Manufacturing plays a central role in the global economy, and it’s a field where the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) is clear – driving productivity, growth and employment.
But with the manufacturing sector among the first to reap the benefits of AI at scale, industrial businesses will also find themselves at the forefront of responding to some of the challenges of AI, from skills and culture, to ethics and responsibility.
It is these responses that will define our collective and individual success. Chris Harries, worldwide manufacturing industry solutions director for Microsoft, took to the main stage at Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit 2019 to explain more.
He began by charting the start of the First Industrial Revolution when the steam engine first appearance on the scene and “changed the course of human history.”
“Almost everything we understand about how goods are produced, how societies are organised and how economies operate can be traced back to that moment,” Harries noted.
Today, we are in the early stages of another technology-driven transformation; the catalyst this time is artificial intelligence (AI).
Harries described AI as a “collective term for technologies that can sense their environment, think, learn and take action in response to what they’re sensing and their objectives.”
“At the granular level, AI can be built into processes we already run today, such as HSE compliance (see image right), as well as to create completely new solutions and capabilities,” he continued.
“Taken collectively the potential for change is vast, and like the First Industrial Revolution, manufacturing is again leading the way in adopting a new technology to create new products and services, transform processes, and revolutionise productivity.”
Realising the promise of AI
Unlike with the First Industrial Generation, we won’t need to wait a century to feel the full effects.
Over just the past couple of years, AI has already transformed how we work, live, learn, and play in dramatic ways. And the pace of change is accelerating.
The promise of AI in manufacturing hasn’t been definitively calculated, with various studies and projections offering a wide spectrum of potential:
“With our customers, we’re seeing the early signs of realising benefits through AI, most often through improved product quality, production and supply chain efficiencies, and the effectiveness of their service operations,” Harries explained.
“But as the sector starts to reap the benefits of AI, manufacturers also find themselves at the forefront of responding to some of the challenges.”
These challenges include:
- How to create a workforce that has the right skills to develop and deploy AI
- How to foster an organisational culture that is optimised to realise the full benefits of data-driven decision making
- How societies should move forward to develop new laws and regulations to address workforce disruption, and to develop AI in an ethical and responsible manner
Earlier this year, Microsoft collaborated with author Greg Shaw to publish The Future Computed: AI for Manufacturing.
In researching for the book, Shaw interviewed dozens of customers, policy makers, labor representatives and other stakeholders from around the world to find the story behind the impact of AI on the manufacturing sector and its workforce.
Through the course of these interviews, six themes began to emerge:
1. Manufacturers around the world are already seizing the AI opportunity.
More than that, they are seeing that the value of AI extends beyond productivity to include everything from workplace safety to process efficiencies, predictive maintenance, intelligent supply chains, and higher value, higher quality products.
2. To take full advantage of AI, companies are undergoing a cultural transformation that requires strong, committed leaders and engaged workers who are involved in decisions-making and implementation at every level of the process.
Companies seeing the greatest gains from AI today are those that are embracing change and eliminating the barriers between information systems and people, so they could create a seamless information supply chain that utilises their entire digital estate.
Removing these barriers is just as much about corporate culture as it is about technology implementation.
3. The managers inside production operations who are closest to the workforce care the most about AI’s impact on employees.
Their focus on creating a better company translates to a commitment to create safer work environments, and to increasing productivity through providing better opportunities and fewer repetitive and unsatisfying jobs.
And because they put their people first, they are eager to adopt technologies that will have a positive impact on workers.
4. There is widespread optimism that AI will lead to more – and better – jobs over the long term; but disruption and dislocation are inevitable.
Everyone is concerned that manufacturing will face a significant talent shortage and wonders where the next generation of bright students with the right skills and training will come from.
Therefore, there is a very real need to create a talent pipeline filled with people who have the knowledge and capabilities to fill tomorrow’s manufacturing jobs.
Businesses, governments, educational institutions and labor organisations will all need to work together to forge new partnerships that are focused on skills and workforce development.
5. It’s not just about digital skills, this new generation of technologies will also need a new generation of policies and laws.
It is clear that as manufacturers implement AI into their processes and incorporate it in their products, they are looking for new guidelines and updated legal frameworks that will clarify their obligations and help them anticipate potential issues.
To encourage the adoption of AI technologies in ways that strengthen worker safety, create more jobs, and promote economic growth and national competitiveness, regulators are eager to update existing laws so that they reflect the realities of our digital world.
6. AI is a journey and it will be different for everyone. And deploying AI is fundamentally different than implementing traditional software solutions.
This is not a “build once, roll out worldwide” technology that can be left in the hands of the IT team. For companies to reap the full benefits, AI systems need to continuously learn.
They must also be trained, monitored, evaluated and improved to guard against unconscious bias, and to avoid privacy violations and safety issues.
To ease the way forward, Microsoft has produced a framework to help companies assess their needs and determine what AI solutions to implement, and when.
This operational model begins at the foundational level for companies that are just beginning to explore what AI really is and how it can help them become a data-driven organisation.
It then moves through increasing levels of knowledge, culture change, and digital expertise until companies reach the level of maturity and tech intensity needed to apply AI ethically, responsibly, and successfully across their organisation.
Earlier this year, Microsoft – in partnership with INSEAD – also launched the AI Business School, a free, on-demand, masterclass series designed specifically for business leaders to empower them to get results from AI.
The course covers setting an AI strategy, enabling an AI-ready culture, fostering responsible and trustworthy AI, and finally an introduction to the full range of AI technologies that you could use to transform your organisation and ecosystem,