21 April 2019
Materials that can alter shape to respond to changes in surrounding environment and pills that can help prolong your life are two ranges of new technologies that are worthy of investors' attention.
Materials that can alter shape to respond to changes in surrounding environment and pills that can help prolong your life are two ranges of new technologies that are worthy of investors' attention.

New technologies open up fresh investment horizons

New innovations and technologies keep delivering incredible new products but whether they are good investment opportunities depends very much on timing.

I would like to share my observations on two ranges of cutting-edge technologies. Products that stem from these breakthroughs will certainly be worthy of investors’ attention.

3D printing vs 4D printing

In 1982, researchers at Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute invented additive manufacturing fabricating methods on a three-dimensional plastic model, using a photo-hardening polymer, a prototype of today’s 3D printers. It took three decades for the invention to commercialize.

The process of 3D printing entails successive layers of material being laid down under computer control. Finished products — produced from a 3D model or other electronic data source — can be of almost any shape or geometry. Examples abound about the almost unlimited scope of application in numerous sectors like artificial jewels, construction, civil engineering, auto industry, aviation, medical care and so on.

But like some observers, I have reservations toward its prospects. One threat is price wars from Chinese competitors. Many of them are copycats, who are dragging down the return on investment.

But just like what 3D printing has done to many traditional manufacturing sectors, another emerging technology may just do the same to 3D printing.

4D printing has been tipped by some scientists as the next big thing. Online magazine Wired has revealed that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are designing chairs that can assemble themselves, one of the applications of 4D printing technology.

Made from morphable cube-shaped programmable materials, these chairs can autonomously respond to changes in the surrounding environment and alter their shapes. In other words, these chairs can change their shape to fit people who sit on them, like different figures or different sitting postures.

A team called Self Assembly Lab led by MIT lecturer Skylar Tibbits has had partnership with US 3D printer maker Stratasys. The materials the lab is developing can reshape themselves along with changes in temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and humidity.

An Atlantic Council report points out that a revolution is underway: air travel will be more safe with less turbulence thanks to aerofoils made from these materials that will change their shape to suit changing barometric pressure and airstream.

Underground water or oil pipelines can repair themselves if damaged; tires will be more durable as they respond and adjust to friction, speed and even different road conditions in a rainy or snowy day; and shoes and clothes you wear can suit your personal needs.

And, without doubt, toys in the future can be more amusing.

Interested? Stratasys and AutoDesk have been in the sector for some time but readers need to decide on their own whether shares of these firms are worthy of investment.

Longevity industry

With a slew of breakthroughs in medical sciences, can humans live up to 120 years? Some animal experiments have yielded promising results.

Our natural pursuit of longevity has spurred a sector called “longevity industry” that includes cell modification, blood vessel reshaping and research and development of medications not only to cure disease but to prolong life.

Average life expectancy in advanced economies has reached 80, from 47 in 1900 on strength of the extra low infant mortality rate and advancements achieved in preventative medicine like vaccines. Chronic diseases are also under control and some of them have become largely curable.

In 2013 Google launched a program called “Calico” to harness advanced technologies to increase the understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. The US tech giant splurged US$1.5 billion for a research center to explore ways to “cure death”.

There have been numerous medicines — hard-won fruits of related research efforts — ready for human experiments or future commercialization but watchdogs like FDA are yet to give full backing as aging is a natural phenomenon rather than a disease. Subsequent impact on insurance industry and elderly care services is now a topic of debate.

Are shares of pioneering firms like Novartis, Illumina, Compugen and BioTime a good bet to tap the bourgeoning longevity industry? They may well be!

That said, one should bear in mind that the FDAs attitude will be a key determinant factor.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 26.

Translation by Frank Chen

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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