March 20, 2012      

When the world?s pre-eminent electronic engineering magazine makes predictions about the near-term future of our industry, it?s worth paying attention. And that?s particularly true when the magazine?s predictions are based on comments from a panel of experts.

Their forecasts included the continuation of some trends we?ve already seen, such as the rapid rise of cloud robotics, the increased use of 3D imaging and guidance, spearheaded by Microsoft?s Kinect system, and further advances in collaboration between robots and humans in the workplace.

But several of the group?s predictions have received less press coverage. Yet they?re destined to have far reaching impacts on the field going forward. The coming of a multifunctional robotic arm costing under $5,000 is one example, as is the writers? expectation that we will witness ?numerous improvements to compliant actuation and tactile sensing technologies in 2012. Examples include better series elastic actuators.” Such systems are sorely necessary if robots are to safely work alongside humans or assist us in the home.

And finally, there is what might ultimately prove to be the most impactful trend of all: the 3D printer. Just as hi-res 2D printers aided by PhotoShop and similar software turned millions of us into artists. The 3D printer ? which the authors describe as “a robot in its own right” ? will unleash the inventor in millions more, resulting in an unimaginable number of new products, devices, or low-cost prototypes.