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Technology is driving the speed of business — and business is trying to keep up. From the latest microelectronic systems on a chip to 3D printing to robotics to wearables, technology is transforming how we do business, and even how we conduct our personal lives.

Advanced technology is the key to making every industry competitive. The science responsible for these discoveries — chemistry, physics, electronics, photonics — is often remarkably interconnected. For example, a change in atomic structure at the nanoscale can give a poorly conductive material electrical properties that can take electronics design in a totally different direction. Or, plastics can be engineered to be as heat- and chemical-resistant as metal, thereby allowing the replacement of heavy, expensive metal parts with plastic in automotive and aerospace applications, where weight is a critical design factor.

Technology and its processes are more connected than ever, thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). We are just beginning to understand the enormity of how we can use “big data” to improve operational efficiencies, product quality, speed to market, and cost controls. This capability levels the playing field with low-cost countries, which is why the U.S. government is investing so heavily in science and technology for manufacturing. Through its new manufacturing innovation institutes, the Obama Administration has created collaborative partnerships among some of the country’s best scientists and researchers in academia, industry, and government to make groundbreaking discoveries in key fields such as photonics, electronics, information and computer technology (ICT), digital media, and robotics. {{RELATEDLINKS}}

Photonics is the science and application of light. Advanced manufacturing sectors that depend on photonics include electronics, ICT, defense, energy, as well as healthcare.

According to SPIE, an international photonics organization, annual sales in the global photonics market are roughly $185 billion. This market experienced 15 percent growth from 2012 to 2014, with sales driven by lasers for manufacturing operations (machining, welding), wearable devices, and healthcare applications.

The use of photonics in medical equipment, as well as for treatment therapies, is the fastest-growing segment of the industry — growing at a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.4 percent from 2014 to 2020. Interesting applications include using laser light to destroy cancer cells and laser-based tools to identify serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and tuberculosis.

Another fast-growing photonics segment is “wearables,” especially devices that monitor personal health indicators such as blood pressure and heart rate. Photonics technology built into wearables also allows the measurement of chemical compositions of body fluids noninvasively (for example, determining blood glucose levels by analyzing human sweat).

The Consumer Electronics Association reported that retail revenues for the consumer electronics industry in 2015 grew at a rate of about 2.4 percent and totaled $285 billion. Growth was largely driven by the high demand for several rapidly advancing product categories, including 3D printers, 4K ultra–high-definition (UHD) televisions, connected home technologies, drones, health and fitness products, home robots, and smart wearables. A popular research topic in wearables is flexible electronics that provide better contact with skin and the natural curves of the human body — providing more reliable data and a more comfortable fit. We are just beginning to understand the enormity of how we can use “big data” to improve operational efficiencies, product quality, speed to market, and cost controls.

“As a result, stretchable electronics is a rapidly developing field,” says Rob Shepherd, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, whose research group has developed an electronic skin that can be stretched nearly six times its original size without breaking its connection. Other wearable-related discoveries continue to come at a rapid pace, such as new inks that can be printed on textiles in a single step to form highly conductive and stretchable wireless connections for capturing health data.

Digital Media
Digital media is a broad field that includes audio/visual media contents that are distributed directly over the Internet, including digital video content such as music, video, games, and e-publications. The U.S. digital media market is valued at roughly $600 billion for 2016.

Photonics, electronics, and advanced micro-manufacturing techniques all play key roles in digital media products and services. One especially hot market segment is virtual reality (VR), which Deloitte Global predicts will have its first billion-dollar year in 2016. About $700 million of that will be in hardware sales, with the remainder in content — largely for video games, but also the continuing development of consumer-level 360-degree action cameras for amateur virtual-reality activities.

VR will continue to innovate rapidly with advances in processor technologies, screen resolutions, and content. The year 2016 should be a successful one for digital media, especially as VR technologies reach a critical mass of functionality, reliability, ease of use, and affordability. Movie studios, television stations, and news organizations are working with VR developers and vendors to bring more content to market — especially immersive experiences that can be accessed in the privacy of the home, including live events.

Information and Computer Technology (ICT)
ICT includes telecommunication devices and applications, computer and network hardware and software, and satellite systems. End-users have high expectations for speed, and telecom providers are responding. For example, recent testing by Verizon of its 5G (fifth-generation) technology peaked at speeds of 10 Gbps, with commercial deployment possible by 2017 — transmission that is far faster than Google Fiber Internet speeds. Once available, this kind of access will rapidly transform the ICT world, including the scale at which the IoT will be used. The huge amount of IoT data that will result will require advances in storage and analytical systems, taking data analysis fields such as statistics, data mining, and predictive analytics to a new level.

The cloud also continues to gain in popularity — both for software-as-a-service and data storage. Security improvements continue to make the cloud a safer place. An emerging technology called Network Function Virtualization (NFV), which improves security and provides a virtualized infrastructure for next-generation cloud services, can also be used by telecommunications companies to enhance their standard communication services.

Advances in sensor technology and the IoT will increase the demand for automation and robotics. According to a recent research report on the service robotics industry by Markets and Markets, the service robotics market is estimated to reach $18 billion by 2020, at a CAGR of 17.36 percent between 2015 and 2020.

In addition, Boston Consulting Group reports that robots currently handle only about 10 percent of manufacturing tasks; this number is expected to increase to 25 percent by 2025. Not only will robots become smarter, they will also become more affordable. Increased automation in the workplace could cut labor costs by an average of 16 percent across the world’s 25 largest goods-exporting nations — 22 percent in the U.S. alone — enhancing global U.S. competitiveness.

VR will continue to innovate rapidly with advances in processor technologies, screen resolutions, and content. Because future U.S. manufacturing success depends on maximizing efficiency and controlling costs, the federal government established the Robots in Manufacturing Environments Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which will focus on building U.S. leadership in smart collaborative robotics, where advanced robots work alongside humans. This capability would transform U.S. manufacturing sectors by improving the reliable and efficient production of high-quality, customized products.

Technology of the Future
Nanotechnology and additive manufacturing/3D printing are game-changers when it comes to accomplishing the extraordinary in manufacturing performance and output. For example, engineers can build highly functional nano-scale machines (1–100 nanometer range) and computers. Material functions and properties can be changed by manipulating atomic structure at the nanoscale, creating the potential to improve many next-generation technologies in unforeseen ways. These advances will speed up computer chips, increase the resolution of medical-imaging devices, and make electronics more energy efficient.

Nanomaterials are also critical to development of smaller and more advanced sensors — the key to machine-to-machine communication and the IoT. Every machine in the future will be smart and provide machine data in real time, allowing operators to optimize productivity. According to a 2015 study by Deloitte Global and the Council on Competitiveness, 4.9 billion devices were connected in 2015; that number is expected to increase to 25 billion by 2025. This also means more powerful data-crunching programs must be developed to identify process control and performance improvements.

In June, President Obama announced the new Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which brings together a consortium of nearly 200 partners from across academia, industry, and nonprofits to spur advances in smart sensors and digital process controls with the goal of radically improving the efficiency of U.S. advanced manufacturing. By accelerating the development and adoption of advanced sensors, data analytics, and controls in manufacturing, and significantly reducing their cost, U.S. advanced manufacturing will be much more competitive on the global stage. Achieving this scale of success will require advanced expertise and research and development in electronics, photonics, robotics, ICT, and video displays.

“Smart manufacturing is a key information technology approach to unlocking energy efficiency in manufacturing,” comments Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a September 2015 press release. “These technologies will make industries more competitive with intelligent communications systems, real-time energy savings, and increased energy productivity. Energy-intensive industries, such as steelmaking, could see a 10 to 20 percent reduction in the cost of production, making products such as solar panels and chemical materials, such as plastics, as well as the cars and other products they go into, more affordable for American consumers.”