operational bottle necks and help isolate best practices. Additionally, the more knowledge of consumer reactions to products (via reviews, repairs, and repetition of purchases), the more accurate you can become in forecasting demand.
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