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A new generation of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are expected to prove themselves in 2019. This should build new trust, urgency and understanding of what AI actually is, as well as just how much it can deliver. Voice-driven solutions should lead the charge. You may see pick-and-place robots in smart warehouses delivering a competitive edge, as companies advance their use of robotic process automation. Following are three key predictions for manufacturing in 2019 and beyond.
Make no mistake, the implementation of AI solutions will change everything — and I mean everything — every industry, business, process and company. Of course, for many businesses, targeted AI solutions are already here and delivering a competitive edge. This year will be all about that new AI realism spreading, with new targeted, project-based AI solutions hitting the ground running.
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 this accuracy myself recently with a customer in Northern Europe. As a household brand, they used an AI demand-planning solution to forecast projected consumption in their sector. The accuracy of their forecast before and after the AI solution was eye-opening. The demand-planning forecast produced by the AI solution proved far closer to actual market results. For this business, a concrete, achievable target meant concrete, measurable results.
When thinking of AI, you must remember that you can't implement AI any more than you can implement the internet. Before you initiate any project, you must figure out why. What business goal are you targeting? What exactly do you want to improve and enhance? The more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results.
AI solutions are smarter and more eloquent than most people realize. A year ago, an AI 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 percent of respondents were comfortable using voice-activated AI at home in the form of Alexa, Siri or Home. If simplicity, speed and accuracy are crucial consumer benefits, imagine what they could do on a manufacturing line.
BMW's smart 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. What's less well-known is that voice-activated solutions are also being used on the production side of the automotive sector. 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.
Robots on the production line have been essential for decades, but what type of savings and competitive edge will AI-enabled robots deliver in the warehouse? When Amazon made headlines recently with its smart warehouses staffed with swift, inexhaustible robots, it became clear that robots had dramatically raised the bar. 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. The flexibility, fluency, reach and economy of robot-driven picking and placing also mean no wasted time or effort, as well as far better utilization of space. Twenty-four-hour, black-box warehouses will be able to store and do more without having to get bigger.
While full lights-out warehouses may be some years away, the transformation has begun. Innovative companies are already beginning to work with automated warehouses. Heavy parts that once required a team of workers can now be plucked off the shelf by one robot with no wasted effort, time or additional costs.
This year will see these technologies gaining traction in the world of business. They will become more targeted, project-driven and focused on achieving small, concrete improvements that will lead to big changes.
For many companies, 2019 will be the year when they realize that they don't actually need to climb an AI mountain. They just have to keep taking the right small steps. If you do that, you will still be able to reach new heights.
Antony Bourne is the global industry director for manufacturing at IFS.