February 12, 2021

Emerging Industry Trends Include Drones, Self-Driving Vehicles, Med Device Customization

By Nicole Hopper

As we kick off a new year, it’s a great time to take a look at some of the emerging trends expected to top the market over the upcoming months. Trends predicted to dominate 2021 also give insight into years to come, and jumping on these movements in the early stages can set you up for long-term success.

In the manufacturing industry, some trends we're tracking in 2021 include an increased adoption of automation and digital techniques, a move toward sustainable manufacturing efforts, a 3D printing revolution with the technology growing at an annual rate of approximately 60%, and a shift toward made-in-America and supply chain on shoring. Other trends we're following closely include shifts in the aviation, automotive, and medical industries poised to dominate 2021 and beyond.

Drones Taking off Big in the Aviation World

While drones are not new to the aviation sector, reports are expecting two big areas of growth for the flyers in coming years: Delivery and air taxis. ARK Investment Management estimates that within the next five years, drones will deliver more than 20% of parcel shipments and drive e-commerce adoption.

Drone air taxi
Current trends in aviation predict that air taxis could soon be transporting us above cities and over traffic jams. Photo courtesy: rolandberger.com

The investment firm also estimates that drone delivery platforms will be a $50 billion industry by 2025. With top digital marketplaces like Amazon already embracing and testing the technology, ARK's predictions don't seem far off.

Looking a little further out, global consultancy firm Roland Berger predicts air taxis to be the transportation of the future. Based on a 2020 study of the industry, the firm estimates as many as 160,000 commercial air taxis in the air by 2050, generating roughly $90 billion per year.

And, the study isn't just based on projections either. Chinese company EHang has already taken passenger drones into the air. The manufacturer produced 20 air taxis for passenger and cargo transport in 2020 and plans to build another 600 in 2021. The study also points out that with 110 cities and regions worldwide working on solutions in this area, the number of new players is constantly growing with development coming from startups and established aviation companies alike.

Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Drive the Automotive Industry

Fierce Electronics names autonomous vehicles one of the biggest trends of 2021 and beyond. The article predicts autonomous vehicles to become mainstream within the next 3-5 years. Beyond self-driving automobiles on streets, autonomous vehicles in company hallways, manufacturing floors, and operations centers are expected to grow in popularity driven by the range of capabilities at a reasonable price and increasing volume of devices.

As electric vehicles approach sticker price equivalence with gas-powered cars, electric vehicles is another automotive trend ARK is watching in 2021. The firm forecasts electrical vehicle sales increasing 20-fold by 2025. Leaders in the industry are developing batteries that enable longer range vehicles at lower costs.

As the automotive market undergoes a major shift this year, technology tracker ZDNet dubbed 2021 the year of the electric vehicle. However, there may be some barriers for traditional auto manufacturers. Major threats facing the industry as this trend grows include whether traditional automakers can successfully transition and whether they have the software and electrical engineering talent to succeed in this sector.

Customization and Automation Design the Future of Medical Device

As medical device design has become more innovative over the past decade, the need for niche and specialized components has grown. This movement indicates the time is coming when OEMs will be able to buy these specialized parts 'off the shelf.' Until then, partnerships between medical device designers and manufacturers able to create these customized components is key.

INGEVITY™ Pacing Lead
Pacemaker leads, like Boston Scientific's INGEVITY™ Pacing Lead, are an example of a medical device component that has transitioned from only being manufacturable by specialized suppliers to now be produced more widely. Photo courtesy: bostonscientific.com

Working with commodity products limits design opportunities and product capabilities. Alternatively, partnering with a custom manufacturer early on, especially one that can help in the design process, allows for experimentation, testing, and ultimately an optimized medical device that ticks every box.

"We've had a lot of instances where a customer tells us that they wish they had come to us sooner," said Gene Kleinschmit, product manager for Swedish engineering firm Sandvik. "Originally, they went with what they could find, and it ended up being somebody who could make commodity products. They were trying to design this new device utilizing a commodity product and they struggle to get it to work; they couldn't alter their design enough to get it to function…As the product matures over time, it will become more and more of a commodity item and the customer will have additional options. If we look at a pacemaker lead for example, when they first came about they were very specialized…Now the designs have changed enough to where it’s not such a specialized product. There are a lot of suppliers who have the capabilities of making them."

In medical device manufacturing, the trend toward automation also experienced a spike in last year and looks to be on track to continue to grow into the future. 2020 statistics released by the Robotic Industries Association show robotics orders in life sciences, pharmaceuticals, and biomed increased by 69% year-over-year. 2020 was also the first year that annual orders of robots from non-automotive sectors surpassed orders from the automotive manufacturing industry, a shift robotics manufacturers attribute to the global pandemic.

"With the changes in people's personal buying behavior caused by COVID, robots have been utilized in record numbers to allow for the fulfillment of orders in the e-commerce space while allowing for correct social distancing practices," said Dean Elkins, Segment Leader–Handling, Yaskawa Motoman. "In addition, robots largely aided in the production of personal protection and testing equipment and the medical devices needed to keep our society healthy and safe."

With key benefits of robotic production automation including optimized productivity, improved quality, reduced costs, and enhanced safety, we expect to see the movement toward automated production in medical manufacturing to continue beyond the pandemic.

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