There have been a lot of big innovations across a range of industries and technologies recently. So much of this progress was the work of dedicated engineers applying their knowledge and skills to improving and enriching our lives.
There’s no doubt that engineers are reshaping the future. Here’s a summary of some of these advances and a shout-out to all who made these advancements possible.
Although truly autonomous vehicles might be some years off, automobile makers have made significant advances in combining software, cameras, lidar, maps and radar to make improvements in driverless operation. Both Japan and Germany approved “conditional eyes-off” Level 3 autonomous driving on public roads in 2021 – so progress, although slow, is happening.
Wi-Fi 6 is still in its relative infancy and already Wi-Fi 7 is on the horizon. Although Wi-Fi 7 capable products probably won’t hit the market until 2023, theoretically they can support bandwidth up to 30 gigabits/second — which is more than three times the speed of Wi-Fi 6.
renewable energy/storage technology
Renewable energy sources played a growing role in electricity generation in the U.S. in 2021. Renewable energy sources (including biomass, geothermal and hydropower) accounted for 20.45 percent of total U.S. production during the first three quarters of 2021. Solar accounted for 39 percent of total new U.S. electricity-generating capacity, followed by wind (31%, or 12.2 GW), natural gas (16%, or 6.6 GW), battery storage (11%, or 4.3 GW), nuclear (3%, or 1.1 GW), and “other,” at 0.2 GW. Advances in battery technology are also changing the face of electricity storage. For example, this past summer, an iron-air-exchange battery capable of delivering electricity for 100 hours was announced.
The pandemic drove extensive changes in medicine (i.e., telemedicine) and likely hastened the adoption of other technologies like IoT. The list of advances in medical devices in 2021 is too long to address here, but some notable areas of change include the following:
- Apps as medical devices: Using phones to measure and transmit vital signs and other uses of software as a medical device (SaMD) for screening, diagnostic and monitoring purposes.
- Other smart sensors and smart devices that offer the opportunity for enhanced individualized care such as ingestible devices that can monitor a patient’s stomach for extended periods, patches containing sensors to monitor various conditions, etc.
- Use of the Internet of Things (IoT) for monitoring and preventative care through connected devices that can, for example, continuously monitor glucose levels for diabetics, Bluetooth-enabled pacemakers that transmit information to cardiologists, etc.
- Continued advancements in robotics for minimally invasive surgical procedures lead to reduced pain and faster patient recovery times.
- Use of virtual reality (VR) in both patient care (depression, PTSD, etc.) and to simulate medical procedures for training medical students, physicians and nurses.
No doubt, engineers will continue to push forward advancements in medical devices in 2022.
aerospace and aviation
Autonomy, zero-fuel and A.I.-enabled technologies are a few of the advances made in this field in 2021.
- The SpaceX 165-foot-tall Starship was designed to be reusable. Planned voyages might include the Moon, Mars — and possibly a long-range global ferry service to the far reaches of the world in less than an hour.
- The first flight of Northrop Grumman’s high-altitude, long-endurance MQ-4C Triton proved that its extensive capabilities for maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance will enhance real-time decision-making.
- At the other end of the size scale, the shoebox-sized Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout is planned to travel millions of miles almost exclusively using solar power. The craft can adjust its speed by 5,000 mph to match the pace of whatever asteroid it is mapping.
- The 51-foot MQ-25 Stingray drone is being tested as the first uncrewed aircraft used to refuel another aircraft.
In commercial aviation:
- Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator program is developing and testing a range of technologies aimed at improving fuel economy, reducing noise and the ecological footprint of airlines.
- United Airlines contracted to purchase 15 Boom Overture supersonic airliners.
- Airbus is testing three concepts to rely on hydrogen and the primary aviation fuel.
- GE Aviation and Safran began developing technology for a new generation of open-rotor engines with a target of reducing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent over current technologies.
- Engineers who worked in manufacturing continued to apply innovative techniques and technologies to enhance productivity, safety, logistics, etc. The list of advancements is too long to recount, but here are the areas in which great strides were made:
- Industrial robots — 39,708 robots were ordered by manufacturers and other industrial purposes in 2021, almost 30 percent more than in 2020. New robotics technology has made the application of industrial robots affordable for even smaller firms. There are now collaborative robots (cobots), A.I.-enabled robots and self-healing robots — all developments in which engineers have played a critical role in realizing.
- Industry 4.0 — Usually thought of as the development of “smart” factories, many manufacturing engineers are involved in assessing, selecting and deploying technologies such as robotics, IoT, advanced computing, use of the cloud, etc.
- Internet of Things — IoT in manufacturing can connect a variety of tools, devices and machines to manage and monitor operations and provide heretofore unavailable information about performance. Smart sensors tied to the cloud offer manufacturers insight into ways to improve safety, develop innovative products, reduce costs, enhance efficiency and much more.
- Predictive maintenance — Engineers working with statistical analysts are linking machine learning with artificial intelligence and IoT devices to reduce downtime by anticipating problems before they happen. This can reduce maintenance costs as well as improve productivity.
- Additive manufacturing — Computer-aided design software coupled with 3D printing allows manufacturers to customize parts and products while eliminating tooling costs and reducing product development time. Engineers can now quickly design and fabricate customized designs faster at a reduced cost.
engineering, procurement and construction
The adoption of technology within the construction industry is rapidly changing many aspects of project design, management and construction. Engineers are now, more than ever, members of multidisciplinary, geographically dispersed teams, requiring them to learn and use a variety of collaborative online tools. Here are a few of the trends in 2021 that reshaped how projects were designed, managed and built:
- Building Information Modeling (BIM) — Thought of as the cornerstone of digital transformation in the AEC industry, BIM fosters collaboration and communication by connecting people, workflows and data across the project lifecycle from initial design through construction. It provides a central database enabling everyone to share a single model.
- Project management — The adoption of cloud-based software is another technology fostering better planning, monitoring, communication and collaboration across the project team. A project team with some members working far from the project site is now widely employed.
- Connected construction — At the core of connected construction are the capabilities to capture and analyze the wealth of data generated throughout project design and construction. The “connected” aspect of these techniques relies on sensors, tags, drones, etc., to connect sites, machines and people offering real-time visibility and analytical insights to improve decision-making.
- Generative design — Now found in some engineering software, generative design applies A.I. techniques to assess user-entered constraints such as strength, weight limits, code compliance, etc., and offers a wide range of solutions and ideas consistent with those constraints. It helps engineers and designers find solutions for a wide range of design problems.