AI in 2019: Start small, win big

AI in 2019: Start small, win big

As more firms embrace artificial intelligence, voice activation and pick-and-place robots will gain momentum

Artificial intelligence is gradually making its way into a wide range of manufacturing activities.
Artificial intelligence is gradually making its way into a wide range of manufacturing activities.

A new generation of artificial intelligence solutions will prove themselves in 2019. They will build new trust, urgency and understanding of what AI actually is, and just how much it can deliver.

Voice-driven services will lead the charge. And we will also see pick-and-place robots in smart warehouses delivering a major competitive edge, as companies advance their use of robotic process automation. Here are three key predictions for manufacturing for 2019 and beyond:

Prediction 1: 50% of all manufacturing companies will be using AI in some form by the end of 2021.

Make no mistake, adopting AI solutions will change everything -- every industry, business, process and company. But for many businesses, targeted AI solutions are already here and delivering a competitive edge. The coming year will be all about that new AI reality spreading.

Bourne: AI is going to start building trust

A big stumbling block for AI has always been the term "AI" itself. It misleads many manufacturers, suggesting a large end-to-end system. In reality, AI is a collection of targeted technologies, from natural language processing to vision identification to chatbots to analytics to automation -- each with its own strengths and applications.

What they all share is the intelligence factor: a high degree of accuracy and an incredibly fast, smart ability to learn from their mistakes.

I saw that accuracy myself recently with an IFS customer in Northern Europe. As a household brand, it used an AI demand planning system to forecast projected consumption in its sector. The accuracy of the company's forecasts before and after AI adoption was eye-opening.

The forecast produced by AI proved far closer to real market results. For this business, forecast demand planning proved an excellent choice of application: having a concrete, achievable target meant concrete, measurable results.

Remember you can't "implement AI" any more than you can "implement the internet". Before you initiate any project, you must figure out your "why". What exact business goal and target are you aiming at? What exactly do you want to improve and enhance? The more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results.

Prediction 2: 25% of manufacturing planners will be talking to their systems by the end of 2020.

AI solutions are smarter and more eloquent than most of us realise. A year ago, a major customer survey found that two-thirds of people who said they had never used AI actually had, through chatbots. The quality was so high that the chatbots had been indistinguishable from human speech.

The same survey found 84% of respondents were comfortable using voice-activated AI at home, in the form of Alexa, Siri or Home. And if simplicity, speed and accuracy are crucial consumer benefits, imagine what they could do on a manufacturing line.

BMW's integration of Alexa into its models in March 2018 was widely applauded. And rightly so. The integrated voice activation went way beyond skin-deep, adding layers of service and performance capability to the whole driving experience. But voice-activated solutions are also being used in automobile production.

In Japan, NEC is already using voice-activated solutions in its order-picking process, where line personnel simply give spoken instructions and their order is instantly created. This brings us to …

Prediction 3: Pick-and-place robots will put away 25% of manufactured goods by the end of 2020.

Robots on the production line have been essential for decades. But what kind of savings and competitive edge will AI-enabled robots in the warehouse deliver? When Amazon made the headlines recently with its smart warehouse staffed with inexhaustible robots, it became clear that robots raised the performance and savings bar hugely. With no eyes or flesh, robots do not need lighting or heating, so energy costs plummet.

There are no time or weight limits on breaks, shifts or loads. And the flexibility, fluency, reach and economy of robot-driven picking and placing means no wasted time or effort -- and far better utilisation of space. The result: 24-hour, black-box warehouses will be able to store and do more, without having to get bigger.

And as it is with AI, so it is with robots. It's already happening with small, targeted cases. For example, IFS is working with a customer in North America to extend its use of robotics from loading boxes to complete material handling. For the customer, it's another small step on a longer journey to digital transformation.

Full lights-out warehouses may be some years away. But the movement has begun. We are already seeing innovative companies beginning work with automated warehouses: Heavy parts that may once have required a team of workers can now be plucked off the shelf by one robot with no wasted effort, no wasted time and no additional costs.

For many companies, 2019 will be the year when they realise that they don't need to "climb an AI mountain". They just have to keep taking the right, small steps. Do that, and they will still be able to reach new heights.

Antony Bourne is the global industry director for manufacturing with IFS, a multinational enterprise software developer.

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