How will new technologies transform industry and society?

The World Economic Forum has embarked on the Digital Transformation Initiative research project to explore the impact of digitalization across 13 major industries. The research identifies several technologies that are expected to have the most impact in transforming business and society:
 

3D Printing: manufacturing on demand

In 3D printing, or additive layer manufacturing (ALM), objects are created from digital blueprint files by laying down successive layers of material. The range of materials that can be used with 3D printers has expanded significantly over the last decade, enabling highly optimized, on-demand and customizable solutions at little additional cost per unit.

Logistics industries and value chains may be disrupted, as 3D printing can help consumers and businesses print the object they desire somewhere close to their own location, reducing the need for parts and goods to be shipped.

In retail, 3D printing raises the possibility of in-store product printing and enables product customization for customers – everything from appearance, packaging, flavour and nutritional content. In healthcare, it can personalize devices and implants to individual anatomies, drastically reducing the need to buy items in bulk.

3D printing could have a significant environmental impact - reducing the number of unsold products, slashing transport emissions and creating opportunities for biodegradable materials. On average, it generates 5 to 10% waste material instead of the 90 to 95% typical of machining techniques that create a part by cutting away a solid block of material.

There are legal and ethical implications to be addressed in areas including bioprinting, the 3D printing of guns, and licensing. Cost, too, remains a significant barrier to adoption: an industrial 3D printer can cost up to $1 million

 

Artificial Intelligence: improving man with machine

Artificial intelligence develops computers that can sense the world, collect data, understand the information collected and act independently – all underpinned by the ability to learn and adapt over time.

By automating routine tasks, AI frees humans to focus on solving higher-order problems. In this way, digital innovations are improving workplace productivity (expected to rise by 22% by 2020) and reducing the labour needed to complete a job (by 4% a year to 2019).

Crash-avoidance technology in assisted-driving vehicles is already lowering accident rates. When AI-driven autonomous cars reach critical mass, those rates are likely to plummet. It is likely self-driving trucks for logistics will be on the market before self-driving cars.

Retailers are using AI for supply-chain cost optimization. In physical retail stores, AI-enabled digital assistants will seamlessly and automatically find, order and deliver the ideal option to customers, satisfying the growing consumer expectation of instant gratification.

The volume of data produced by healthcare organizations has increased tremendously, and this information is feeding analytics and machine learning technologies to improve the delivery of cancer treatments, personalize medical interventions, predict chronic diseases, drive behavioural change, and reducing the time it takes to bring new drugs to market.

There are wider, cross-industry questions to be answered: how do we prepare displaced humans to fill the roles created by AI? How should the wealth created by machines be distributed? How can we guard against AI mistakes and eliminate AI bias? How do we maintain control over complex, intelligent systems?


Autonomous Vehicles: a driving force for the future

The potential impact of autonomous vehicles is nothing short of revolutionary. Assisted driving and self-driving vehicles can deliver a combined $3 trillion in value, save 1.2 million lives, and reduce emissions by 540 million metric tonnes over the next 10 years.

Further benefits could come from increased mobility for those currently unable to drive (blind, disabled, too old, too young), reduced opportunity cost of time in the car as occupants can undertake other activities, reduced cost of congestion and reduced need for proximate parking, allowing for greater development of cities.

The widespread adoption of AVs in the immediate future is hindered by technical constraints, legislative wariness, infrastructure barriers, unpredictable consumer acceptance and cost of development. Consequently, the production of AVs will require a full transformation of automotive operations and their support ecosystem.

The route to critical mass adoption of AVs isn’t clear. Acceptance may occur after years of incremental introductions of discrete autonomous functions (‘assisted driving’) or more quickly, through the direct development of radical new ‘self-driving’ technology. Major players are pursuing one or both of these approaches.

 

Big Data Analytics and the Cloud: a more connected future

An estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are now produced every day, and estimates say 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years. But much of this data lies dormant: only 0.5% of it has ever been analyzed, which means that big data analytics retain huge potential to deliver benefits.

Thanks to cloud-based computing technology, organizations can now hire massive number-crunching capacity to analyze data whenever they need it, putting ‘big data analytics as a service’ among the fastest-growing cloud-based services. As the Internet of Things grows exponentially, cloud platforms will be essential in connecting devices and hosting related applications and data.

The benefits to industry of cloud-based big data analytics include:

  • New products and services
  • Better utilization of existing assets and inventory monitoring
  • Improved diagnostics and predictions
  • Greater customization of products and services
  • Improved workforce productivity and operational efficiency

The cloud and big data analytics can help with some of the biggest issues facing society today, including rising healthcare costs, crime and environmental conservation.

 

The Internet of Things: making the world smarter
The Internet of Things already consists of 7 billion devices – from fridges to thermostats to street lights – and is expected to grow to almost 50 billion objects by 2020. By 2020, nearly half of consumers will own a connected IoT device, with strongest demand for home cameras and security, smart watches and fitness devices.

IoT is likely to be the next major value opportunity across industries. The Industrial IoT is forecast to add $14 trillion to the global economy by 2030. As business models evolve over the coming decade, linking those 50 billion new legacy sensors to a common network will require industries to work closely with the telecom ecosystem.

By 2020, more than 90% of cars sold will be connected. The market for wearable devices is expected to soar from 45 million units in 2015 to more than 125 million by 2019. Adoption of IoT services across automotive, home energy management and logistics fleet management alone could lead to 26 million tonnes of avoided CO2 emissions over the coming decade.

IoT is also likely to be a key creator of new job roles, and more than 400,000 new jobs will be required across the telecom industry to support new revenue streams arising from IoT services.

As IoT grows, it will need unified regulatory mechanisms. As industry boundaries become blurred, IoT will touch many different industries across every sector of the economy. However, the jurisdictional issues relating to it are not yet solved and, without greater coordination, they threaten the continued deployment of IoT and the benefits it can deliver.


Robots and Drones: automation on the rise

Robots are making productivity gains at industrial sites, while businesses are using drones to find new efficiencies. The benefits of using robots and drones are straightforward - by taking humans away from the front lines of various industries, they can reduce the injuries and deaths caused by industrial accidents, while their greater operational efficiencies curb CO2 emissions.

Drones can avoid road traffic and thus help logistics companies make deliveries faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly. If drones can achieve 8.5% penetration in parcel deliveries by 2025, they could save 15 million tonnes in CO2 emissions and prevent up to 4,000 deaths from road accidents.

Over the next decade, autonomous machines could add $56 billion of value to the mining industry, as they increase output by operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at a high productivity level. Autonomous operations can increase worker safety, especially in extreme conditions such as those found in underground mines or hot mills. Because these autonomous machines consume less fuel than manual ones, they could also save around 400 million tonnes in CO2 emissions.

However, any sort of automation brings with it the question of job displacement. Over the next decade, 4% of the mining workforce (around 60,000 jobs) and 38,000 jobs in oil and gas are under threat.

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