Modern life has been driven by technological innovation and adoption. It forces people, institutions and businesses to adapt. This is why you want to know what trends are on the horizon or beginning to make themselves felt instead of being forced to react when it is almost too late to keep up with the competition. While you can find thousands of predictions, most of them fall into a couple of parallel trends.
Here are 8 engineering trends you should watch out for in 2020.
1. The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a continuation of the internet that connected personal computers to servers and to each other. It will continue to have big repercussions on the world of engineering and the world around us. Here are some of the real-world applications for the IoT in the industry:
- Quality control
- Product flow monitoring
- Inventory management
- Safety and security
- Supply chain and logistics automation
- Factory digitalization
- Packaging optimization
The internet of things connects devices as diverse as personal security systems and motor control centers in factories to the internet and each other. It enables the smart home that can be controlled via a smartphone no matter where you are.
It is resulting in safer, more efficient factories. For example, networked manufacturing equipment reports dozens of variables to manufacture control centers. They don’t just call for a mechanic when something is overheated or stops running.
Each piece of equipment relays performance data that can be analyzed for unusual trends. Now you can stop it to check it out and make the necessary repairs with minimum disruption to the rest of the production line. And you may be able to replace a wire or compressor seal instead of having to make costlier repairs later because the issue was unaddressed.
The massive volume of data generated by these systems has resulted in the roll-out of edge computing. These devices analyze the fire hose of data generated by the IoT and relay only important information to motor control systems or human operators. Side benefits of edge computing include reduced bandwidth and storage requirements.
And it’s already bringing dividends; it is estimated that the IoT could bring in as much $344 billion in extra revenue to companies this year. “Smart devices and IoT are already increasing the performance metrics of companies across the US.” According to BBVA OpenMind. “It’s already in the palms of employees, and boosting their productivity by 40 to 60 percent by correcting routine management issues.”
2. The Smart Grid
The smart grid is an extension of the IoT, though it is specifically tied to the power grid. The smart grid was necessary to balance supply and demand given the extreme variability of most renewable energy sources. It allows power companies to know when they need to ramp up backup natural gas power plants or tap into energy storage systems. It will also ramp up demand for electrical engineers with the right skill set to tackle issues related to it.
3. Advances in Sustainable Energy
Sustainability is the word on everybody’s lips, and we can expect it to be even more prevalent in 2020. Consumers are now looking for better capacity and efficiency, and systems that will allow them to be less reliant on the grid. We can also expect to see more sustainable energy sources entering the energy mix in many countries.
Here are some of the things we should keep an eye on:
- Artificial intelligence and energy
- Better energy storage and battery technology
- Grid parity
- Distributed energy resource
- Blockchain applications
According to the EIA, utility-scale renewable energy sources, which include things like solar, wind, and hydropower, should account for around 19% of the total energy production in the United States this year.
This also means that the demand for engineers who can fill these roles will increase well. It was already estimated that the demand for civil engineers working specifically for sustainable energy companies is expected to grow by as much as 10.6% by 2026. The demand for environmental and lean manufacturing engineers is also expected to grow during the same period.
4. Mixed Reality
Science fiction promised us an immersive virtual reality that may supplant reality for many of us. Instead, we’re getting mixed reality. One practical application is engineering education. You learn how to drive a train through simulations, and analyze rail conditions to improve performance. Another application of mixed-reality is assisting people in real-time. The classic case study is the car owner wearing smart glasses that relay what they’re seeing to a group of peers or a trained mechanic. They’re advised on what to do or what parts to get. This promises to save people time and money.
5. Online Education
Online education is becoming commonplace, and this is especially true when it comes to engineering. Furthermore, you can attend well-known programs without leaving home or having to quit your job.
For example, the Kettering University Online engineering management program is equivalent to the one they teach on campus. And Kettering University’s online program also allows you to customize your degree. You could earn certification in supply chain management, global leadership or operations management. These specializations might not be available as part of your local college’s MBA program.
The benefits of online education for students:
- Greater schedule flexibility
- The ability to earn almost any degree
- Lower tuition in most cases
- Lower secondary costs like gas and train fares
- Immersion in technology from the start
A side benefit of online programs is that they are aimed at working professionals. This means they tend to skip a lot of the fluff and move quickly to business case studies and material applicable to your daily life. This is also why they can often be completed in one year full-time instead of the standard 18 to 24 months at a brick and mortar school. Yet you can take the classes one at a time if that’s what fits your schedule and budget.
6. Electric Vehicles
Electric vehicles haven’t replaced gas-powered ones, but we’re moving in that direction. In 2018, there were around five million electric vehicles. There are an estimated 23 million worldwide in 2020.
The greatest challenges remain cost and range, though advances in battery technology are slowly resolving them. While people mocked Elon Musk’s electric truck, the fact remains that it is the first heavy-duty cargo hauler on the market. This may eventually replace diesel trucks.
We’re already seeing electric golf carts and rickshaws. Expect adoption rates to increase as charging infrastructure and better energy storage becomes more widespread. Ironically, improved battery technology also makes it easier to expand renewable energy production and maintain a stable power grid. And it will eventually allow someone to use the power from the solar panels on their roof to charge their electric car sitting in the garage.
7. 3D Printing
3D printing has been popular with hobbyists for several years, but it is making serious inroads in manufacturing. It isn’t eliminating traditional manufacturing; it has become a standard part of the prototyping process, allowing you to create physical models for consumer panels to evaluate and testing for compatibility within larger assemblies. This is because 3D printing is typically cheaper for making individual or low volume production runs.
3D printing is moving beyond resin to include metal and concrete. 3D printed metal and plastic structures often use less material and require fewer processing steps than conventionally made products. 3D printed materials may still need to be processed in some way. This is why the 3D printer is often next to the CNC machine in the factory.
8. The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence has driven everything from search engines to advanced simulations of products long before they are manufactured. Artificial intelligence is starting to spread into a variety of niches, and it is taking new forms. We are now seeing things like:
- AI as a service
- Personalized medicine
- Improved predictive models of all sorts
- Autonomous driving
- More intelligent apps
AI as a service is essentially renting the use of someone else’s advanced AI. It parallels the shift from on-site web servers to hosting services on the cloud before we eventually access virtual desktops and store all our corporate data in the cloud. Personalized medicine involves incredible amounts of data mining to provide personalized medical advice from cancer treatments to diagnoses for difficult to identify disorders.
This same artificial intelligence can be used to analyze massive amounts of data to find previously unknown trends or spot trends early so they can be addressed. It is creating more intelligent apps, be it personal assistants, robo-advisors or marketing chatbots driven by AI. And AI is essential to the future of self-driving cars and the way they are engineered.
2020 is already proving to be an interesting year for innovation. We’re seeing a number of technologies mature and spread with real-life applications that impact everyone, especially the engineering world. These are just a few of the trends that will start to grow this year.