This article builds on Silo AI CEO Peter Sarlin’s op-ed in the leading Finnish commerce newspaper Kauppalehti.
While the artificial intelligence hype is plateauing, AI has become a common part of consumer products. Search engines learn from every search query, cameras automatically optimize images, robot vacuum cleaners assist in cleaning our homes and cars provide driver assistance. While AI has gradually become a significant part of our everyday life through consumer products, it’s important to note that they are a result of long-term, continuously ongoing, product development initiatives. Will the same happen also in the industrial sector?
By example, machine learning (ML) algorithms won’t alone make search engines intelligent. The key driver behind progress has been a much broader change, digitalization. An advanced search product that offers the most relevant information in the fraction of a second isn’t the result of just an AI algorithm (sic). The decisive part of building a search product has been to place algorithms at the core of a digital product. Human-generated text and browsing patterns are used to train algorithms, and scalable IT infrastructure enables serving search queries with low latency. Digitalization, scale, and algorithms have together made the search engine an intelligent product.
When this premise is contrasted to e.g. the manufacturing industry, it’s clear that the widespread adoption of AI will require an even more substantial wave of digitalization. In essence, the challenge boils down to which tools and platforms will facilitate developing applications and processes to utilize the very heterogeneous data that has been generated at the production line as well as the entire supply chain. Data or algorithms don’t create value as standalone components. Even after installing a wide range of sensors to a production line, the data they collect is merely a prerequisite for production optimization. Systematically improving production processes requires data refinement, combining data sources, and connecting outcomes to relevant metrics or feedback. A smart production line should be viewed as a digital product, and its development as a product development initiative.
Industrial AI is full of opportunities
The threshold to get started is low. With the progress of digitalization, industrial companies can increasingly and more easily benefit from AI. In fact, it is already an invaluable tool in certain business-critical processes, in which ML algorithms power features that can’t be programmed with rule-based logic. Most often, AI performs tasks that we humans could also carry out, but tirelessly, more accurately and orders of magnitude faster. We humans are left with the role of verification – we accept or reject the proposals of an AI-powered product.
Visual quality control is a concrete use case that has helped industries like wood processing reduce both waste and product returns. When AI analyses 2D and 3D video streams, we can ensure that products meet quality standards (e.g. correct dimensions, no cracks or other defects), and faulty units can be automatically removed from the production line using robotic arms. The same ML technology can be similarly used to monitor production equipment condition, e.g. for signs of mechanical wear and tear, which in turn enables predictive maintenance.
Although AI is in these examples applied to a small part of production processes, its effects on the company’s value chain are extensive. By identifying and correcting problems as early as possible, significant resource savings can be achieved both in logistics and supply chains. And as AI continuously learns from new data, this implies that early adopters will gain an ever increasing competitive edge.
Present and the future
AI will without a doubt impact the entire industrial value chain, from raw materials to product development, and from logistics to production. The factory of the future is intelligent and only rarely makes a mistake. Little waste is produced, repairs are replaced with maintenance, and each watt is used efficiently. Digitalization is the key that will unlock the full potential of AI. But success will require long-term investments into the development of digital products. And these are also the same products in which the AI algorithms will eventually be incorporated.
Would you want to discuss what AI could do for your value chain?
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