Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. That has always been the goal of any business because efficiency translates directly into a better bottom line, and profits are what it's all about in the business world. Just as industrial automation allowed manufacturers to make products in large volumes better, quicker, and cheaper, electronics technology will be the engine that promotes efficiency on the factory floor and beyond. Electronics already pervades the banking, financial, transportation, travel, leisure, and retail sectors, and it will become even more essential in time. Whether a business is searching for ways to do things more efficiently, for more creative methods of marketing and selling, or to minimize the selling price while maintaining acceptable profit margins, electronics technology will be at the center of the action. Most especially, the Internet will play a large role, acting as the information highway that ties consumers, retailers, and manufacturers together.
In the retail sector, shifting customer demands increasingly require product producers to quickly react to changing market conditions. Large and medium-size retail outlets must have comprehensive, computerized databases of their inventories, updated daily, if not hourly, to find out what's selling and what's not selling. When linked to manufacturers' databases over the Internet, retailers can inform manufacturers of current demands so that they can replenish their stock. While businesses might not be able to predict changing consumer tastes, they can quickly adjust to them by using the right networking and computer technology.
The future will bring Web-based tools that closely monitor inventory and improve communications between suppliers and clients, enabling the supply chain to operate more smoothly and cost-effectively. Over the next few years, watch for the Web to do more to help retailers control costs by allowing goods manufacturers to respond more quickly and nimbly to product developments. The future retailer will be able to examine "digitized" patterns of apparel, sent over the Web by the clothing manufacturer, prior to the apparel actually being shipped and received.
In addition, the Web will vastly reduce the number of paper copies needed for business transactions, greatly cutting costs. In the shipping business, for example, bills of lading and letters of credit are largely based on paper copies, often in multiples. That's beginning to change now and will continue to do so for greater efficiency.
New markets based on evolving technologies will expand the reach of businesses all over the globe. Developments in flat-panel display technology, for example, have opened up a host of new markets. Organic light-emitting-diode (OLED) displays are now flexible enough to be rolled up into a tube, like paper. This could enable thinner, smaller, lower-powered, and more flexible screens for games, cameras, watches, PDAs, cell phones, laptops, and even TVs.
There are more and more flat-panel displays at point-of-sale (POS) terminals to record transactions. With the Internet acting as the enabling technology, flat-panel display manufacturers are promoting a new way of doing business for retailers using digital signs on their displays. Called digital "signage," it allows retailers to alter in-store signs in various locations instantly. This is a faster and less costly way of modifying signs compared to the cost of printing, paper, distribution, and the manual labor it takes to physically change signs. It's also more appealing to the eye of the consumer.
Beyond conventional flat-panel displays lies another potential killer technology for the retail sector—displays based on electronic ink. These displays, which require very little power (only two or three AA batteries), employ paper-thin screens containing millions of microcapsules, each with negatively and positively charged particles suspended in a clear fluid. They can be electronically addressed to form signs with text and images for retail outlets. Not only are they more energy efficient than existing displays, their displays don't wash out in sunlight and they can run on one set of batteries for a year. Best of all, their information content can be changed electronically on demand. Still to be overcome is their relatively high cost, a drawback that the technology's developers are confident of beating.
Business will also become efficient with wiser use of such natural resources as gas, oil, water, and electricity through recycling and lower power consumption. Any business, no matter how small, requires a significant amount of electricity to operate, particularly restaurants, fast-food outlets, and large malls. Recognizing this, manufacturers of power devices and power supplies are constantly churning out units with improved power regulation and control, which translates into more efficient use of electricity for everything from lighting, heating, and refrigeration to motion control.
Based on the Borealis principle, the same technology for powering home appliances (see "For People," p. 163) is getting noticed by commercial airline companies for airborne food galleys. It could be suitable for offices and retail-outlet buildings to drive elevators, escalators, and other commercial applications because it can harness a motor's normally wasted energy levels for greater rotary motion efficiency.
The now ubiquitous bar code is likely to become a relic in the future. Radio-frequency identification, popularly known as RF ID technology, will permanently alter the way businesses control inventories and monitor personnel. As the price of tiny RF ID tags comes down, the technology is opening new applications like mobile commerce, baggage tracking, and in-store uses. RF IDs are rapidly moving out of the factories and warehouses, where they have been implemented for many years, into retail, commercial, and health-care businesses. The technology is even expanding to the farm, where the tags track livestock. RF ID tags are often attached to cows, sheep, and horses (usually to the ear lobe) for rapid identification and location. Animal research facilities also use the tags for their subjects.
Look for RF ID tags to replace the familiar UPC bar codes found on merchandise items and foods in stores and supermarkets. The McDonald's fast food maker is testing a chip-based checkout system that lets customers pay for a burger with digital cash. Once the purchase is rung up, an RF ID terminal collects payment information in seconds, straight from a chip located in a customer's key fob. With the RF ID tag, the key fob can also be linked to gas station fuel pumps for instant credit-card debits.
Just how much interest exists in the business sector for RF ID tag use? Consider that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are heading a project to slash the cost of RF ID tags to just five cents by 2005. Joining them are 52 companies, including such giants as Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart. This ambitious project, known as the "Auto-ID Center," is additionally trying to develop a common language of electronic product codes to identify billions of items.
A key element in the use of RF ID tags by the masses is security. Although present RF ID tags provide a reasonable amount of security for single-function, single-person, small-scale uses like gasoline purchases, they're prone to fraud when multiple-application, multi-user situations are involved. Some experts call for a public-key security approach to ensure user confidentiality, authentication, and privacy for any transaction. With a public key, two keys are implemented—a private key for use by only the user, and a public key, which anyone can access. Next-generation RF ID devices will likely employ this approach by storing public-key data on tokens. Specific key readers can rewrite the token's credentials on-the-fly, enabling "dynamic" re-keying once a different but "authorized" user makes the transaction.
Propelled by smaller and more powerful computers and improved communications technology, the office of the future will undergo fundamental changes, as workers increasingly become telecommuters. This will bring more efficient business operations (smaller central offices and less related expenses), conserve valuable resources (fewer cars on the road, using less gas), help lessen environmental smog, and mean safer driving for those who do drive to the office. Computers will shrink down to wristwatch-like wearable units, while shirt-pocket PDAs equipped with the latest wireless technology will allow instant communications between a central business office and other workers either in the field, on the road, or at their home office. Besides high-resolution graphics, these small powerhouses will feature enough storage space to hold large databases.
Further, the same electronic device technology that's driving down the cost and size of office machines like printers, copiers, faxes, and scanners will translate into completely equipped personal offices and cubicles for every worker. No more waiting for that single networked machine shared by a large group or department. Each office worker will have his or her own machines, yet they'll all be networked together with other workers' machines, no matter where they are on the globe, for up-to-the-minute communications.
Electronics technology also allows mankind to conduct geophysical explorations of the worlds around him, beneath him, above him, and underwater. Satellite mapping of potential underground resources has been going on for a few years and is improving each day. Microsensors that are thousands of times more sensitive and accurate than legacy devices used for decades are giving scientists a new view of potential oil and gas resources buried deep underground.
Ever since Jules Verne's classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea became a bestseller, the fire of curiosity for underwater exploration has burned brightly. But until recently, such endeavors were confined to the military sector. Now autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are under development for the commercial sector. They will be used to survey arctic ice packs, study underwater fish populations, salvage high-profile discoveries like sunken ships and planes, research underwater environmental conditions, and explore for oil and gas resources. AUVs and UUVs are big business, a market that analysts expect to double to $12 billion next year.
Expect to see underwater, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) attached to overhead mother ships, either by cable or by wireless communications. The GPS will have overall control, while the mothership will provide the fine-tuned control. Such future systems will improve data-collection quality via synthetic-aperture sonar, sophisticated instrumentation, and high-resolution sonar mapping. Some experts predict the development of hybrid RUVs/AUVs capable of traveling to wherever they're needed within the next three years. These can then be plugged into a seafloor network to become ROVs for oil and gas exploration.
The creation of civil structures, like buildings, dams, bridges, and tunnels, will also rely more heavily on electronics technology for better safety, maintenance, and efficiency. Micro-size sensors will be deeply embedded within these structures, constantly supplying data on shear, strain, pressure, and other forces that can affect them. Soon it may not be necessary to regularly send out engineers to inspect these structures. We will depend on manned computerized data centers that constantly monitor every conceivable parameter to ensure the safety of such structures.
Electronics technology and "the business" of business are two entities inevitably linked together for survival—one simply can't do without the other now, and it will be even more so in the future.