There has been a lot of chatter surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and whether it is a boon or bane for humanity. In existence since the 1950s, AI refers to a machine’s capability to imitate intelligent human behaviour such as problem solving, reasoning, learning and self-correction. It is only in the last few years that AI applications and research have taken off, fueled by the rise of big data and breakthroughs in computing power and machine learning.
Global research firm, IDC, confirmed that investments in the Internet of Things (IoT) are largely led by the manufacturing and transportation industries. In fact, manufacturers and factories are leveraging AI in more ways than one as AI have proven its capability to transform functions along the value chain (factory operations, engineering, procurement, supply chain).
We list five key reasons why manufacturers are enthusiastic about the benefits of AI:
- Boost in productivity and quality control
In the factory of the future, automated equipment will be able to make intelligent decisions autonomously.
For example, AI can monitor order quantities, usage, cycle times, lead times, errors, and downtime to optimize production runs, thus boosting productivity. In time, such occurring data may be used to provide insights and intelligence to further improve efficiencies. AI can also detect quality issues earlier in production. Image-recognition technology can identify defects and deviations on product features that alert the production floor.
A recent report by Accenture predicts that AI can help to reverse declining profit growth of businesses in Singapore. Businesses that successfully apply AI could create up to US$215 billion in gross value added (GVA) in Singapore by 2035. GVA is a close approximation of gross domestic product that accounts for the value of goods and services produced.
- Open up strategic and value-added roles
A workplace where AI and humans co-exist, and work together, is much closer than we think. With intelligent machines that work round the clock taking over low-level routine work, this will free-up time for people to take on more skillful tasks. The role of human workers will shift from an active worker to a supervisory role.
Humans will have more time to perform value-added tasks that require more complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity – skills that machines are unable to replicate. Done right, humans will work alongside AI to deliver far more exceptional results that neither can achieve alone.
- Improve workplace safety
Some companies – Cisco and Microsoft included – are exploring cloud-based AI to boost workplace safety by way of cognitive features by utilizing a system of cameras, software and networked devices, including smartphones that work together in real time. Through a series of tagged images to train the system to recognize both safe and unsafe conditions, the cloud-based AI system could send an alert to the nearest trained worker to take necessary action.
In the future, machine-enabled kiosks will detect if a person entering a site is an employee and determine the level of access (restricted or full access). The system will also assess if the person is complying with safety regulations, such as wearing appropriate headgear, eyewear and footwear (safety harness, hard hat). In an event of a crisis, the AI system can initiate an emergency response protocol, alerting responders, implementing evacuation and more.
- Predictive maintenance
The routine practice of ensuring your in-service equipment is always in the best of health through scheduled corrective maintenance is now given a boost with AI. AI’s power to crunch data not only eliminates guesswork, but also ties machine learning software to sensors at the production lines that measures real-time wear-and-tear and flags users when something is deviating from the norm. This allows users to plan ahead in securing a worn-out spare part or consider other alternatives. Factories can then avoid unexpected breakdowns and ensure machines are fully optimized.
In addition, cloud storage systems and databases enable long-time archiving and analysis of machine productivity for future maintenance reference purposes.
- Smarter supply chains
The traditional supply chain model was fairly linear and focused very much on the physical movement of goods from one place to another. In today’s rapidly changing economy, such an approach to supply chain management is no longer viable. Macro trends such as globalization, product complexity, reduced product development cycles, micro segmentation of markets and pace of business change are exerting incredible pressures on businesses and manufacturing. These pressures are reshaping the supply chain model into a connected design chain ecosystem.
Coupled with big data analytics, AI has the power to help manufacturers foresee the variables and uncertainties of the supply chain network and allow proactive risk mitigation actions to be taken. AI – through machine learning – allows users glean insights by relying on algorithms that pinpoint vulnerable parts of the supply chain. For example, predictions on insufficient inventory levels, poor supplier delivery performance, patchy demand forecasting, delayed production planning, weak transportation management can be known ahead of time, allowing manufacturers to make smarter decisions.
On the other hand, such new knowledge and insights from machine learning can also be used to anticipate and plan for a sudden shift in consumer demand, either by adjusting to increase or reduce inventory stockpile, decrease time-to-market and streamline costs. Ultimately manufacturers that employ AI will enjoy competitive advantages as a result of the availability of actionable insights that drive faster and smarter decision-making.
While it appears that the integration of AI and IoT will see factories leapfrog into the future, the real benefit is overall fulfilment: people are empowered with the right tools to perform better at their jobs; higher-value jobs that are more resilient are introduced to the marketplace; and we can enjoy greater value and reliability from existing products and services. As we transition in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is likely that advances in 5G will further supercharge this transformation as it integrates connected devices through the Internet of Things (IoT). But people will always be at the heart of manufacturing.
Alvin Ng is the general manager of Jabil Singapore. Jabil is an American manufacturing solutions company operating from over 100 facilities in 29 countries.