Artificial Intelligence (AI) has emerged as a transformative force in manufacturing, enabling businesses to optimize processes, boost productivity, transition to innovative business models, expand their offerings, and unlock new levels of efficiency. And it has become a must-have tool for manufacturers who want to remain relevant, competitive, and adaptable.

Author Radiana Pit | Copperberg

Photo: Freepik

This shift in the industry has stimulated an important conversation about AI technology and how it will affect the workplace, and the role it plays within the organization. Contrary to the misconception that AI is a standalone solution in manufacturing that will simply replace humans, its true potential lies in augmenting human capabilities with smart tools, and empowering workers to perform tasks with greater precision and effectiveness. 

Maximizing the potential of this technology means creating a robust data strategy and clear roles for those involved in AI-powered operations to not only ensure data quality but to also address the challenges created by evolving algorithms. To better understand this, let’s break down why equipping workers with AI is essential, and, ultimately, how the data strategy around achieving this is paramount.

Humans with AI vs. Humans without AI

The notion that AI will completely replace human workers in manufacturing is an oversimplification. The reality is that AI is most impactful when it complements human skills rather than substituting them. The artificial machine excels at performing repetitive and mundane tasks, allowing human workers to focus on more complex and value-added activities that require creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. This is equally true for the retiring workforce which is largely reskilling or upskilling as well as the newer workforce generations that are more tech-savvy and will easily integrate in a hybrid workspace.

By integrating AI into manufacturing processes and thus relieving workers of manual and tedious tasks, businesses can achieve higher levels of accuracy, precision, and speed, leading to improved quality, increased output, and enhanced worker safety. In this symbiotic relationship, AI acts as a powerful tool, empowering human workers to excel and achieve greater productivity.

For example, consider a manufacturing assembly line where repetitive tasks such as component placement or quality inspections are traditionally performed by human workers. By integrating AI-powered robotic systems into the assembly line, AI can take over these repetitive tasks, allowing human workers to engage in more complex and intellectually challenging activities. The workers can oversee the robotic systems, troubleshoot any issues, make critical decisions, and bring their expertise to areas that require complex problem-solving. Thus, humans with AI can be much more efficient than humans without AI and that becomes even more apparent when breaking down the benefits.

  • Amplified Productivity: The integration of AI in manufacturing enables human workers to amplify their productivity. By automating repetitive and time-consuming tasks, AI systems free up human resources to focus on higher-value activities that require critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. This allows manufacturers to accomplish more in less time, enhancing overall productivity and output.
  • Enhanced Quality Control: AI-powered systems play a crucial role in quality control processes in manufacturing. These systems can analyze vast amounts of data, monitor production lines in real time, and quickly identify defects or anomalies. Human workers, in collaboration with AI, can then carry out more comprehensive inspections, implement quality improvement measures, and ensure that products meet the highest standards. This combination of AI-driven insights and human expertise leads to improved product quality and customer satisfaction.
  • Data-Driven Decision-Making: The availability of large volumes of data in manufacturing requires effective analysis and decision-making. AI systems are ideal for processing and analyzing complex datasets, extracting valuable insights, and identifying trends or patterns that may not be apparent to humans alone. By harnessing AI capabilities, human workers can thus make data-driven decisions, optimize processes, and allocate resources more efficiently, resulting in improved operational performance and better outcomes.
  • Root Cause Analysis: Manufacturers working with AI can leverage advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms to perform root cause analysis when problems occur, expediting decision-making by swiftly identifying underlying causes of issues in the manufacturing process and enabling proactive actions to lower costs and prevent recurrences.
  • Agility and Adaptability: The manufacturing industry is subject to constant change, driven by technological advancements, market fluctuations, and evolving customer demands. Humans working alongside AI possess the agility and adaptability needed to respond effectively to these dynamic environments. AI systems can provide real-time data, predictive analytics, and scenario analysis, enabling manufacturers to make informed decisions, adjust strategies, and remain competitive in rapidly changing markets.
  • Innovation and Creativity: The combination of human intelligence and AI technology fosters innovation and creativity in manufacturing. AI systems can assist manufacturers in analyzing market trends, customer preferences, and production data to identify opportunities for innovation. Manufacturers can then leverage this information to develop new product designs, optimize manufacturing processes, create value-added services, and improve customer experiences, driving competitive advantage and differentiation in the market.
  • Complex Decision-Making: Manufacturing operations often involve complex decision-making processes that require a comprehensive understanding of various factors and trade-offs. While AI systems provide valuable insights, human workers bring contextual knowledge, expertise, and intuition to make nuanced decisions. The collaboration between humans and AI allows for complex decision-making, considering both data-driven insights and human judgment, leading to more effective and well-informed choices.

It is important to recognize that humans possess unique qualities that are difficult to replicate in AI systems, such as creativity, empathy, adaptability, and complex problem-solving. These qualities are crucial in manufacturing, especially in areas such as product design, process optimization, customer interactions, and strategic decision-making. AI complements human workers by automating repetitive tasks, analyzing vast amounts of data, and providing insights, while humans bring the ingenuity and adaptability needed to navigate complex and dynamic manufacturing environments.

And so, the integration of AI in manufacturing is not about replacing human workers but rather about empowering them to work alongside AI technologies. By embracing the synergy between humans and AI, manufacturers can drive innovation and unlock new levels of productivity, quality, and competitiveness, while simultaneously fostering a positive work environment that offers upskilling opportunities and values human expertise and input.

Why the Data Strategy Around AI Is Essential

One specific area where human expertise is invaluable is in the data strategy around AI. Humans play a crucial role in ensuring the effectiveness and success of AI by collecting, curating, and preprocessing relevant data. They also contribute to algorithm development and selection, oversee model training and evaluation, and interpret results based on their domain knowledge. Humans also address ethical considerations and governance, ensuring responsible use of AI. 

And that is essential because a robust data strategy is the cornerstone of successful AI implementation and deployment in manufacturing. To generate AI-driven insights and decision-making, manufacturers must design a comprehensive plan and framework for collecting, managing, and utilizing data effectively based on the following considerations:

  • Data as the Fuel for AI: AI systems rely heavily on data to learn, analyze patterns, and generate valuable insights. A well-defined data strategy ensures that manufacturers have access to the right data from diverse sources within their operations. This includes data from sensors, IoT devices, production equipment, customer interactions, and supply chain processes. By collecting and integrating relevant data into a centralized repository, manufacturers can provide a rich and comprehensive dataset for training AI models, enhancing their accuracy and effectiveness.
  • Data Quality and Assurance: A data strategy includes protocols and processes for ensuring data quality and integrity. Clean, accurate, and context data is essential for training AI models and generating reliable insights. Manufacturers need to implement data validation, cleansing, and normalization techniques to address data inconsistencies and errors. By maintaining data integrity, manufacturers can have confidence in the outcomes generated by their AI systems and make well-informed decisions based on reliable insights.
  • Data Security and Privacy: With the increasing reliance on data in manufacturing, it becomes crucial to prioritize data security and privacy. A robust data strategy includes measures to protect sensitive information, ensure compliance with regulations such as GDPR or CCPA, and prevent unauthorized access or breaches. Manufacturers must implement encryption, access controls, data anonymization techniques, and secure data storage solutions to safeguard their data assets and maintain customer trust.
  • Data Integration and Interoperability: Manufacturing operations generate data from multiple systems and sources, such as production lines, ERP systems, supply chain platforms, and customer databases. A data strategy involves establishing seamless data integration and interoperability across these systems. By integrating disparate data sources, manufacturers can gain a holistic view of their operations, improve data accessibility, and enable cross-functional analysis. This integration is critical for AI systems to leverage data from different domains, enabling more accurate and comprehensive insights.
  • Scalability and Future-Readiness: A data strategy should account for the scalability of data infrastructure and storage capabilities. As manufacturing operations and the volume of generated data grow, manufacturers must plan for scalability to accommodate increasing data volumes. This includes evaluating cloud-based solutions, implementing data lakes or data warehouses, and leveraging technologies that support horizontal and vertical scalability. By designing a scalable data infrastructure, manufacturers can ensure that their AI systems can handle growing data demands and remain effective in the long term.
  • Continuous Data Governance: A successful data strategy incorporates ongoing data governance practices. This involves establishing roles and responsibilities for data management, defining data governance policies, and monitoring data quality and compliance. Manufacturers should have a dedicated team responsible for data governance, including data stewards, data engineers, and data scientists. This team ensures that data remains accurate, up-to-date, and aligned with evolving business needs. Regular data audits, quality checks, and lifecycle management are essential to maintain the integrity and reliability of the data used by AI systems.

A well-executed data strategy provides the foundation for training accurate AI models, generating reliable insights, and making informed decisions. It enables manufacturers to optimize processes, improve product quality, enhance supply chain management, and gain a competitive edge in the dynamic manufacturing landscape. And although this may seem like an additional workload for organizations, AI tools can likewise help with the delivery of said data strategy.

The Impact of Data on the Practical Applications of AI

One specific area where human expertise and input are valuable is in the development and execution of the data strategy as it plays a crucial role in shaping the data used by AI systems and ultimately impacts the practical applications of AI in manufacturing.

A well-defined data strategy enables manufacturers to access high-quality and relevant data. Humans, albeit with the help of IoT-powered devices or otherwise, are responsible for collecting and curating the data, addressing potential biases, and upholding data ethics to ensure fair and unbiased outcomes, safeguarding against discriminatory or harmful practices that may arise from skewed or unethically obtained data. They also preprocess and engineer the data, transforming it into a suitable format for AI algorithms. By leveraging their domain knowledge, humans extract meaningful features from the data, making it more valuable for AI applications.

And so, this ultimately influences the practical applications of AI in manufacturing. For example, in production planning and scheduling, AI algorithms rely on historical data, demand forecasts, and real-time information. The accuracy and reliability of these inputs depend on the quality of the data and the effectiveness of the data strategy. A well-executed data strategy ensures that the data used by AI systems is accurate, complete, and representative, leading to optimized production workflows, reduced lead times, and minimized resource wastage.

Similarly, in quality control, AI-powered vision systems and machine learning algorithms analyze data to identify defects and anomalies. The effectiveness of these systems depends on the quality of the data used for training and evaluation. A robust data strategy ensures that the data collected for AI models includes diverse examples of defects and variations, enabling the algorithms to accurately identify and classify issues quickly and in real time. This enhances product quality, reduces rework, and improves overall customer satisfaction.

The data strategy around AI also impacts supply chain management. AI-driven demand forecasting models, for instance, require historical data and market trends to predict future demand accurately. The data strategy ensures the availability of relevant and reliable data, allowing AI systems to optimize inventory levels, improve order fulfillment, and reduce stockouts or excess inventory. This results in streamlined supply chain operations, efficient logistics planning, and enhanced supplier collaboration.

Furthermore, the data strategy has implications for predictive maintenance, process optimization, product design, and customer insights. In each of these areas, the data used by AI systems directly influences the effectiveness and outcomes of the practical applications. And so, by establishing a robust data strategy, manufacturers can leverage AI technologies to their full potential, driving efficiency, improving decision-making, and achieving better overall performance in the manufacturing processes.

The Challenge of Evolving Algorithms

The data strategy discussed thus far must also take into account the core components of AI systems: algorithms—which constantly evolve, change, and improve as technology progresses. While this presents exciting opportunities, it also poses challenges for manufacturers. When algorithms and models change, the output from AI should improve and thus prompt swift action. Depending on how reliant an organization is on AI and the flexibility it gives its AI tools to make decisions will influence whether or not models would need to be retrained and algorithms re-tested. 

Giving more decision-making power to AI requires ongoing monitoring, retraining, and recalibration of AI models to ensure they remain effective and aligned with evolving business needs. And so, the responsibility for managing algorithmic changes lies with a multidisciplinary team involving data scientists, domain experts, and IT professionals. Regular collaboration and continuous improvement are crucial, and the following considerations must be at the top of the priority list when deploying AI:

  • Continuous Improvement: Algorithms used in manufacturing applications are often subject to continuous improvement and refinement. As new data becomes available and new insights are gained, manufacturers may update or fine-tune the underlying algorithms to enhance their accuracy, efficiency, or adaptability. These changes can result in improved predictions, better decision support, or optimized automation processes.
  • Impact on Performance: When algorithms change, it can have both positive and negative impacts on manufacturing operations. Positive changes can lead to improved performance, such as increased accuracy in defect detection, higher production yields, or better demand forecasting. On the other hand, algorithmic changes can introduce unforeseen issues, such as false positives or negatives, increased computational requirements, or changes in system behavior. It is crucial for manufacturers to carefully assess the potential impact of algorithmic changes on their processes, performance metrics, and overall operations.
  • Testing and Validation: Before implementing algorithmic changes, manufacturers must conduct thorough testing and validation processes. This involves creating test scenarios, analyzing performance metrics, and comparing the outcomes of the updated algorithms with the previous versions. Manufacturers may use historical data or simulate real-world scenarios to ensure that the updated algorithms are functioning as intended. Rigorous testing helps identify potential issues or unintended consequences and allows for necessary adjustments before deploying the changes in production environments.
  • Cross-Departmental Collaboration: Managing algorithmic changes requires collaboration between data scientists and domain experts in manufacturing. Data scientists are responsible for developing and fine-tuning the algorithms, leveraging their expertise in machine learning and data analysis. However, domain experts, including manufacturing engineers, quality control specialists, or production managers, provide critical insights into the manufacturing processes, system behavior, and operational requirements. This collaboration ensures that algorithmic changes align with the specific needs, constraints, and objectives of the manufacturing environment.
  • Change Management and Documentation: Effective change management practices are essential when implementing algorithmic changes in manufacturing. Manufacturers should establish robust change management processes, including documentation of changes, version control, and tracking of performance metrics. This helps ensure transparency, traceability, and accountability in managing algorithmic changes. Documentation also facilitates knowledge transfer, allowing future modifications or troubleshooting to be carried out smoothly.
  • Continuous Monitoring and Feedback Loops: Once algorithmic changes are deployed, manufacturers should establish continuous monitoring and feedback loops to track their performance and gather user feedback. This involves monitoring key performance indicators, collecting real-time data, and soliciting feedback from operators, quality control personnel, or other stakeholders. Continuous monitoring helps identify any issues or anomalies that may arise due to algorithmic changes, enabling prompt intervention and refinement.

Ultimately, the responsibility for managing algorithmic changes rests with the manufacturing organization. This includes defining clear roles and responsibilities for overseeing algorithmic changes, ensuring compliance with relevant regulations, and maintaining ethical standards. Manufacturers should establish governance frameworks that encompass accountability, transparency, and fairness. Regular audits and reviews of algorithms are necessary to assess their ongoing performance and compliance.

Final Considerations

To effectively incorporate AI into manufacturing operations, several key considerations come into play. First, organizations need to clearly define their objectives and outcomes for AI implementation, such as improving operational efficiency, enhancing product quality, optimizing resource allocation, or enhancing customer experiences. Identifying the areas where AI can provide the most value, such as predictive maintenance, quality control, demand forecasting, process optimization, or customer personalization, is essential.

A robust data strategy is vital, encompassing data collection, management, and utilization for AI applications. This includes identifying relevant data sources, ensuring data quality and integrity, addressing privacy and security concerns, and leveraging human expertise for data preprocessing and feature engineering.

Clear roles and responsibilities should be defined for individuals and teams involved in the AI implementation process. This includes assigning responsibilities for data collection, preprocessing, algorithm development, model training, evaluation, and deployment. AI implementation is a shared effort among stakeholders. While data scientists and AI engineers play critical roles, domain experts provide context and expertise, and business leaders align AI initiatives with organizational goals.

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