From chatbots to cobots, from 3D printing to 5G networks, the number of new technologies touting big business promise has in 2019 seemed more dizzying than ever. Behind the hype, though, where are the real developments? Where can we expect to see things happening over the next twelve months? Here is our pick of five technology trends for business and industry in 2020.
Last year saw the global growth of the B2B e-commerce market continue apace. This ongoing cultural shift – away from a world of sales reps and telephone calls to one of self-service online platforms – directly reflects the strengthening role in commercial purchasing of the millennial generation: those digital natives who instinctively research and buy products online. The rising prominence of Amazon Business (set to become even more visible next year) is part of this picture.
What makes B2B e-commerce a trend to watch in 2020 is the pressing question of how well product providers will respond to urgently rising demand. The challenge will first and foremost involve improving a customer experience that for many still falls short of expectations (particularly when it comes to the provision of adequate product information). Alongside this, there is equal pressure on online sellers to improve their understanding of ongoing customer engagement – personalising the buying experience through responsiveness to feedback, for example, or through the development of loyalty programmes.
Blockchain has attracted at least its fair share of hype in recent times; and the number of companies who have invested in it on a proof-of-concept level testifies to its revolutionary promise: to be an unprecedentedly safe and stable platform for financial relationships, supply chain systems and other data-based transaction processes.
If, as it does for many, blockchain gives the impression of still idling at the conceptual stage, this is in no way due to lack of interest, but rather because certain technical challenges, still not fully solved, are inhibiting the great leap forward.
Chief among these is the issue of interoperability: only very recently have network systems begun emerging whereby blockchain ventures can interact both with each other and with older file-sharing arenas. Just as high on the agenda are the themes of standardisation and regulation: many potential users are merely waiting on blockchain projects to give them the reassurance of recognisable consent mechanisms or legal protections that are only now being formulated.
It is anticipated that 2020 will deliver measurable advances in these areas.
For the last few years, fully autonomous road vehicles have been predicted for the immediate future; and Elon Musk’s timeline for driverless cars remains as aggressive as ever (Tesla robotaxis, he says, will be picking up passengers as early as next year). Most other developers of the technology have now struck a more cautious tone about the future, on account of how difficult it is proving in practice to solve problems such as getting vehicles to anticipate unexpected nearby movements.
The picture is altogether more promising in the world of driverless industrial vehicles: here vigorous progress is expected to continue in 2020. The number of autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) – from the monster mining machines of Rio Tinto to the robotic pallets that weave their way around every Amazon warehouse – is rising markedly and in line with other aspects of the automation of industry. In this case, it seems, technology has made the necessary leap forward: from machines that used to run along pre-set routes laid down in magnetic tape or wires, to the incomparably flexible manoeuvrability of navigation through cameras and radar (or lidar).
As devices such as AGVs multiply in type and number, the implications for AI proliferate correspondingly. Factories, warehouses and other industrial spaces are becoming smarter with every year that goes by; and this progress is bringing with it a developing burden on operational processing power.
With connected machinery continuously generating performance data, and with those and other types of data now able to be stored and accessed through cloud-computing, the pressure is on to get the best out of all this information using AI-generated insights.
The required hardware and software – let alone the programmers themselves – are a steep investment for all but the biggest of companies. Hence the escalating importance of AI as a service: essentially access to high-grade, off-the-shelf computing on a per-use basis. AIaaS is in 2020 expected to help a significant number of small and medium-sized businesses get fully on board the IoT revolution.
Over the next twelve months watch new players join leading providers Microsoft, Google, Amazon and IBM in the push towards enhanced product accessibility.
From autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence, the precise shape of many technological trends for business will depend, say some, on what happens next with 5G – the fifth generation of wireless mobile networks. The global roll-out has only just begun, and 2020 is most businesses’ first chance to get properly involved.
Potentially 100 times faster than 4G and with latency (download delays) proportionally slashed, 5G may well revolutionise industrial practice. Using just their mobile devices, team members will be able to work seamlessly together, exchanging significant quantities of data, wherever they are. Systems using robots and other networked machines will become fully fluent, with lags, snags and misalignments things of the past.
Few would-be subscribers to the technology, though, are ready to go. 2020 needs to see a great deal in the way of foundational investment: in both the network-compatible hardware that must be acquired or adapted and in a practical understanding of how enabled systems can help reformulate business strategy.
There is, then, across almost all technological trends, a strong sense of much groundwork still being laid. At the same time, confidence in the future, supported by a strongly agreed-upon direction of travel, remains high.