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Every business is a technology business. No matter what field you’re in, tech can help you become faster, more agile and increasingly productive. That’s pretty obvious.
What’s less obvious is what technologies businesses should be focusing on in their bids to stay ahead of the curve. After all, a business could waste a lot of time and money chasing a dead-end technology that won’t have any use in a few years’ time.
So what should companies be focusing on in the next few years? According to Gartner vice president Alexa Bona, the three spheres of technology that will have the biggest impact on the business space in the next few years are the Internet of Things, autonomous judgement and 3D printing.
The Internet of Things is any inanimate object that is connected to the internet, that has sensors embedded into it. It can be something as simple as a plant that lets you know when it needs to be watered or a slipper that lets you know when an elderly person’s shaky steps mean they are likely to fall.
This isn’t far off sci-fi dreaming either. We’re already putting sensors into an increasing number things: think about the proliferation of fitness bands, smartwatches and smart TVs for a few obvious examples.
Sensor embedding is only going to get more common too. Gartner reckons that by 2020, there will be around 30-billion connected objects.
For now though, you can still use sensors embedded in objects in unique ways that differentiate the product or service you’re selling.
Adidas for instance has brought out a soccer ball with sensors in it that connects to a mobile app and helps you plan your training.
There are also smaller companies doing similar things in the space. Take a look at Range, a smart thermometer that connects to your smartphone and sends you push notifications according to a pre-set recipe range.
But even when embedding sensors in objects to make them smart loses its novelty, there will still be a very powerful business case for the product.
“We believe that the Internet of Things will affect every enterprise in every industry,” says Bona.
She uses the example of a furniture store, which could use embedded sensors to get data about which items people are most interested in. They could also be used to provide services. For instance, a sensor embedded in a couch could let a store owner know if a customer’s couch breaks or gets damaged, allowing them to take proactive rather than reactive action.
All these billions of smart objects will, of course, result in streams and streams of real-time data.
As soon as you start mentioning big data, company execs tend to grip the armrests of their office chairs a little bit tighter — most likely out of fear that they’ll be asked to commit serious budget to technology that can help decipher and decode all that data.
The truth, says Bona, is that a lot of the tech currently out there is already more than capable of dealing with that data.
“Computers are already smarter than people for a wide range of tasks,” she says, adding that they can also deal with data a lot more sensibly than humans can.
The ability for machines to use all the data at hand to make effective decisions is known as autonomous judgement and we’re already starting to see it being used in various business spaces.
That’s a massive potential boom for an industry like mining, which has to deal with a load of safety and expense issues but, once again, there’s potential for machines capable of autonomous judgement in a variety of industries.
The technology that could allow us to embed more sensors in devices than ever before and therefore give them more autonomous ability is 3D printing.
Most people are already aware of Bona’s assertion that “3D printing isn’t just a new technology that allows you to fill your house with plastic toys for your children,” but it’s worth noting just how far the technology has come.
The US army, for instance, is using 3D printing to build parts on the fly in Afghanistan.
A number of companies meanwhile are investigating using 3D printing for the construction of buildings. Some of them are even at the stage where they’re printing concrete structures up to six metres tall.
As is the case in most industries, 3D printing could potentially help people reduce waste and save money.
The latter effect also means 3D printing could be useful to everyday manufacturers when it comes to servicing products that are on their way to obsolescence.
3D printing allows a manufacturer to make small numbers of parts on demand. And if they chose not to, it opens up the potential for small players to take it up and become small, bespoke manufacturers.