All About Flex: Three Emerging Trends That You Can Bet On
It is interesting to review future trends and assess their market success. Many times the experts are wrong when they identify the hot upcoming trends. Some new products are “gizmos” created by techies where there is no real market demand. Hundreds (thousands?) of startup companies fail every year because the market did not respond the way they hoped it would to a “can’t miss” new product. Products can disappoint even when they offer innovative technology from companies that have great marketing reach. Think Google Glasses.
The following are three categories of technology transformations that can reasonably be expected to witness substantial market demand during the next several years.
The technology is a reality; at last count the Google test cars have logged in over 1,700,000 miles with only 17 accidents, none of which were the fault of the vehicle. Self-driving semi-trucks have been on the roads in Nevada since May 2015. This certainly could become a disruptive application as the march of technology continues to consume jobs traditionally considered blue collar. In July 2015, Daimler started testing self-driving trucks on the Autobahn. This too has been successful but it will take some getting used to before a driverless semi-trailer heads toward me without creating the urge to hug the right hand shoulder!
Market Demand: Interestingly, the primary motivating force for self-driving cars is safety. Imagine a road where there are no distracted or impaired drivers! The motivations for self-driving trucks are significantly higher for two big reasons:
- Safety: The truck-auto crash involving Tracy Morgan brought significant attention to truck safety and particularly driver fatigue, which is thought to be a major factor in several of the 4000 deaths caused each year by trucks. The U.S. Congress is considering significant trucking regulation in 2016 that places further restrictions on when truckers can operate, making it more difficult for trucking companies to make money. Self-driving trucks will still have drivers in the short term, but fatigue is expected to drop dramatically and allow for more efficient use of driver labor.
- Labor Supply: Currently there is a significant shortage of truck drivers. Some estimates indicate that today’s shortage is over 50,000 and will exceed 100,000 in a few years. Many trucking companies are feeling the pinch as trucker salaries have increased by 17% over the last two years. Trucking firms are offering significant signing bonuses and perks for new drivers. In the short term, self-driving trucks are not expected to eliminate drivers, but the technology should help make them more efficient and perhaps increase job enjoyment. In the next 5–10 years, several predictions suggest long haul drivers will be 100% replaced.
- Fuel Efficiency and Driver Efficiency: Sitting at a stoplight, behind a long line of cars and trucks waiting for the light to change, it is interesting to watch each driver waiting for the person in front of him. When the light changes, each individual vehicle getting started with forward movement looks like dominoes falling. But with vehicles in communication with each other, a light change would result in simultaneous forward movement. Traffic moves forward more quickly, with more energy efficiency, and less time at a stoplight.
Issues: There already are a number of groups campaigning against driverless trucks. Even with a driver shortage, there are many who feel that this could result in significant job losses in the trucking industry. Also there are a number of businesses that rely on over the road truckers for their main income such as roadside cafes and motels.
Computer/web hacking has been around for a long time, but major website and computer breaches seem to have dominated the headlines in 2014/2015. A group from China hacked into the federal government data base, and Iran hacked into the U.S. power grid. North Korea hacked into Sony’s data base, and hackers stole credit card info from Target. Recently, there was an article in the International Business Times about Islamic State hackers planning cyber attacks on U.S. targets.
It certainly is not a stretch to imagine some major technology changes will emerge in the area of cyber security in 2016–2017. Several well-known universities are now offering degrees in cyber security. Forbes just came out with their list of the 10 hottest cyber security startups in 2015. In February 2015 CBinsights reported that cyber security startups have attracted over $7.3 billion. With the amount of money now pouring into cyber security businesses and education, it is highly probable major technology will emerge in this arena over the next couple of years.
Market Demand: Businesses, government agencies and everyday consumers are keenly aware of the effects of hacking. Few are questioning the need (or expense) for cyber security. Money has been pouring into this industry for a several years now and many businesses have already allocated a significant amount of their budget to cyber security. The urgency is probably moderate to high for many businesses. If, during 2016, a major terrorist hacking incident shuts down a power grid (for example), the urgency will move to extreme.
Issues: Unfortunately, hackers have been able to keep up with most new security enhancements. Also, some of the U.S. power grid infrastructures have gapping security holes and obsolete systems that need to be replaced or significantly upgraded. The U.S. government has some of the best resources in the world for going on the offensive to hack into other systems; however conventional wisdom suggests it is extremely weak in defense. What is truly needed is a security architecture system that will “self-adapt” to the many types of attacks that are generated.
On December 12, 2015 negotiators from 196 countries approved a landmark agreement that sets the course for dramatically reducing greenhouse gases. This agreement implies dramatic changes are on the horizon in the way we use fossil fuels, significant reductions are occurring and the trend is obvious. While no single technology or energy source will be used to replace fossil fuel, a number of sources are available and having an impact. These will be further enhanced with technology.
One example is hydrogen: Hydrogen fuel is one alternative being evaluated for automotive applications. All the major automotive companies have developed hydrogen fuel cell cars. Some are currently operating in California. Hydrogen is a renewable energy source and does not emit greenhouse gas. Italy has built a hydrogen fueled power plant.
Market Demand: Hybrid cars have had a fair amount of demand in the U.S., but conventional automobiles are currently vastly outselling hybrids. Government regulation may force the market but regardless, the technology is viable. Trajectory suggests this will be an important emerging technology in the foreseeable future.
Issues: Changing from fossil fuels to other energy forms has huge implications on both our economy and infrastructure. Oil companies have huge clout with Congress and there is sure to be resistance to enacting any regulation that hurts oil companies. The cost to implement an infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel cell cars, or 100% electric cars, across the U.S. will be significant. Even environmentalists disagree on benefits among the various alternative energy sources such as nuclear, hydrogen, solar, wind or a host of others.
Regardless of which new technologies emerge in the near future, it is hard to imagine flexible circuits will not play a significant role in the technology transformations. Too many useful features are inherent with this adaptable product technology. Battery interconnects use flexible circuits in new automotive designs, taking advantage of light weight. Fingerprint sensors improve computer security using low profile and high density flexible circuits. The list goes on…
Flexible circuits are light weight, require minimal space, can be bent into “origami” shapes for adoption to a wide range of applications. These utilitarian features give electronic designers endless options for the new and exciting products that will soon become part of our everyday life.
1. CNN Money
4. U.S. Dept. of Energy
Dave Becker is vice president of sales and marketing at All Flex Flexible Circuits LLC.