It's Crucial to Keep Up With These 6 Digital Trends in 2016 Using 3-D printers, Bitcoin and the Internet of Things are just a few ways to stay ahead of the digital game this year.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Businesses, entrepreneurs and employees can benefit from a wide variety of digital technology set to explode in 2016. The ability to leverage technological advances is a crucial element to the success of small businesses. Some of the most disruptive innovations over the past few years are creating new opportunities for businesses exploring the new digital frontier.
1. 3D printers
The quality and speed of 3D printers evolved a great deal in just the past year. These developments create an infinite number of applications for the 3D printing technology. According to Gartner Inc., international distribution of 3D printers will reach nearly 500,000 units in 2016. Gartner's forecast estimates this number will double every year reaching 5.6 million by 2019.
3D systems, an industry leader in 3D printing, produces a variety of 3D printers that fall under three main technology categories: Stereolithography (SLA), Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Printing (DMP). While purchasing and maintaining a dedicated 3D printer may be too expense for some small businesses, many companies provide public 3D printing services to get you started, such as Staples and The UPS Store .
The expanding market for 3D printers in 2016 brings a ton of new competition to the market which promise to be more affordable and attainable for small businesses. The best 3D printers for 2016, which vary greatly in cost, application and availability, include Autodesk Ember, BigRep One v3, E3D BigBox, DeltaWASP 20 40 and Peachy Printer. Arizona's Local Motors is set to begin 3D-printed car is set to launch its crowdfunding campaign in Spring 2016. Not Impossible Labs, a startup crowd-sourcing company, is dedicated to solving humanity's problems with do-it-yourself solutions and an emphasis on 3D printers.
2. Digital currencies and gold
Bitcoin is a form of digital currency created for instantaneous transactions over the Internet without the many limitations, regulations and fees of physical currencies. In 2009, Bitcoin released its open-source payment system providing an ecommerce solution for ideal for businesses operating all over the world. Offered by over 38 million merchants worldwide, Bitcoin is a viable currency in the modern world.
After launching Bitcoin services in 13 countries last year, the San-Francisco-based Bitcoin exchange service -- Coinbase -- became an industry leader in the digital currency movement. Coinbase charges zero fees for the first $1 million in transactions and only 1 percent per transaction after the mark is reached. Considering that the average credit card processing fee is over 2 percent, more and more businesses are supporting digital currency transactions. Shift Card is a U.S.-issued Visa debit card you can use to make transactions almost anywhere Visa is accepted and can be entirely funded by Bitcoin.
BitGold, on the other hand, is an alternative to Bitcoin and is considered to be much less volatile. By means of a physical gold bullion, BitGold offers a tangible form of currency that you can actually hold in your hand. You can make transactions with BitGold anywhere MasterCard is accepted through the use of its pre-paid Gold card.
Internet of Things (IoT) -- perhaps the hottest abbreviation out there currently -- is bringing new solutions to streamline many age-old and stagnant processes we are accustomed to. McKinsey Global Institute claims that IoT can create an economic impact of $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion annually by 2025.
IoT is about using technology to control things that generally are operated manually. IoT means adjusting the home temperature by using your smartphone or connecting your TV or computer to your smartphone. Now, companies like Xped enable users to connect their devices to their smartphone just by tapping the device in question with one's mobile device. Another company in this space is Tekoia which has developed SURE Universal Remote platform that connects users, appliances and appliance vendors.
IoT is speeding up across the globe, and as Howdy Pierce wrote earlier this year, "companies that develop smart devices with autonomous operation that create additional value for the end user will be the most successful in the long run."
4. Freelance workforce
With over 53 million American freelance workers, the gig economy is steadily growing to become a standard for small businesses. This shift from traditional full-time employees to an alternative workforce is caused by the development of Internet communities as well as recent U.S. legislation. In particular, the Affordable Care Act enables Americans to work in the freelance market while still having access to quality health-care insurance.
Formerly oDesk and Elance, Upwork is an industry leader connecting freelance workers to small businesses. Fiverr has taken a different approach to the marketplace by permitting freelancers to offer quick niche jobs starting at only $5 per gig. Some other notable freelance networks include 99 Designs, Freelancer, Guru and PeoplePerHour. This booming gig economy and the state of the freelance community creates more opportunities for small businesses looking to hire freelance workers.
5. Mobile devices
While many companies develop mobile-optimized websites as an afterthought to traditional desktop sites, more and more people learn about companies and products on mobile devices. Google reported last summer that mobile website traffic has finally surpassed desktop traffic in more than 10 countries.
The marketing trend for 2016 will focus on developing sites, products and services specifically for the mobile user. HTML5 is the new gold standard for web design, as it enables developers to create scalable, media-rich content on devices with different screen resolutions such as smartwatches and mobile displays.
2015 was a big year for wearable technology, with consumers rapidly adopting devices such as FitBit, Apple Watch and Samsung Gear, many new platforms for mobile development are now available. Marketers can target users on these small screens and steal their attention much faster than traditional smartphones.
Going hand-in-hand with the Internet of Things, businesses in 2016 should leverage wearable products, services and marketing strategies to reach more potential customers. Some of the most innovative wearables you will see in 2016 include Pavlok, a wearable shock-therapy wristband; Shift Sneaker, customizable LED illuminated running shoes; and eSight, a vision-enabling headset for the legally bind.
6. Virtual reality
An emerging form of wearable technology bridges the gap between the digital and physical world. 2016 is a big year for immersive headsets and heads-up displays (HUDs), as these tools create an entirely new way to look at the world. While the focus of virtual reality is traditionally placed on multimedia and entertainment -- such as the Oculus Rift -- these incredible new gadgets also offer a plethora of practical business applications.
Microsoft HoloLens, scheduled for release in 2016, is a non-immersive headset that projects holograms onto your physical surroundings such as a board room whiteboard on a clear display in front of your eyes. Using augmented reality, the HoloLens scans the physical world around you and enhances the experience with holographic information and media. The technology is the first to support holographic computing while operating alongside other devices running Windows' latest operating system -- Windows 10. You can use the HoloLens for a variety of business purposes, including computer-aided drafting, architecture, virtual conferencing and workforce training.
It's important for businesses to stay current on technology trends in order to stay ahead of the competition. The rapid growth of new technology creates more opportunities for small businesses to grow and gain control over their market. Following these trends carefully can help your businesses maintain its hold on the market and deliver insights into new money-making ventures.