From sensors to smart cities, the biggest tech trends in 2021 and beyond

As we eagerly anticipate seeing 2020 solidly in the rear-view mirror, industry pundits share their predictions on the most important advances in tech yet to come.

Smart Cities: Reaching an inflection point that will drive IoT commercialization

Sanjeet Pandit, Senior Director, Business Development & Global Head of Smart Cities ,Qualcomm Technologies, Inc

Smart cities will continue to evolve, and implementation will accelerate in 2021. Due to necessary safety measures such as social distancing and health screenings caused by the pandemic, as well as the proliferation of 5G, we’re reaching an inflection point that will drive IoT commercialization and smart cities forward.

Additionally, there will be trends across cities and municipalities to digitize workflow, in order to pivot quickly and meet the needs our current environment includes working efficiently to save costs and resources. To do this successfully, it requires having insights into all areas of the business, using AI, various sensors and analytics to be able to make decisions quickly.

An additional trend includes real deployable solutions that solve IoT fragmentation and help fast track digital transformation across cities, buildings, enterprises and government entities to seamlessly integrate smart, connected devices will also drive smart cities forward in 2021.  We expect an increased focus on providing cities the forward-thinking, cost-effective IoT solutions to drive community re-openings and transform how people interact with the spaces around them.

2021 will bring noticeably different 5G connectivity to the masses. Coverage will continue to roll out and speeds will increase. 5G will expand beyond cellphones to incorporate connected IoT devices that power smart cities and smart connected spaces.

Additionally, Qualcomm’s Smart City Accelerator Program is breaking down the IoT fragmentation barriers by connecting cities, municipalities, government agencies and enterprises with an ecosystem of providers to help deliver greater efficiencies, cost savings, safety, and sustainability. 

What will it mean for engineers? Engineering smart cities, buildings and spaces will focus on public health, safety and sustainability. The pandemic is driving more technologies into private and public spaces such as mask detection, crowd detection and temperature screening cameras to re-open effectively and safely.

For example, across construction-management, safety is a major priority for construction workers which includes knowing where they are, tracking equipment, safety perimeters, and more. These priorities are in place in order to help save money and ensure worker safety measures are met.

Engineers have a variety of technologies and networks today to build innovative solutions that solve for real challenges industries and cities face today, including those that have not been imagined.

Autonomous vehicles: Poised to hit the mainstream

Jack E. Gold, President and Principal Analyst, J.Gold Associates, LLC.

In the next 3-5 years, I expect autonomous vehicles of all sorts to become mainstream in a  variety of industries and business locations. These will not just be autonomous cars and trucks on highways, which will become more common, but autonomous vehicles in the hallways and aisles of company buildings, on the manufacturing floor, and in the operations centers. They will include drones delivering packages in local and vicinity locations, service machines doing cleaning and restoration services, and automated “personal assistants” helping employees get more done faster and with more precision. Indeed, the types and variety of autonomous vehicles will increase greatly – many of which we do not yet see available.

The range and capabilities that will be delivered at a reasonable cost driven by increasing volumes of devices will fundamentally change the way companies and employees deliver services and goods.

This will be driven by the improved capabilities from chip vendors (e.g., Qualcomm, Intel, MediaTek, Broadcom, etc.), improved and more abundant sensors (e.g., LiDAR, visual-based sensors, ultrasonic, touch, smell, etc.), high bandwidth low latency connections (e.g., 5G, WiFi6), and enhanced AI capabilities/algorithms (e.g. navigation, point to point scheduling, visual interpretations, etc.),

This trend will also spawn a great number of new technology providers whose specialized engineering capabilities will both provide components as well as finished products, and will increase the need for HW, SW and integration specialists that fully understand the role of autonomy in specialized environments (e.g., medical, logistics, public sector, maintenance and repair, etc.). Ultimately, organizations that employ autonomous vehicles and related solutions will increase productivity and reduce costs of operation and be far more competitive than those organizations who remain stagnant.

Private 5G Networks: Partners in productivity, they’ll advance IoT

Rajat Prakash, Engineer, Principal/Mgr., Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.

The IoT advancement we're focusing on in 2021 is private 5G networks for enterprise and industry 4.0. 5G private networks are isolated either physically or virtually from public networks, using different hardware, virtual machines or network-slices.

5G private networks create productivity-enhancing opportunities for the enterprise like responsive, untethered collaboration, low-power boundless extended reality (XR) with rendering in the private edge, and instant cloud applications and storage.

Additionally, 5G private networks will further transform the factory floor. The three main components of 5G — enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive IoT and enhanced ultra-reliable low latency communications (eURLLC) — are utilized to connect a diverse set of devices in a factory.  By replacing traditional wired connections with 5G wireless connectivity, manufacturing applications have significant flexibility and efficiency, which increase overall productivity.

The commercialization of the first 3GPP standard for 5G NR, Release 15 – focused on enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) for applications such as smartphones, fixed wireless, and PCs –is proceeding rapidly. With 2020's 3GPP Release 16 comes enhanced support for 5G non-public networks (NPN), their defining characteristic being a network for private usage and not accessible to public users. As we continue to develop 5G technologies that are 3GPP Release 16 compliant , private 5G networks will proliferate into factories and enterprises for high-speed, connectivity to power all types of devices, including IoT devices.

Engineers will continue optimizing IoT devices and applications equipped to connect to 5G networks. In addition, the advent of 5G provides the opportunity for innovating new devices, apps and experiences that have not even been thought of yet.

Autonomous IoT Systems: AI capabilities will close the loop

Leonard Lee, Managing Director, Next Curve

Autonomous is really just the last stage of the automation maturity curve. It’s at this stage that an enterprise/operation has the systems in place that provide fine-grained, real-time contextual awareness, analytics and AI capabilities that support system learning, and the automated control mechanisms that make things happen. Of course, these capabilities need to support a closed loop of autonomy. While autonomous IoT systems are still generally early concepts and implementations, the key trend is that AI is becoming an increasingly important part of the IoT conversation but. It is an inevitable aspiration for what we are trying to do with IoT.  

The trend toward autonomous systems in IoT is being driven by the dramatically improving economics for AI computing that can be deployed across edge environments and on endpoint devices. 

As AI computing capabilities become cheaper and more available, they will be deployed ubiquitously.  For engineers, this means an expanding realm of possibilities for how autonomous systems can be architected and implemented, and how brown field environments can be AI-augmented to add intelligence to an operation.

Software & AI: Domain-specific architectures represent the future

Nick Ni, Director of Product Marketing for AI and Software, Xilinx

Throughout 2021 and beyond, domain-specific architectures (DSAs) will represent the future of AI inference. In the coming year we will also see software developers and AI scientists harnessing hardware adaptability for next-generation applications.

We’re in the early stages of adopting AI inference, and there’s still a lot of room for innovation and improvements. The AI inference demands on hardware have sky-rocketed as modern AI models require orders of magnitude more compute compared to conventional algorithms. We cannot continue to rely on silicon evolution. Processor frequency has hit a wall and simply adding more processor cores is no longer an option. DSAs are the future of computing, where adaptable hardware is customized for each group of workloads to run at the highest efficiency. In 2021, AI inferencing will continue to move away from fixed silicon approaches in favor of DSAs, helping to eliminate AI productization challenges.

Software developers and AI scientists will harness hardware adaptability for next-generation applications. Up until the last year, unlocking the power of hardware adaptability was unattainable for the average software developer and AI scientist. Specific hardware expertise was required, but new open-source tools are empowering software developers with adaptable hardware, while accelerating productivity for hardware designers. In 2021, with this new ease of programming, FPGAs and adaptable SoCs will continue to become more accessible for hundreds of thousands of software developers and AI scientists making them the hardware solution of choice for next-generation applications.

Printed/flexible/stretchable sensors: Wearables to accelerate adoption rates

Roger Grace, Founder/Owner and President, Roger Grace Associates

Printed/Flexible/Stretchable sensors have been commercially available since the mid 80’s. Currently, over 100 companies are commercially making many types of sensors, including force/touch/pressure, chemical, bio, temperature, humidity, flow and optical/imaging.  And like most other “disruptive technologies”, the commercialization process of these devices takes a great deal of time.  Past research of mine demonstrated that MEMS devices took approximately 30 years for full commercialization.  

Printed/flexible/stretchable sensors have emerged from the introduction phase into the growth phase of the technology life cycle. The major turning was heralded by the $75 million grant by the DOD in 2015 to NextFlex to create a facility in Silicon Valley that could help the industry in the creation of large volume manufacturing of flexible hybrid electronics.   It was critical that they address the concept of “hybrid” since not all electronics could be created in a printed/flexible format…especially memory and logic.  As such, the concept of functional integration would be a major topic under investigation.

Currently, significant research is being conducted at various research universities, federal and private research labs worldwide to further commercialization. 

The major drivers for the adoption of these technologies are cost and enhanced functionality vis-à-vis their physical conformity and large format. It is widely accepted that the cost of a square area of a plastic or paper sensor/electronic function is a minimum of two orders of magnitude less than that of a Silicon- based solution.  Printed electronics/sensors can be manufactured on paper or plastic on a roll-to-roll or large single sheet format thus providing low unit cost.  

Additionally, Silicon (including MEMS) are typically manufactured on ridged wafers (although wafers can be thinned down to a thickness that can make them flexible…but at an additional cost).   Their flexibility, and most importantly, their stretchability, provide for direct, and comfortable, skin contact in addition to the ability to create large arrays of sensors that may be beyond the currently popular 200 mm. wafer diameter.

From an applications perspective, the growth of the wearables market will be one of the most significant drivers to this technology and especially with bio sensors, similar to what is being pursued at UC San Diego with Prof. Joseph Wang and this 60-person team.

Printed/flexible/stretchable electronics and sensors provide additional tools in the product designers’ “toolkit.”  However, designers must conduct a rigorous tradeoff analysis to determine if these printed/flexible/stretchable devices provide the optimum solution to their design.  Many product designs will necessitate the selection of a printed/flexible/stretchable approach to become viable from a cost and/or functional requirement.

Online tools, technical content: Better access, more information for electronic design engineers

Richard Barnett, CMO, Supplyframe

The acceleration to digital self-service and further democratization of B2B eCommerce in the electronic components industry will continue.  This shift was highly accelerated as major industry events were canceled or went to a virtual format, and in person sales meetings were no longer possible.  In 2021, we will see increased focus on digital transformation of the industry, with a renewed focus on customer experience and also customer intelligence.  Leading electronics distributors and component suppliers will also develop new centralized inside sales organizations that will potentially merge customer order support, lead generation, and opportunity management.

For electronic design engineers, this shift should improve the ability for individual engineers and teams to improve access to the best technical content, reference designs, 2D and 3D Models, and additional services, as well as continue to improve efficiencies both in early CAD design through BOM analysis and review with other team members in supply chain, finance, and operations.  Leading distributors and component suppliers will increase their investment in digital engagement strategies and offerings, doubling down on improving access to relevant content on their website as well as across the syndicated network of aggregators, community sites, and vertical search engines such as, for example. 

The need for more customer intelligence will drive broader adoption in B2B of CX platforms, those that truly provide for a “Customer 360” view for design engineers and procurement professionals at customers and new prospects.  Many have invested in audience management, web analytics, and other systems to track customer engagement digitally (the digital footprint) across web site properties and campaigns.  

For design engineers and procurement professionals, this investment in new self-service quote and order management offerings, personalized content, and community engagement will make the process of confirming critical component technical form fit function, use in reference architectures, and NPI sourcing faster, more accurate, and more intelligent. 

Spurred by a pandemic, connectivity assures its place as an essential technology

Cees Links, General Manager, Qorvo

With a vaccine just starting to roll out, there is light at the end of the COVID-tunnel, and we can begin looking forward to the Roaring Twenties of the 21st century.

So, what will 2021 have in stock for us? Once we emerge from the COVID-tunnel that forced everything from work meetings and conferences to cocktail parties to go digital, we will begin to understand what behavioral changes will stick.

One of the big questions of this forced experiment was given the massive surge in usage, whether or not the Internet would hold up. The answer was a clear affirmative. Given no alternative, the acceptance of video conferencing was accelerated, to the point that it is now presumed to supplement face-to-face meetings to a much larger extent.

The move to digital is forcing us to consider the true value and quality of face-to-face interaction. Maybe the next generation growing up with their smart phones glued to their hands will take it all in stride. But we will learn in the coming year to what extent the lack of physical contact is creating emotional isolation and hampering productivity. Consider, for example, the role of brainstorming in engineering—typically done physically together in a room or even spontaneously around the coffee water cooler. It occurs to me that something is missing when everyone is looking at a screen when trying to collaborate on solving a problem.

One thing is clear. Connectivity is becoming more essential than ever. The data communication industry is getting a large boost from people upgrading their home networks (WiFi-6) or using higher data rate cellular networks (5G). Operators are continuing to invest in improving the quality of the backbone network. 2020 was a year that nobody expected…but hopefully it will have taught us a lot for 2021 and for the years to come!


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