“The robots are coming!” is an increasingly common headline around the globe. Every day, we hear of new examples of artificial intelligence
(AI) being used to support or even supplant the human workforce. Many of these discussions revolve around consumer-facing situations. However, the AI wave could have an even larger impact on the manufacturing sector, with its complex processes and machine-to-machine interactions spanning products and assets, within factories and across global supply networks. This was highlighted in a recent study by Infosys, ‘Amplifying human potential: Towards purposeful AI’, that investigated the approach of senior decision-makers in large organisations towards AI and its future applications.
Consider the digitisation
of factories. Flush with data from a sensor-enabled landscape, they’ve had a chance to join the ranks of the information intelligentsia and effectively drive rich floor output. Unfortunately, the manufacturing sector has long ignored or even denied the disruptive impact of digital technologies. It took leaders like GE
to envision how the industrial Internet could become real for manufacturers.
Smart manufacturers are automating data
According to Oxford Economics, the industrial Internet, with its connected sensors, represents more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product for the top 20 national economies. So for those using data automation
to make more informed decisions, the opportunity - and also competition - is exploding with the emerging industrial Internet binding products, equipment, and systems in a web of communication. Eventually, industrial Internet of things (IoT) will permeate global supply chains, allowing manufacturers to accelerate product launch, coordinate demand-supply planning, and optimise production, in ways not possible without such advanced collaboration. Currently, the industrial Internet is in its primordial soup phase, but early adopters are seeing anecdotal successes as proof of concept projects continue to mount.
Smart manufacturers are automating processes
The recent Infosys
study found companies planning to or currently using AI technology, such as robotics, anticipate a nearly 40 percent boost to their organisation’s revenue by 2020. The economics of investing in robotic efficiencies is not lost on manufacturers. An example is Bosch, the German manufacturing company, which hopes to earn one billion dollars in additional revenue, and save one billion in costs by using machine learning for predictive maintenance and self-monitoring.
With robots attaining greater and greater degrees of sensitivity in their touch capabilities, they will be able to take over many assembly and movement-dependent activities on the future manufacturing floor. At the same time, improvement in sensor and vision technology is creating smarter, lighter and friendlier co-bots
that humans can work with safely. For instance, automobile maker BMW’s self-driving Smart Transport Robot travels the floor, and sends out communication on any critical situation it sees.
What this means for the future of manufacturing
Savvy manufacturers will buck the offshore trend, use data to replace inventory, and experience enormous improvements in efficiency and reduction in costs as robots take over most of the assembling, moving, packaging, transporting and other physical tasks. Robots will be collaborative, working together and giving each other feedback. They will learn and improve and make smarter decisions - not just deterministic ones based on their programming, but proactive ones based on their experiences.
However, AI will bring challenges as well. According to the Infosys
survey, 37 percent of manufacturers believe that training will be a significant issue when it comes to deploying AI, and that training will need to be addressed before it can be implemented. The rapid evolution and convergence of multiple disruptive technologies that are part of AI make this a continuous challenge. There’s another dimension to this reskilling that’s important to consider.
With several of the current roles, becoming the domain of smart machines, people skills must evolve to meet the mandates of fluid, totally new, even somewhat unpredictable roles that machines cannot fulfill - like deeply understanding product personalisation needs, finding new needs of consumers and even evangelizing adoption of new kinds of consumption. Ultimately, this means embedding ‘learnability’ among employees in a systematic process of lifelong learning.
Beyond profitable business
Smart manufacturers also understand that demonstrating genuine interest in employee well-being will help them be preferred places to work and will attract the best talent. In the recent Infosys
survey, 80 percent of the organisations that have replaced, or plan to replace roles with technology will retrain or redeploy those who are displaced. Because clearly they see that their most valuable future resource are their people – their passion, creativity and imagination.
With the advancing adoption of AI, manufacturers can leave the mundane and routine tasks to automation, and free themselves up to pursue new ideas and new ways of thinking beyond the realm of machines. Embracing advances in technology, in an increasing AI-dominated future, is precisely what I believe will unleash this great human potential for them.
Jeff Kavanaugh is the senior partner (manufacturing practice) at Infosys Consulting