This is the last in the series of four articles that look at disruptive technologies that will transform life, business and global economy. The articles are derived from a study by McKinsey Global Institute, which analyses which of the “next big things” will most likely happen in the next decade or so and how they will shape our lives and the global economy. In two earlier articles we looked at eight technologies – mobile Internet, automation of knowledge work, Internet of things, cloud technology, advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, genomics and energy storage. In this article we will look at 3D printing, advanced materials, oil and gas technology and renewal energy.
Until now, 3D printing has largely been used by product designers and hobbyists and for a few select manufacturing applications. However, the performance of additive manufacturing machinery is improving, the range of materials is expanding, and prices (for both printers and materials) are declining rapidly – bringing 3D printing to a point where it could see rapid adoption by consumers and even for more manufacturing uses. With 3D printing, an idea can go directly from a 3D design file to a finished part or product, potentially skipping many traditional manufacturing steps. Importantly, 3D printing enables on-demand production, which has interesting implications for supply chains and for stocking spare parts—a major cost for manufacturers. 3D printing can also reduce the amount of material wasted in manufacturing and create objects that are difficult or impossible to produce with traditional techniques. Scientists have even “bio-printed” organs, using an inkjet printing technique to layer human stem cells along with supporting scaffolding.
Over the past few decades, scientists have discovered ways to produce materials with incredible attributes—smart materials that are self-healing or self-cleaning; memory metals that can revert to their original shapes; piezoelectric ceramics and crystals that turn pressure into energy; and nanomaterials. Nanomaterials in particular stand out in terms of their high rate of improvement, broad potential applicability, and long-term potential to drive massive economic impact. At nanoscale (less than 100 nanometers), ordinary substances take on new propertie – greater reactivity, unusual electrical properties, enormous strength per unit of weigh – that can enable new types of medicine, super-slick coatings, stronger composites, and other improvements. Advanced nanomaterials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes could drive particularly significant impact. For example, graphene and carbon nanotubes could help create new types of displays and super-efficient batteries and solar cells. Finally, pharmaceutical companies are already progressing in research to use nanoparticles for targeted drug treatments for diseases such as cancer.
Advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery
The ability to extract so-called unconventional oil and gas reserves from shale rock formations is a technology revolution that has been gathering force for nearly four decades. The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing makes it possible to reach oil and gas deposits that were known to exist in the United States and other places but that were not economically accessible by conventional drilling methods. These new technologies could increase North American oil production by 100-200 percent by 2025. With continued improvements, the technology could significantly increase the availability of fossil fuels for decades and produce an immediate boon for energy-intensive industries such as petrochemicals manufacturing. Eventually, improving technology for oil and gas exploration and recovery could even unlock new types of reserves, including coalbed methane, tight sandstones, and methane clathrates (also known as methane hydrates), potentially ushering in another energy “revolution.”
Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, and ocean wave hold the promise of an endless source of power without stripping resources, contributing to climate change, or worrying about competition for fossil fuels. Solar cell technology is progressing particularly rapidly. In the past two decades, the cost of power produced by solar cells has dropped from nearly $8 per watt of capacity to one tenth of that amount. Meanwhile, wind power constitutes a rapidly growing proportion of renewable electricity generation. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are increasingly being adopted at scale in advanced economies like the United States and the European Union. Even more importantly, China, India, and other emerging economies have aggressive plans for solar and wind adoption that could enable further rapid economic growth while mitigating growing concerns about pollution.
The 12 technologies in McKinsey’s final list do not represent all potentially economically disruptive technologies in 2025. There are other advancing technologies that could leap forward and make an equally, or even more, dramatic impact. But with just these near-certain disruptive technologies, the additional economic value could be as high as $33 trillion a year in 2015. That is a staggering figure and points to vast opportunity for entrepreneurs, especially in the applications of mobile Internet, cloud technology, genomics and 3D printing.