The Economist’s Innovation Editor on the Next Tech Megatrends: Procurious Big Ideas Summit 2016

Procurious Big Ideas Summit prescott09/Adobe Stock

Paul Markillie, innovation editor for The Economist, kicked off the second morning session at the Procurious 2016 Big Ideas Summit with a talk centered on technology megatrends that may “transform” the way businesses operate. Theming his talk around “The New Industrial Revolution,” Markillie started the centerpiece of his talk by describing a number of converging themes that are reshaping industry. These include:

  • Computer-aided engineering design and simulation. Markillie noted that products are now designed in computer systems, as well as tested (even comparatively via simulation) and prototyped virtually.
  • New materials, nanotechnology and biotechnology. Markillie suggested that in five years time, we will have the basic properties of all known and predicted materials mapped, which will dramatically speed up product development.
  • Advanced, cheaper and more flexible robotics. Here, Markillie observed that current robots are big and dangerous. But new robots will work with people rather than replace them. They will “learn by doing” alongside factory workers, and today one can even express surprise, through digital facial reaction, when something unexpected occurs.
  • Autonomous and driverless cars. Markillie suggested that true driverless car are defined by taking the driver out of the car, which is coming soon (Google is testing this today). Driverless trucks will have a major impact on logistics as well.
  • New production processes. These include continuous manufacturing plants and production facilities in stores to print customized sneakers based on modeling a customer’s feet.
  • 3-D printing has come of age. Marikille gave the example of GE, which will be printing fuel nozzles for its aircraft engine division at scale.
  • The maker movement. The maker movement centers on the ability to do design and manufacturing from a laptop. Everything you need is available online, from outsourced design help to prototype creation to production-quantity runs to warehousing and distribution to sales and marketing expertise.
  • New players. These include Tesla (displacing traditional automotive OEMs) and Quirky (displacing materials firms like 3M) in bringing to market creative new products that create entire new product classes while disrupting the status quo.
  • New shapes. Marikille shared the example of an optimized part design that has the exact same strength and properties of materials today, but is 70% lighter and was designed by an optimization algorithm and then printed.
  • New economies of scale. Which may prove game changing for production.
  • New devices. These include organs on a chip and customized medicine.
  • New possibilities. Including small satellites that makes getting into space with your own satellite that much more expensive.
  • Star Trek. Imagine printing new or spare parts in space. It’s actually happening today.

Do these ideas sounds outlandish or far off? Markillie observed at the start of his talk that when we “first put 3-D printing on the cover of The Economist in 2011, people thought we were bonkers.” And look where it is today, co-located with logistics providers to provide for overnight, production-quantity runs.

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