Top 10 emerging technologies that could transform manufacturing

Posted on 2 Jul 2019 by Maddy White

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has revealed its top ten emerging technologies of 2019, but how will they disrupt and accelerate manufacturing?

The world of technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace. Discussions within manufacturing have swiftly moved from the explosion of robotics and automation to the cloud and as-a-Service offerings; now innovators are increasingly looking to IoT, AI and blockchain to fast-track their businesses.

“From income inequality to climate change, technology will play a critical role in finding solutions to many of the challenges our world faces today,” said Jeremy Jurgens, chief technology officer at WEF. “This year’s emerging technologies demonstrate the rapid pace of human innovation and offer a glimpse into what a sustainable, inclusive future will look like,” he adds.

The World Economic Forum has listed its emerging technologies for the year, and no doubt, these will play a part in reshaping the industrial industry. We take a deeper look at three of them.

WEF’s top ten emerging technologies of 2019:

  • Bioplastics for a Circular Economy
  • Social Robots
  • Tiny Lenses for Miniature Devices
  • Disordered Proteins as Drug Targets 
  • Smarter Fertilizers Can Reduce Environmental Contamination
  • Collaborative Telepresence 
  • Advanced Food Tracking and Packaging 
  • Safer Nuclear Reactors
  • DNA Data Storage 
  • Utility-Scale Storage of Renewable Energy

Tracking & packing food

Blockchain could improve food traceability - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Blockchain could improve food traceability – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Food we trust. Roughly 600 million – almost one in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food every year (according to the WHO); it’s more important than ever to be able to trace food within supply chains.

The food we consume has often been on a complex journey to get to our plate, but one technology that could ensure every checkpoint in that journey is accounted for is blockchain. By logging the transactions of growers, manufacturers and retailers on a common blockchain, a canonical record of a product’s journey is made, meaning its history is available immediately.

One example of a blockchain-based cloud platform developed for the food industry is IBM Food Trust, which is already used by major players in the food industry.

To prevent food contamination in the first place, the report explains that research laboratories and companies are developing small sensors that can monitor the quality and safety of food in packaging, from cases to individually wrapped products. But, the initial implementation of this process and cost for food manufacturers, some of which produce hundreds of thousands of products every day, remains a big challenge.

Bioplastics for a circular economy

Our plastic world. An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic – everything from plastic bottles and bags to microbeads – seeps its way into our oceans each year, according to Greenpeace.

The WEF report cites ‘Bioplastics’ as the top emerging technology of this year. Biodegradable plastics can hugely ease the impacts of our plastic problem on the environment and contribute to a more circular plastic economywhere plastics are made from and converted back to biomass.

The circular economy approach aims to minimise waste and optimise resources and it is a strategy manufacturers are implementing. For example, Jaguar Land Rover recently rolled out its own innovative aluminium recycling initiative.

Dyed plastic granulate recycling - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Bioplastics could change the plastics industry – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

However, the options currently available to make these bioplastics – corn, sugar cane, or waste fats and oils – lack the physical strength of the plastic we have come to know. Much R&D work is being done in this area, but for it to be a realistic option for plastic manufacturers or industrial users of plastic, much more is needed.

Smart fertilisers for farming

Sophisticated farming. The question of how to feed a growing global population remains one of the biggest challenges of our time. Precision farming is a sustainable approach to farming that optimises crop yield by utilising IoT, automation and data.

A key example of this is slow-release fertilisers, these are tiny capsules filled with fertiliser. The outer shell of the capsule slows the rate at which water can access the fertiliser, and how quickly the nutrients can escape from the capsule.

Slow-release fertilisers have been around for some time, but improved versions have been developed recently. These are made with advanced materials and manufacturing methods that can tune shells to release nutrients in the right quantity depending on soil temperature, acidity or moisture changes.

Precision farming improves crop yield by combining data analytics, AI and sensor systems to find out how much fertiliser and water crops need at any given time. Precision farming also uses autonomous agricultural robots, or ‘agribots’, that know exactly where a farmer’s individual plants are located to fertilise and can suggest what chemicals are needed to maximise yields.