When people talk about “smart” environments today, they might mean a home or workplace with a few smart devices embedded among an otherwise static environment, like smart speakers or lightbulbs added to existing systems. But looking forward, we can imagine a future where everything can be smart.
In such a future, smart clothing knows when it needs to be laundered; it can track your range of motion and adjust its stiffness or breathability to help keep you comfortable and injury-free. In a hospital, smart beds help nursing staff monitor patents’ sleep positioning to avoid the risk of bedsores. The smart buildings you live and work in have walls that can heal themselves whenever cracks form, while factory floors know when there’s been a spill and direct cleaning robots to mop it up. Imagine a smart farm, where seeds can be designed to drill themselves into the soil precisely when environmental conditions are right for them to take root and thrive. And in personal care, imagine cosmetic foundation that doubles as sunscreen and can change or move depending on the amount of UV light your skin is receiving.
Nikolas Martelaro of Accenture Labs demonstrates identifying stretch forces on conductive rubber cord by measuring its electrical resistance. Photo by Lars Schwetje.
The future is poised for advances like these, through a combination of digital and physical innovation. The most visible technological progress in the last several decades has been in the computational realm—the realm of bits—allowing for the design of smarter and smarter computing systems and connected digital devices. But the next several decades will see advances of similar speed and importance in material science. Analysis, design, and engineering in the realm of atoms and molecules will let us develop materials that sense the world around them and change properties in response to stimuli. We see physical and digital advances coming together to enable the environments we live in to better adapt to our needs, to become safer and more efficient—perhaps even more beautiful—and to alleviate some of the strain in our daily lives.
Accenture Labs has always been at the forefront of innovation in the computational realm. Now, with the intersection of the digital and physical poised to be a major new area of innovation, we’re expanding our focus to include smart materials and the impact they will have for our clients and partners over the coming years. Think back to the future we imagined: The examples may seem futuristic, but many are already possible. For the rest, we’re seeing research prototypes of the materials needed to bring them to life—like the “smart seed,” a project we’re collaborating on with Carnegie Mellon.
This material is created flat, on a 3D printer, and designed to fold into a pre-determined shape when heated. Photo courtesy of Lining Yao, Morphing Matter Lab, Carnegie Mellon University
And we’re not limiting our focus to the digital/physical connection within products; we’re also examining what this intersection of innovations will mean for the design process itself. As foundational material science continues to mature, “design” will become possible at the molecular level—but enabling product designers to manage the complexity of design at this level will be critical if it’s to be put to practical use. Helping designers translate desired smart attributes and macro-structures into material design that will achieve them will require a new era of computer-aided design tools, possibly even supported by molecular-level digital twins. Scientific exploration into materials themselves will also benefit from digital tools that simulate molecular properties and allow digital exploration of material-design options.
Smart materials offer an opportunity to infuse the world with digital intelligence that blends more naturally and invisibly into our environment. They can provide more intuitive interactions with computing systems, or support “baked in” intelligence that doesn’t need to connect to external systems to be smart. We can see the outlines of this future coming, and are exploring how it will play out in different industries and use cases. We invite those with expertise and interest in the space to join us in exploring this new frontier.
Stay tuned for more about the smart materials efforts at Accenture Labs from Andreea Danielescu, Nik Martelaro and Alex Kass. For more information or to discuss getting involved in our efforts, contact Andreea Danielescu and Alex Kass.