09 April 2001
Wizards in waiting
The best guide to the future might be the imaginations of those young engineers-to-be who are itching to get their hands on the production line and start driving it-and the world is sure to look a lot different once the members of the Technology Student Association at South Middle School in Morgantown, W.Va., take charge.
- Prosthetics manufacturers will design pieces collaboratively using the Internet. And pieces that need adjustment won't be coming back to the loading dock in boxes with a note of explanation, either. Instead, the wearer will make the adjustment following directions the manufacturer provides in real time, courtesy of Internet-based conferencing. There'll be less need for that, though, because we'll better understand how the brain communicates with limbs, and we'll be connecting the devices directly to nerve endings. The devices themselves will be smart, capable of learning and adapting to the changing needs of a user.
- By 2006 we'll be building cars with comprehensive self-diagnosis capability. "If there's a problem," the members predicted, "your car will send you e-mail and tell you where it hurts." In 2009, cars will be snazzier, too, because tire stores will custom mold tires in any color you likewhile you wait. (In 2010, one supposes, we'll begin sending "fashion violation" notices to one another's personal digital assistants: "How could you wear that necktie with those tires??!!")
- Manufacturers will use robots for repetitive and dangerous tasks in increasing numbers. Robots will see more use in other venues, too, including highway and steel-framed construction, infrastructure maintenance such as pipelines, and that bane of homeowners everywhere: lawn mowing. Nor will tomorrow's engineers use robots only for the hard, humdrum, dirty, and dangerous jobs; thanks to artificial intelligence, they speculate, robots might actually be running factories.
- Advances in microelectronic manufacturing will lead to development of teensy diagnostic agents that circulate inside manufacturing equipment and report on its condition.
The greatest change might be the emergence of a wholly new manufacturing paradigm. By 2020, industry watchdog Richard Morley predicted, we'll be relying on "satellite manufacturing carried out on board thousands of small satellites, costing $10 million each. Onboard space manufacturing, using solar power and high-bandwidth communications, will extend the boundaries of previously earthbound production."