"When you're up to your clavicle in alligators, it's tough to remember that the original objective was just to drain the swamp." Manufacturing seems to be like that today, surrounded by myriad alligators like offshore competition and out-of-control costs. Nonetheless, today's emerging technology will soon become the basis for tomorrow's products. A recent special report by Technology Review, MIT's magazine of innovation, offers us an excellent view over the technology horizon.
Mating robots with the nervous system will create a new generation of artificial limbs that work like the real thing. Some of the latest prosthetic knees on the market have built-in microprocessors that help the limbs move naturally. Professor Hugh Herr at MIT's Media Laboratory has taken this further, developing a knee with built-in sensors that measure bending angle and user-applied force while walking. A company in Iceland has already turned this artificial knee into a commercial product. The work is part of an emerging discipline called biomechatronics, in which researchers are building robotic prostheses that can communicate with users' nervous systems. Herr predicts that in 5 to 7 years, spinal-cord injury patients in the research lab will move their limbs again by controlling robotic exoskeletons.
Wire spun from carbon nanotubes could carry electricity farther and more efficiently. The material represents the first step toward a new type of wire, called quantum wire, that could transform the electrical power grid, according to Rice University chemist Richard Smalley. The goal is to make wire with so little electrical resistance that it doesn't dissipate electrical energy as heat. Another example from the exploding field of nanotechnology focuses on using carbon nanotubes to provide ultradense data storage. The goal here is to replace all memory and disk storage in computers. The storage capacity of nanomemory has the potential to exceed that of today's semiconductor RAM technology by three or four orders of magnitude, according to Sematech.
Far out? Only today. Herr, a double amputee, will be the first test subject for his latest prosthetic ankle prototype early next year. His vision for the field is to combine biomechatronics with tissue engineering and create limbs that combine artificial materials with human tissue. "I think," he says, "we'll inevitably end up with hybrid devices."
There's no reason to suspect that many of today's assembly methods and processes can't be used with minor, if any, modification to assemble tomorrow's products. But there's every reason to expect that assembling tomorrow's products will require new methods and processes as well.
Manufacturers that expect to survive and prosper tomorrow need to be developing those new assembly strategies today. Get a head start on tomorrow's products and markets by visiting www.technologyreview.com to learn more about these and other emerging technologies.