These are exciting times to be involved in engineering. The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR or Industry 4.0 – whichever you prefer) is in full swing. The pace of technological change, especially in the digital realm, has created new opportunities and smashed down boundaries.
2020 is the start of what promises to be a decade of massive change in engineering. We’ve picked out the top 5 hottest topics and emerging industries that you’re likely to see come into their own in 2020 and beyond.
1. Robotics/automation/AI and machine learning
Increasing automation and AI assistance are likely to have the biggest impact on all areas of engineering in 2020.
Engineering design will be radically changed by the use of AI and machine learning in the form of generative design. We have already seen Autodesk release generative design tools in their Fusion 360 software suite. Generative design uses AI algorithms to iteratively optimize designs within set parameters. This means that designs are no longer constrained by the limits of human imagination and calculation. It also has the potential to reduce human error. If structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing services, for example, are all generatively designed at the same time, there will be no overlapping parts and everything should integrate optimally.
Manufacturing is also set for an automation and AI revolution. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) recently announced that 2018 saw a global record of $16.5 billion invested in manufacturing robotics.
However, at the moment, robots are best suited to repetitive simple tasks or tasks that are dangerous for humans. We can expect 2020 to see the emergence of more intelligent robotics and AI-controlled machinery. Combined with the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and integration, robots will become capable of more complex tasks and decision-making. Dexterity and flexibility of robots are two key areas that are set to see improvements over the coming year. Improved design and a more sophisticated machine vision that uses deep learning will help them see more clearly and estimate the size and depth of objects more accurately.
2. Autonomous vehicles/self-driving vehicles
Although autonomous vehicles haven’t materialised as quickly as some predictions suggested, the self-driving revolution is well underway and will pick up pace in 2020. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International has identified a five-level taxonomy for driving automation.
- Level 0 – no driver automation
- Level 1 – some driver assistance
- Level 2 – partial automation
- Level 3 – conditional automation
- Level 4 – high automation
- Level 5 – full automation
Most modern vehicles are at level 1, with some driver assistance features such as parking assistance, automatic braking, etc. The truth is, we’re still a long way from level 5. Ford, for instance, have revised their timeline, which originally set 2021 as the target for level 5 automation. Instead, they are now planning the release of a level 4 automated vehicle towards the end of 2021.
However, 2020 is likely to see the release of level 2 (partially automated) vehicles as well as some at level 3, which will take control under certain conditions such as one-lane highway driving. Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Volvo, and others are planning to release level 3 vehicles by the end of 2020.
3. Clean energy/environmental engineering
With climate change high on the political agenda, clean energy, and environmental engineering will continue to be areas of significant investment. Deloitte recently released its Renewable Energy Outlook for 2020 which highlighted offshore wind farms and PV solar farms as growth areas. With technology becoming more affordable, they predict an increase in competition and a new surge in renewable energy production.
Expect to see much more focus on finding solutions to one of the biggest challenges facing the modern world – water scarcity. One innovative solution is “skywater” technology. This is the process of removing humidity from the air to create potable water. When you consider that there are over 12 quadrillion gallons of fresh water in the earth’s atmosphere, it’s easy to see why it’s an attractive solution.
On construction sites, keep an eye out for new environmentally-friendly building materials, such as eco-concrete and eco-bricks. The driving force behind these innovations is two-fold. Ordinary cement requires a decarbonization process that produces a lot of CO2. Additionally, the sand aggregate needed for concrete has been over-extracted, causing increased coastal erosion around the world.
In general, the principles and aims of environmental engineering have not and will not change:
- Make drinking water more readily available around the world
- Create effective sanitation systems to prevent the spread of diseases and promote good health
- Monitor and assess air pollution and devise ways to reduce its negative impact
- Find solutions that both boost human health and also protect the environment
New technology and innovations will make it easier to achieve these goals, and with global warming expected to kill over 100 million by 2030, there has never been a more desperate need.
4. New materials/nanotechnology
A recent report from NIMS predicts that nanotechnology will be the big thing in material science and engineering in 2020, thanks to the development of new nano-functional materials. The type of nano-electronics that will be used in quantum computing, for example, require new materials with different molecular structures than those used in traditional computing.
Keep an eye on non-indium-based conductive transparent materials, nanotubes made from carbon, white-LED materials, solid UV-laser materials, and photonic-crystal materials that will be used for electronic displays and LED devices, including smartphones.
One of the most promising nano-materials is graphene, which has many exciting potential applications ranging from super long-life batteries and nano-microchips to flexible touchscreens and ultra-powerful solar cells.
Graphene is already in use in sports equipment such as tennis rackets, in cooling technology for handheld devices, and a range of nanomedical sensor devices. But 2020 could be the year that graphene really takes off. Automotive manufacturers are already planning to use it in their vehicles. The reason is simple – graphene is 200 times tougher than steel but is much lighter and more flexible. This makes it the perfect material for heavy-duty applications in vehicles or even aerospace engineering.
Aerospace engineers believe that combining graphene with existing aeroplane materials could result in a much lighter-weight aircraft with vastly reduced fuel consumption. Research is currently underway to make this a reality and could have a significant positive impact on the carbon emissions generated by the aviation industry.
Bioengineering or biomedical engineering is a relatively new discipline that integrates medical science, engineering, and biology. Bioengineers develop prosthetic limbs and treatment-delivery technology and are integral to stem-cell and tissue research, biomedical analysis, and other technological advances designed to improve health and wellbeing.
A key bioengineering development to watch for in 2020 is the rise of biomedical 3D printing. Although still in the research and development phase, the printing of human organs for transplant will soon be possible. A 3D printer that can produce muscle, cartilage and bone already exists and is known as the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing (ITOP) System. Other developments to look out for are the treatment of obesity using a transdermal medicine delivery patch, bioengineered clothing, and the use of microscopic nano-robots to fight disease by delivering drugs to highly targeted areas of the body.