Rafael Reif, President of MIT, is guest editor of the Forum:Blog today. He has selected the three posts below, and in this article reflects on what this week at Davos tells us about the future of innovation.

Jane Chen: The key to tech breakthroughs? Love

Wolfgang Ketterle interview: The truth about our universe

Michael Mack and Doug McMillon: How can we ensure food security for the future?

Innovations that make a lasting difference – that generate new industries and improve quality of life – often involve transforming fundamental academic research into market-ready ideas. But that process is sometimes slow and unpredictable. What if we could make it fast and certain?

At MIT, we are focusing aggressively on the technologies and strategies that bring innovation to a boil. In an IdeasLab on Wednesday, four of my MIT faculty colleagues asked: how can innovations in engineering and computer science reshape and benefit from manufacturing – and accelerate innovation itself? A quick summary:

Vladimir Bulović, MIT’s Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology and Associate Dean for Innovation, is an expert in nanofabrication and an active entrepreneur. At MIT, he is helping to lead an effort to make innovation even more relevant to the life of the Institute than it already is.

Bulović talked about nanotechnology, which is poised at a vital transition point. Two decades of nanotech research have uncovered the functions of nanoscale components, allowing us to synthesize new classes of nanomaterials. Now the time is ripe to translate these insights into transformative technologies.

Bulović shared examples of MIT start-ups that are successfully commercializing MIT’s nanotech advances:

QD Vision, which has developed methods for synthesizing high-quality nanoscale colloidal quantum dots and applied them to lighting and display technologies; Kateeva, whose high-yield printing of nanoscale thin films may improve the manufacturing of display technologies; and Ubiquitous Energy, whose solar cells can be deployed as invisible, transparent coatings on any surface, enabling integration with window surfaces or portable electronics.

Daniela Rus, MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is an expert in robotics.

Rus explained that automation in manufacturing is lagging because many manufacturing applications require the design of new robots and custom tooling, which takes years. Today the car industry automates approximately 80% of its assembly because it has repeatable, and high-volume, processes. Rus compared that with the build process for commercial airplanes, which has only about 30% automation –and to the build process for electronics such as cell phones, which has only approximately 10% automation. Why are their automation rates so low? Because these products are highly customized, with a short life cycle and relatively low volumes, or are highly complex.

Rus thus posed this further question: how can we enable automation for small and middle-volume manufacturing and for industries where the set-up time for automation is large and the product lifecycle is small?

As Rus sees it, a good opportunity lies in using computation to automate just-in-time design and fabrication of specialized tooling and robots. This capability has the potential to eliminate the fixed points of traditional manufacturing and to enable the creation of one robot for every task. Configuring an assembly line requires tooling and processes.

Rus presented a roboticized solution to that problem: imagine if, when the product changed, a worker could rapidly reconfigure the line by doing something as simple as pushing a button. In response, a computation engine would compute the tooling and configuration needed to create the new product, fabricate the tools, and configure a new assembly line. The manufacturing future imagined by Rus is compelling, and opens up exciting possibilities.

Gerbrand Ceder, the R.P. Simmons Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, is pioneering an important effort to improve our understanding of materials, an effort that in turn holds enormous promise in a range of fields.

The design of novel materials, Ceder explained, will be the key to addressing looming problems from energy to climate change. The Materials Genome Project, which began at MIT under Ceder’s leadership, uses high-throughput first principles computations on an unparalleled scale to provide basic materials property data – the “genes” – on all known and many potential new inorganic compounds, thereby facilitating the search for new materials, and making it possible to find replacements for rare earth elements that are central to so many current technologies. Through the Materials Project network, materials data is disseminated across the globe. Such unparalleled amounts of information on new and existing compounds, Ceder contends, are likely to transform materials discovery and initiate a new era of manufacturing.

Rodney Brooks, MIT’s Panasonic Professor of Robotics (emeritus) and former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, was able to bring the perspective of a robotics entrepreneur whose products have made their way into homes (he founded iRobot, maker of the robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba) as well as onto the factory floor: Rod’s latest company, Rethink Robotics, is the maker of Baxter, a robot that allows small and mid-sized manufacturers to compete efficiently, given Baxter’s relatively low cost and its ability to learn tasks by interacting with humans in real time on the factory floor.

These brief presentations were interesting on their own. But taken together, they paint a fascinating picture of the varied developments ushering in a new era of manufacturing: nanotechnology in transition from being understood to being applied broadly; robotics getting good enough to allow for radically more nimble production; and a profound new understanding of materials offering new vistas for what we make and how we make it.

This amounts to a complex and riveting story of innovation, one that will be shaped by people from across fields and around the globe.

Rafael Reif is President of MIT. He is participating in the Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

Image: A staff member of Nihonbinary demonstrates their 3D printer MakerBot Replicator 2X. REUTERS/Yuya Shino