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Technology trends you should care about

Gareth Randle
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An amazing aspect of ForrestBrown’s work is how close it gets us to the innovation taking place in the UK. We have clients carrying out research and development (R&D) in every industry you can imagine.

It’s now well understood that R&D occurs in a wide array of sectors, but a question we get asked time and time again is how to spot a client who is carrying out R&D. It remains challenging since R&D is constantly evolving.

Added to this, we’re seeing technology infiltrate many sectors in new ways. It’s increasingly difficult (and I’d argue borderline impossible) to talk about ‘typical R&D’. In large part, this innovation boom has been facilitated by a few noteworthy tech trends.

We’ve rounded up some of the most notable UK tech trends to keep an eye on. We’ll review each in turn and where we’re seeing them make an impact in projects.

Do you want to know more about how different technologies are penetrating different sectors?

Speak to our team of software, engineering and science specialists to discuss your project.

Tech Trends in 2021

1. Robotics

Robotics is on the cusp of some exciting developments that will affect many different sectors. This is thanks to, in large part, improved connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI) and advances in vision and sensing technologies.

Perhaps the most obvious application of this improved robotics will be in manufacturing. We know that three-quarters of R&D taking place in the UK (69%) is manufacturing innovation. Robotic automation will help manufacturers improve productivity, lower costs and be more resilient in the face of shocks and downturns.

Smart factories will become the norm in the UK. Machines will be more autonomous, acting almost as fully-fledged co-workers alongside humans (or ‘cobots’ as the International Federation of Robotics terms it).

These robotic ‘workers’ will dramatically improve safety by keeping human staff away from harm. Potentially hazardous tasks can be safely automated.

Robots also automate tasks that are just plain unpleasant or, as with trades like bricklaying, highly repetitive and time-consuming. Our client Construction Automation has developed the Automated Brick Laying Robot (ABLR) to supplement the UK’s ‘extraordinary’ bricklayer shortage.

The machine dramatically improves health and safety, completely removing the need for scaffolding. It’s a game-changer for the industry, specifically house building.

David Longbottom, Director, Construction Automation

2. AR / VR

The COVID-19 lockdowns led to an enormous, unplanned experiment in immersive, digital learning, working and communication. As in-person interaction was made impossible, we turned to tech to fill the gap.

According to IBM, the pandemic accelerated the shift to digital commerce and events by a full five years. It’s unlikely, as normal life returns, that this genie will go back in the bottle.

Virtual and augmented reality will become more mainstream over the next few years and this has been hastened by the events of 2020 and 2021. At ForrestBrown, we’ve seen first-hand what form these innovations in AR and VR are taking.

One client has pioneered a 3D virtual event platform and broadcast studio, as in-person events were no longer possible. These VR features would be entirely within the cloud. Innovation like this cannot yet be bought off the shelf. It is unique in its design and highly innovative.

AR and VR also offer outstanding functionality as training platforms. Another ForrestBrown client has developed VR training for medical emergency services. Other innovations are a little more unexpected, like a VR empathy training module for potential reality TV contestants.

3. Quantum Computing

Perhaps one of the best, most accessible explanations of quantum computing came from a surprising source: the prime minister of Canada. Back in 2016, Justin Trudeau offered an excellent explanation of quantum computing at a time where quantum computing still felt sci-fi.

In simple terms, what quantum computing offers is raw processing power. Qubits – the basic unit of quantum information – can store much more information than the traditional binary digits in current computing. Instead of being a 1 or 0, a qubit can be both simultaneously. Or, like Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat: both dead and alive.

R&D in this area is about the practical application of theoretical knowledge. We know what to do with Qubits once we have them, but it’s getting enough of them to work with reliably that is the focus of the innovation.

The theoretical knowledge is sound, now it’s a case of pushing it into mainstream use. Once it becomes mainstream, we can expect to see quantum computing catalyse the development of technology and innovation in a wide array of sectors.

Consider pharmaceuticals, for instance. The processing power of a quantum computer can process numbers on countless different chemical compounds far quicker than current technology. This would help firms quickly identify promising compounds, dramatically speeding up R&D. 

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI, as our software sector expert Tree observed, is a somewhat used and abused term. What’s labelled AI these days has more to do with the over-zealousness of marketing departments than actual honest-to-goodness deep machine learning.

A simple way to view AI is to focus on the ‘I’ part of the term: It’s the simulation of human intelligence in machines in one form or another. Specifically, our human capacity to learn and react independently.

While a machine that could convincingly mimic (or even surpass our capacities) independently is a way off, ‘AI led’ projects are flourishing right now. ForrestBrown has helped many clients to access R&D incentives who have used AI techniques in their work. This includes software to model fluid dynamics or to create a medical diagnostic tool.

AI-led innovation is filtering through to all sorts of spaces. AI therapists (or ‘Woebots’ as their creators labelled them) are now being marketed. AI’s applications are increasingly nuanced. Filament Consultancy Group, a ForrestBrown client, used AI to resolve difficulties in translating the Austrian dialect of German.

We developed a software platform that could analyse text and emotions in the Austrian-German dialect of German. There are a few emotion-detection models available in the market, but the complex nuances of the Austrian-German language meant that none of these were compatible. To overcome this, we developed a Python-based, emotion detection model we integrated with existing off-the-shelf solutions.

Phil Westcott, co-CEO, Filament Consultancy Group

5. Internet of Things

Few things have embodied the trajectory of Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle quite like the Internet of Things (IoT). Gartner’s cycle illustrates how new technology sets a flurry of excitement and fanfare – and then reality hits.

That’s when technology enters the ‘trough of disillusionment’. IoT has been in the trough for a while, as businesses and manufacturers struggled to get past novelty. But now the technology has improved and IoT tech is settling into productive, everyday use.

IoT is a catch-all term to describe everyday objects embedded with sensors and connected to the internet. Think smart fridges and TVs, for example. As the market has matured, we increasingly see firms building up their own entire ecosystem for IoT (hardware, firmware, software, infrastructure, and development platforms), rather than one-off IoT devices.

Perhaps the most everyday IoT example is smart meters and smart building systems. A focal R&D area is in the cybersecurity of such devices to stop them from being hacked and used to manipulate demand. 

6. Predictive maintenance

This innovation is IoT adjacent. Many objects now have sensors embedded in them and are connected to the web.

At present, most maintenance of in-service equipment is routine or time-based. With a predictive maintenance approach, businesses will be able to determine the condition of an object or tool before deciding to do maintenance or not. This also facilitates ‘just in time’ provision.

This approach minimises unnecessary work and saves costs. There is a lot of innovation in this space at present – like sensors placed on pipelines to check for corrosion and damage, eliminating the need for manual inspection.

A trend within predictive maintenance is software platforms that integrate into existing management systems and a wide array of sensors. These platforms interpret low-level signals to determine performance or even potential failures in a facility.

Predictive maintenance also offers an environmental angle by reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

7. Big Data

In ‘The Information’, James Gleick’s award-winning history of the Information Age, the author observes that “Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom”. In other words, we are absolutely surrounded by information and noise – but this isn’t the same as knowing things.

If anything, the abundance of data has a paralysing effect. There’s simply too much to comprehend. As of 2021, 2.5 exabytes of data is generated every day, with mobile devices, IoT devices, cameras, RFID readers all adding to the stream. New data processing tools can make this information useful.

There is much innovation at work in this sector. AI and machine learning-led techniques enable further automation, and emergent tech like big data fabric seeks to connect multiple locations, types, and data sources.

The higher the frequency at which data is sent, the more useful it is for near real-time applications. But then again, the more data is generated, the more you need to manage. In sectors like financial services, big data analyses – intricately coupled with automation and AI – help spot unusual behaviour in financial transactions.

Big Data also offers broad applications in the advertising industry (as the industry has moved wholesale into the digital realm). Big Data allows digital advertisers to better target users with more personalized ads that they most likely want to see.

8. Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM, or commonly called 3D printing) is computer-controlled or assisted manufacture of three dimensional, complex and/or geometric shapes. The technology has applications in aerospace, healthcare, design modelling and automotive – but it could expand far beyond that.

Right now, AM is often used to build models or simple parts with no major functionality, and there is R&D in the materials used and how those materials are manipulated in an AM context to replicate their tried and tested equivalents.

In the future, AM will be used to make actual products. But for now, there is insufficient applied data on AM application to afford the same guarantees as the existing manufacturing standards. AM materials have ‘anisotropic’ properties, so like wood, it assumes different properties in different directions (i.e., wood is easier to split along the grain than across it).

However, progress has recently been made in the construction of an unreinforced concrete bridge in Venice, and a steel bridge in Amsterdam.  The performance of both, using embedded sensors, will provide invaluable information to accelerate the adoption of these practices.

ForrestBrown has clients seeking to advance both the knowledge of AM materials as well as the application of it in progressive ways.

9. Batteries

In this new era of climate uncertainty, an unlikely (and yet familiar) hero has entered the picture: the battery. Batteries will be an essential part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by efficiently storing renewable energy for later use.

Renewables are weather dependent. So, for instance, solar energy is, understandably, hampered at night or on a cloudy day. As such, batteries are an important part of innovation and R&D in the renewables sector.

This can also be useful for transport operations. One ForrestBrown client makes large, container-sized batteries to power electric buses. The batteries load up in the day and charge the buses at night, facilitating zero-carbon mass transit.

Batteries can take in the clean energy produced when conditions are right, store it, and release it into the grid whenever needed. Batteries can also fill infrastructural gaps by connecting parts of the world lacking a robust and available electricity network.

A big development in batteries right now is the move towards sodium-ion batteries. Sodium is a plentiful, considerably more environmentally friendly resource compared to rare earth minerals like Cobalt. This new generation of batteries offers a range of safety, cell management and charging/discharging benefits.

Other R&D in this sector is focused on making batteries more open and available to all. AGM Batteries, a ForrestBrown client, developed new cell technology for niche, low-volume electric vehicle manufacturers.

Existing EV battery cells are subject to heavy licensing, which was not cost or time-effective for our clients. We carried out our own research into appropriate materials which could be used without a license, and in conjunction with our own pouch-shaped battery design.

Adam Westcott, CFO, AGM Batteries

10. Sustainability

More generally, sustainability is a vital innovation area, with the UK’s intermediate 2030, and ultimate 2050 net-zero emissions targets in mind. But sustainability is about much more than reducing carbon emissions.

One of our clients is replacing plastic and wood fibre-based products with materials made from agro-fibres that are 100% recyclable, compostable and biodegradable.

Innovation in sustainability isn’t just about the ‘new’, however. A key facet of sustainability is making technological processes, activities and structures more eco-friendly, energy-saving, and resource-efficient. One ForrestBrown client retrofits homes with highly efficient domestic ventilation solutions, for example. Appreciably improving existing processes can be R&D.

These days sustainability touches pretty much every facet of production and all sectors. Even if carbon reduction isn’t the main aim, for example, it will often factor into product or service development. It can be R&D even though it’s not the central focus of a project.

A partner in tech innovation

UK businesses innovate in all sorts of wonderful ways. Sometimes these innovations are simple to grasp, and other times it’s in the quantum realm. These tech trends have infiltrated all sectors, and the right R&D tax relief partner can help spot all relevant work and projects.

At ForrestBrown, we’re passionate about innovation and helping UK businesses grow. We can work flexibly and transparently with you on any aspect of R&D taxation. It’s R&D tax advice that can match your ambitions.

Our expert team can help

Innovation takes many different forms. This list is simply a guide to the most innovation-intensive fields in the UK right now. Unsure whether you can benefit from R&D tax relief? Contact ForrestBrown. Our tax and sector experts are ready to help.

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