Electronic Design

Tomorrow's Markets

What's next? What will make and shake tomorrow's high-tech markets? Guessing has become more difficult, but some candidates stand out.

Like nanotechnology. The list of potential applications for nanotech is already huge and continues to expand throughout a litany of industries. The HPs, IBMs, and Intels are already talking about handheld devices with terabyte memories, and carbon nanotubes replacing silicon-based chips.

But these developments may be 10 to 15 years off. Lux Research, which tracks nanotech markets, estimates that only $13 billion worth of all kinds of manufactured goods (very little of it, in fact, in electronics) will incorporate nanotechnologies this year. That's a nice number, though, and it will balloon fairly quickly, even with plenty of hurdles in the way.

"In the case of today's mobile communications-and by extension, future pervasive computing environments-radical new materials technologies are necessary to support the next evolution in computing," says NanoMarkets LC, another nanotech market research specialist.

It's not like funding isn't in place. The National Nanotechnology Initiative oversees $1.2 billion for nanotech projects at 23 federal agencies. States are spending another $400 million on nanotech. And more than 1600 U.S. companies are conducting research in the technology

NanoMarkets also believes that plastic electronics, based on conductive polymers and flexible substrates, will change the industry. The company expects the worldwide plastic electronics market to grow to $5.8 billion in 2009 and $23.5 billion by 2012.

Displays will account for 46% of the plastic electronics market by 2009, according to NanoMarkets, while memory will take a 38% slice of the pie. The markets for logic/processors, flexible solar panels, and sensors all will be measured in the billions of dollars by 2012.

Wireless sensors, which comprise small nodes for unattended sensing, wireless communications, and computation devices, could be off the charts within a few years, finding their way into vast array of new applications. Such applications could range from tracking and monitoring just about anything to inventory control, weather forecasting, intrusion detection, and-for the military-tactical surveillance. These sensors could communicate with each other via a fixed, terrestrial basestation or via satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or even handheld devices.

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent another huge opportunity for the industry, particularly in fuel cells, power generators, and portable devices (digital cameras, handheld computers). But a new study by the MEMS Industry Group, a trade association, says a critical lack of MEMS characterization tools is slowing the commercialization of MEMS devices, especially for smaller companies.

Telematics has already reshaped the role of consumer electronics in cars. But the market is ready to stretch further with the downloading of music and even TV, movies, and games directly to vehicles through a wireless broadband connection. Ultimately, car will connect to the outside world in the same manner as today's homes and offices.

The list of new and emerging technologies-and, eventually, markets-goes on. Yet the source of its development has shifted. Years ago, the defense industry developed the leading technology advances, which eventually filtered down to mainstream commercial and then consumer applications and products.

But state-of-the-art technologies are now more likely to show up first in consumer electronics, notes Stuart Lipoff, a partner in IP Action Partners, a consultancy for consumer electronics, communications, and information technology companies. "The migration path has reversed direction, with consumer electronics now feeding the rest of the electronics industry," he says.

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