15 Engineers Building the Tech of the Future

These 15 engineers are helping build the future today. They have grand plans for new technology and materials.
Christopher McFadden

The future might look very different from today if any of these 15 engineers have anything to say about it. They have been working tirelessly to bring the products of their imagination into reality.


The following group of people is just some of the many hardworking and talented engineers around the world. This list is by no means exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Minjuan Zhang: The Engineer Making Cars Invisible

Minjuan and her team at Toyota are working to try to provide unobstructed views for car occupants of the future. To this end, they are attempting to build an 'invisibility cloak' for future Toyotas.

Zhang is a lifelong Toyota engineer and material scientist - she also holds at least 50 patents. Her main research focus is studying how light interacts with materials.

In 2016 her research yielded some interesting results that enabled her to develop a new paint color called "Structural Blue." By studying how light interacts with butterflies, the scientist invented the new paint that provided the unique deep blue color offered in the 2017 Lexus LC 500 series. 

Zhang and her team are currently trying to find a way to render the internal structures of cars 'invisible'. The solution will involve the clever use of lenses and polarised light.

“We could still keep the same structures, but we could make them invisible so we could improve the view of the driver,” Zhang explains.

This technology is still very much a guarded secret by Toyota. If successful, it could be the future of all vehicles. If it also proves popular, it could become the standard for all modes of transportation.

Minjuan Zhang
Source: Lexus

2. Carmel Majidi: The Engineer Hoping To Make Self-Healing Machines

Carmel Majidi (Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering) and engineers at Carnegie Mellon University are currently working on a method to allow machines to repair themselves like living organisms. Their material is able to repair itself once it has suffered severe mechanical damage.

The material is made from liquid metal droplets that are suspended within a soft elastomer. Once damaged, the droplets rupture like blood in an animal to form new connections with neighboring droplets to reroute electrical signals. 

"Other research in soft electronics has resulted in materials that are elastic and deformable, but still vulnerable to mechanical damage that causes immediate electrical failure,” explained Carmel.

“The unprecedented level of functionality of our self-healing material can enable soft-matter electronics and machines to exhibit the extraordinary resilience of soft biological tissue and organisms.”

3. Zhong Lin Wang and Georgia Tech Are Making Power Generating Cloths

Zhong Lin Wang (Regents professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering) and other researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are currently investigating the possibility of making a motion-generating energy harvesting textile. Not only that but their textile, once optimized, should also be bi-generational allowing it to harvest energy from solar generation. 

Motion-based electrical generation will be achieved using triboelectric nanogenerators. These work by combining triboelectric effects with electrostatic induction to generate electricity from any movement that agitates the textile.

The textile could have perfect applications as clothing but also in other fields that could take advantage of its bi-generational potential from wind and solar at the same time such as ships sails or energy harvesting flags.

“This hybrid power textile presents a novel solution to charging devices in the field from something as simple as the wind blowing on a sunny day,” explains Zhong Lin Wang.

Power Generating Cloth
Source: Georgia Institute of Technology

4. David Hanson: The Engineer Behind the World's First Robot Citizen

Dr. David Franklin Hanson Jr. is the man behind one of the most advanced AI androids ever built - Sophia. Activated in 2015 'she' was designed and built by his Hong Kong-based startup Hanson Robotics.

Sophia made her debut at South by Southwest Festival in March of 2016 in Austin, Texas and has since become one of the most recognized robots of all time. Sophia is revolutionary in various ways but none more significant than 'her' being awarded Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017.

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Sophia has since become a highly popular public speaker, especially for business, and has met face to face with many influential decision makers across many industries. She has also been named the United Nation Innovation Champion by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

In this role 'she' will have an official role in working with the UNDP to promote sustainable development and safeguard human rights and equality.

David Hanson
Source: SazzadHossain/Wikimedia Commons

5. Lucian Gheorghe: The Engineer Merging Drivers With Cars

Nissan and Dr. Lucian Gheorghe recently revealed their ambitions to allow drivers to communicate directly with their cars. They are working on a special piece of headgear that measures the wearer's brain waves. 

The idea is for the car's autonomous systems to then analyze the information in real-time with the view of anticipating the driver's future intentions. Dubbed Brain-to-Vehicle, B2V for short, they hope that the technology should be able to predict driver behavior and improve reaction times by 0.2 to 0.5 seconds.

According to their website, B2V should be able to offer the following benefits:

- It enhances driver performance, enabling them to reach their full driving potential while maintaining control;
- It provides real-time personalization of Autonomous Drive mode and other functions - this has never been achieved before.

They also hope it will be able to improve driver comfort by mimicking the drivers (safe and legal) driving style when in autonomous mode. This technology is still very much in development and is gambling on the future of technology revolving around the closer integration of man and machine. 

Lucian Gheorghe
Source: Nissan-global

6. Chunyi Zhi: Helping Build Electrical Generating Yarn

A collaboration of engineers led by Chunyi Zhi from various Chinese Institutions (City University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen University,  Harbin Institute of Technology, and the Graduate School at Shenzhen, Tsinghua University) are working together to develop a high-performance, waterproof, tailorable, and stretchable yarn zinc ion battery (ZIB).

This battery is able to generate electricity whenever the fiber is stretched, bent, washed or cut. The battery is formed into a double-helix yarn of electrodes and a cross-linked polyacrylamide (PAM) electrolyte.

Tests on the material have shown it delivers:-

- a high specific capacity of 302.1 mAh g–1 and volumetric energy density of 53.8 mWh cm–3

- excellent cycling stability (98.5% capacity retention after 500 cycles)

The material also has excellent knittability, can cope with 300% strain during stretching, and is waterproof.

Demonstrations have shown that a 1.1m long ZIB yarn can be cut into 8 parts, woven into a textile and power 100 LED's on a 100cm2 electroluminescent panel.

 “We also have a plan to develop other types of yarn batteries with more functions such as self-healing ability, or self-charge capability when combined with a solar cell component,” said Chunyi Zhi.

Electrical Generating Yarn
Source: pubs.acs

7. Hubert Waltl and Audi are Designing the Factories of the Future

In 2017 Hubert Waltl (Board Member for Production and Logistics at AUDI AG) and Audi released their plans for a model factory of the future - they called it their smart factory. This factory will make use of a number of new manufacturing technologies and, if successful, might reveal the future of all factories.

These new technologies include the use of 3D printers to build parts such as metal components, VR headsets for the design process and the use of drones to transport material around the facility. It is estimated that the new factory could improve productivity by as much as 20%

“In this factory of the future, big data – the creation and intelligent connection of large volumes of data – will facilitate data-driven and thus highly flexible and highly efficient manufacturing,” published the Audi Media Centre.

The new process will move away from production lines to a new concept of the modular assembly. This process will be tested at their engine plant in Győr, Hungary. Audi also plans to apply the method to two additional projects.

8. Duong Hai Minh Is Making Aerogel From Paper

Aerogels, including airloy, are widely considered to be the future of super-materials. A new method for making them from the cellulose fibers of recycled paper could also make the materials biodegradable.

These new biodegradable Aerogels would be a lot cheaper and greener to make than 'traditional' Aerogels that require the use of silica gel and a specialized process. The new technique could make Aerogels even more indispensable.

Duong Hai Minh and his team at the National University of Singapore managed to devise a surprisingly simple process to the make the new Aerogels. It involves breaking down the paper into cellulose using water. 

A polymer resin is then added to form the material's shape and rigidity. The water is then extracted from the mixture using a high-frequency sound machine and then frozen for 24 hours

Finally, it is then air-dried and cured in an oven for 3 hours at 114 degrees Celsius. The final cellulose aerogel consists of 98.2% air while retaining its qualities as a flexible incredible insulator. It can also be made hydrophobic by adding a chemical coating.

Aerogel From Paper
Source: NUS

9. Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry are Creating Programmable Matter

Claytronics is a project currently being undertaken by Seth Goldstein and Todd Mowry at the Carnegie Mellon University. It is currently still considered an abstract future concept that will combine nanoscale robotics with computer science.

The idea is that individual nanometer computers, called claytronics (or Catoms), could interact with one another to create larger 3D objects. It falls under the banner term of programmable matter and it has the potential to greatly affect the world around us.

If it is ever realized, it could literally transform the world of telecommunications, human-computer interface and, of course, entertainment. In 2005, research had created mini scale cylindrical prototypes 44 mm in diameter which were able to interact with each other via electromagnetic attraction. 

Recent advancements in this prototype concept are in the form of one-millimeter diameter cylindrical robots fabricated on a thin film by photolithographyThese micro-robots were able to cooperate with each other using complex software that would control electromagnetic attraction and repulsion between modules.

Programmable Matter
Source: Carnegie Mellon University

10. Sara Stabenow: Helping Developed The Fuel Cells of the Future

Sara Stabenow is helping GM develop fuel cell technology for the in-development SURUS (Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure) vehicle. The end result would be a flexible fuel cell electric platform that will have autonomous capabilities and is planned to be adapted for military use.

SURUS will use GM and Honda's Hydrotec Fuel Cell system. This tech, once perfected, should provide zero emission propulsion. The joint venture has already sunk $85 Billion into the project and hopes to begin production by 2020

Sara holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Material Science and Engineering from Ohio State University. She worked for Honda's Research and Development America Inc. after graduating but later moved to GM.

Sara Stabenow
Source: Linkedin

11.  Tim Cook and Apple's Daisy Are Paving the Way For The Future of Electronics Recycling

Early this year Apple revealed their automated phone recycling robot called Daisy. This robot is able to disassemble as many as 200 iPhones an hour from iPhone5 to iPhone7 Plus.

The process recovers the phones' main logic board, speaker, camera and other components containing high-quality materials. With rare earth metal supply slowly becoming scarcer this could be the perfect solution for Apple and other electronics manufacturers.

Apple currently has one unit in operation in Austin, Texas and plans to produce a second one in the Netherlands. “At Apple, we’re constantly working toward smart solutions to address climate change and conserve our planet’s precious resources,” said Lisa Jackson (Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives).

Apple users are encouraged to give their old iPhones to local Apple Stores for recycling through their GiveBack Scheme. Some models are also eligible for the customer to receive credit that can be redeemed at Apple Stores on a Gift Card.

12. Anastasios John Hart and his team Are Helping Lamborghini Make a Self-Healing Car

Prof. Anastasios John Hart and Stefano Domenicali and other researchers at MIT have been collaborating with Lamborghini to develop their Terzo Millennio electric supercar. Apart from its use of a supercapacitor to replace a 'standard' battery for power, the car will make use of carbon nanotubes for its bodywork.

The idea is to allow the car's bodywork to 'heal' itself, mend fractures and correct other imperfections without human assistance. Although how this is actually achieved is a closely guarded secret, according to their sales material the car will be able to detect and repair cracks autonomously.

It will use sensors to monitor its own health and then fix any damage by filling it with nanotubes. "Collaborating with MIT for our research and development department is an exceptional opportunity to do what Lamborghini has always been very good at – rewriting the rules on super sports cars," said Stefano Domenicali. 

"We are inspired by embracing what is impossible today to craft the realities of tomorrow; Lamborghini must always create the dreams of the next generation."

13. Radhika Nagpal et al Are Developing Artificial Swarm Intelligence

Swarm robotics or Artificial Swarm Intelligence is a method for coordinating multiple simple physical robots. Like large colonies of insects, the robots will act in a desired collective behavior as they navigate their environment and communicate with one another.

In contrast to distributed robotic systems, swarm robotics places more emphasis on using a large number of drone robots and is a system that is hugely scalable. Research conducted by Radhika Nagpal et al into this future technology is being undertaken in various institutions including at Harvard

If it can be achieved, swarm robotics will have many potential applications from healthcare to military use. As the drone robots are made smaller and smaller, it might be possible to coordinate nanoscale robot swarms to perform tasks in micromachinery or even in the human body.

They could also be used for mining and agricultural applications or find uses during rescue missions or disaster scenarios to access hard to reach places. More controversially, swarms of military robots may also form an autonomous army.

US Naval forces have tested a swarm of autonomous boats that can steer and take offensive actions by themselves. The boats are unmanned and can be fitted with a variety of kits to deter and destroy enemy vessels.

14. Marc Raibert: The Engineer Building Self Balancing Robots

Marc Raibert and his team at Boston Dynamics have been in the news quite a lot lately with their suite of robots with almost animal-like abilities. From their canned US Military BigDog project to their Atlas heavy lifter robot and Wildcat drones, they are making real headway in robotics designs for the future.

Most famous, of course, was the recently released footage of their uncannily agile acrobatic robot. Marc Raibert founded Boston Dynamics in 1992 after spending some time as an MIT Professor.

Since then, the company has made huge developments in the design and creation of self-balancing robots. The company has changed hands a few times over the past few years. It was initially purchased for an undisclosed sum in 2013 by Google who then sold it off to SoftBank in 2017

Self Balancing Robots
Source:Alexander Altenhof/Wikimedia Commons

15. Skylar Tibbits Is Leading the Way to Developing 4D Printing

Building on the breakthroughs made in 3D printing over the last decade or so, some researchers led by Skylar Tibbits at IT and Stratasys are working on adding another dimension to the process - time.

This future technology introduces a means of having any 3D printed material adapt over time after creation. It is, in a way, a special application of programmable matter but the printed material is able to react (with parameters) to a given environment or set of conditions.

This could provide near infinite configurations at the micrometer scale. 4D printing is fundamentally based in stereolithography, where, in most cases, ultraviolet light is used to cure the layered materials after the printing process has completed.


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