The pandemic taught us the importance of AI is not on the shop floor but in the ability of people to communicate.
For roughly half a decade, pundits have been waxing poetic about revolutionary changes about to take place in manufacturing – and in society at large – made available by advances in sensor technology that can be driven and manipulated by sophisticated software. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Factory (or Tech) 4.0 often best represent these revolutionary advances. Both have been touted to promise improving productivity, efficiency and speed, resulting in reduced costs and the need for fewer human employees where implemented.
I have never been a fan of any technology that replaces “human employees” but prefer technology that helps people achieve more. Based on the past couple years, that appears to be exactly what these revolutionary advances have actually achieved: using AI to enhance what people can achieve, rather than replacing them. How this has occurred, however, is different from originally imagined.
Many viewed AI and Factory 4.0 as enabling radically new products or game-changing process improvements throughout the manufacturing plant that would result in significant new products. In at least one way this came true, but in so many other ways, the game-changing has been subtler. Possibly the best example of this is in the area of communication.
Technologies that have the power to change how we communicate with each other individually or in groups have existed for almost a decade. Yet Skype, FaceTime, WebEx, Zoom, etc., were used sparingly. It took a pandemic to force a mass switch to cutting-edge communications technology. The promise of Factory 4.0 took a quantum leap forward both in performance and acceptance. However, it did so far from the factory floor.
Similar to Factory 4.0, AI has taken a significant step forward. Most were touting how the application of AI might enable large items such as automobiles to be produced in a fraction of the time with higher quality – or in our industry, maintaining process parameters over all processes on an ongoing, real-time basis, etc.
Indeed, AI has proved to be useful in a very different application. With the world stricken by a pandemic, the medical and pharmaceutical community harnessed AI and put it to work. Searching through vast databases in the cloud and thousands of global servers and computers, scientists developed a vaccine against Covid, a process that historically took years. Thanks to AI, data could be reviewed, sliced, diced and compared to real-time data from those stricken with Covid to develop and rapidly refine vaccinations that proved highly effective. In a short half-year, a monumental task resulting in a revolutionary solution was completed in a fraction of the time vaccinations and medications have been developed and approved in recorded history.
As communication technology has revolutionized and changed business communication, reducing the frequency of needed business travel and broadening locations where employees can work, has it really revolutionized the shop floor? Ditto as new vaccines were rapidly developed and immunization made available to millions of people, little or none of AI and Factory 4.0 has made it onto most manufacturing shop floors.
Maybe these two examples should make us redefine what a revolutionary change really is. Having a factory floor where every piece of equipment is connected, as Factory 4.0 pundits would have it, and software crunching data generated by scores of sophisticated sensors to run a lights-out factory floor, as those who prophesize AI would have it, should not be the goal.
Maybe the goal of investing in and implementing advanced technology should be measured in another way. The ability to increase the number of people who solve problems, implement new processes, or tweak something that is working well but could be better should be utilized 24/7 within the manufacturing environment, so the best solution can be derived more quickly. All the equipment need not be connected on one database, but all people required from all locations – supplier to operator to customer – to improve a product, process or outcome should use the technologies available to best communicate and contribute.
Developing new products or taking a bleeding-edge concept and making it reality should require all parties involved to share data, cloud-based or local, and we should invest in software and people who can slice and dice the extensive and complex data quickly to cut years, not weeks, off the product development process. Keeping people connected by advanced communication technologies and having the tools to assimilate, analyze and leverage immense and rapidly developing data has made a far greater contribution to economic and personal success than assuring all things are connected on the shop floor.
The global challenges for people are never-ending. Harnessing technology to effectively achieve the basics of communication and involvement is success enough, even if not the poster child of Factory 4.0. The need to dream big has never been more apparent. Focusing AI on those large tasks, rather than squandering it on simply moving inventory from A to B a little faster, should be the goal. And after all, it will be people who must manage the revolutionary advanced technology to achieve what is in the best interest of the challenges and the times.