Advances in technology are generally touted as harbingers of glorious new product opportunities. And indeed they are; but the challenges that manufacturers will face in bringing those products to market profitably are typically glossed over. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at some new technologies that are likely to be challenging your assembly expertise in the near future.
Digital devices, medical techniques and energy are all out on the leading edge of new technological research and development. Today’s digital cameras, for example, closely mimic film cameras, which makes them grossly inefficient, largely because the digital compression process used to store an image consumes an inordinate amount of energy from the battery. Richard Baraniuk and Kevin Kelley, both professors of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University (Houston) have developed a new technique called compressive sensing that they say will improve virtually any imaging system, from mobile-phone cameras to MRI Systems. They expect the first practical applications within 2 years.
No renewable power source has as much theoretical potential as solar energy. But the promise of cheap and abundant solar power remains unmet, largely because today’s solar cells are so costly to make and because the materials are hazardous to work with. While methods exist to handle the materials safely, cost is still the overriding concern. Some chemists believe that quantum dots-tiny semiconductor crystals only a few nanometers wide-have the potential to make solar power cost-competitive with electricity generated from fossil fuels.
Although his work has not yet produced a material suitable for commercialization, Arthur Nozik, a senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, CO) has demonstrated results suggesting that quantum dots could increase the efficiency of converting sunlight into electricity. The project is a gamble and Nozik readily admit that it might not pay off. But he says a photovoltaic device based on quantum dots could have a maximum conversion efficiency of 42 percent, far better than silicon devices at 31 percent. Potential gains of this magnitude will always drive scientists to pursue a project. The quantum dot devices themselves are cheap to make and could be combined with inexpensive conducting polymers. Nozik says a working quantum dot polymer cell could eventually place solar electricity on a nearly even economic footing with electricity from coal-which would be a sure path to a Nobel Prize in addition to its societal benefits.
These are only two of the advances in technology described in the annual “10 Emerging Technologies” report that appeared recently in Technology Review, published by MIT (Cambridge, MA). We commend your attention to this report, which you can find at www.technologyreview.com. Why? Because turning the results of research into practical and profitable application requires manufacturing a marketable product. And at the end of the day, it always falls to you-America’s manufacturing engineers-to step up to these new challenges.
Editorial: New Challenges
May 24, 2007