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Housing and Technology - Technology Trends

differences computer scanning production development

Matching technology trends to the wide range of human capabilities and characteristics may be an easier prospect than one would initially think. An important trend is the movement in industrial production from mass production to mass customization. By the 1960s, American industry was responding to a theoretically homogeneous population with massive quantities of individual product technologies. A mass-production line has little variability, however, and efforts to market such technologies requires a focused approach defining the American population in terms of limited stereotypes. Running parallel to the increasing diversity of the population, automated, robotic, and computer-controlled machining and manufacturing permit single production lines to produce as many as three hundred different products. In this way, smaller quantities of goods can be produced profitably, permitting the manufacturer to address diverse consumer needs. Additionally, manufacturing has moved from stockpiling goods in an inventory that must be sold over time to a form of production called just-in-time production, in which goods are produced only as they are required. Older Americans are more divergent in their characteristics than are younger adults. If housing, building products, appliances, and consumer products are going to be successful, they must address varying individual requirements—and do so quickly. Emerging production technologies and methods for product distribution are at hand that will address the new trend toward mass customization.

One of the most significant technologies related to this form of production may soon be seen in the apparel industry. As of 2001, several manufacturers of full-body scanning devices were planning to launch their technologies. This technology will make it possible to manufacture clothing within days of a person being measured by a computer-controlled imaging system. Various forms of full-body scanning technology presently exist, including laser-light, photo-optical, and holographic scanning. Since the technology is just emerging, advances are rapid and prices are dropping. So-called scanning salons have appeared in California and are in use by the catalogue distribution company Lands End. The scanning process takes seconds, and automatic computer-driven software determines the measurements required for a specific garment. The data are transferred to computer-controlled pattern and fabric cutters, and custom-fitted clothing is returned to the consumer in a matter of days. It is possible to speculate that such technology could eventually drop in price and increase in resolution, speed, and capacity to the point where it will become a built-in part of a dressing room in the home. Scanning will permit all clothing to be accurately tailored to fit any individual, and scanning on a continuous basis will permit accurate sizing as people change through time.

This technology has applications well beyond the provision of clothing. It can also be used to monitor overall healthfulness and the effectiveness of a person's diet. Body conformation and composition, differences in body shape over time, even determining measurements of static positioning and reach could be important aspects of determining early onset of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Indeed, full-body scanning could revolutionize the design and development of furniture, automobile interiors, and other products where fit is critical for support, healthfulness, and comfort.

With regard to overall trends in technology development, it is important to understand that technology development at the beginning of the twenty-first century shows no sign of reaching a plateau. There are more individuals and organizations than ever before generating technology and instantaneously sharing information about what they create. The combination of expanded technology generation and worldwide electronic communication has accelerated the rate at which technology can advance. Innovation and information can be dispersed on a global scale.

One source on innovation and technology trends is the Battelle Memorial Institute, an independent laboratory for technology development in numerous areas of activity, including energy supply, transportation, housing, and consumer product development. Battelle has issued forecasts of technology development, many of which will directly impact the home environment and the lives of older adults. They include wearable, voice-actuated microcomputers and the integration of sensor systems in the home and in appliances permitting communication between people and technology, and between products. Battelle also predicts important advances in energy and alternative fuels, such as fuel-cell development and alternative power sources for home environmental heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, as well as many more manifestations of current technologies—and new ones just ahead.

On the immediate horizon are many forms of wireless, miniaturized, interactive computer technologies that will be worn by a person rather than sit on a desktop. Computer sensors combined with a fitted garment called the Smartshirt is a next step in continuous monitoring of vital health signs in and away from the home. Smart clothing is being developed for the armed services to monitor the condition of armed-services personnel operating in battlefield conditions. An array of computer-controlled sensors imbedded in a T-shirt will provide continuous information on vital signs. If wounded, the smart clothing will provide data on the wound to a base station so that medical personnel will be adequately prepared to deal with the trauma once in the field.

Applications of this technology for civilian use and health care are already underway at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Older Americans, especially those enduring the long-term effects of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems will be among the first to benefit from this technology. Wireless communications will permit continuous monitoring of an individual's condition, including location, by a home computer. The base station in the home will automatically signal either the individual or a health care professional if any change, especially an injurious or life threatening change, takes place. Since voice input of data and synthetic voice output from computers is already at hand, the technology will be interactive in the most user-friendly way possible. Other means of communicating a condition will be possible for the deaf and hearing impaired.

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