Economic Development, Manufacturing, and Technology

Experts share AI, advanced manufacturing tips

The Right Place event spotlights strategies for seizing opportunity amid digital disruption.

November 2, 2018
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At a recent gathering, presenters challenged manufacturers to embrace digital disruption in a systematic way.

The Right Place, West Michigan’s economic development agency, hosted the 2018 Manufacturing Leadership Summit on Oct. 30 at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids.

This year’s event had the theme “Industry 4.0” and included keynote speeches, presentations and breakout sessions from local, state and national experts on how the digital revolution is affecting manufacturing via the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the resulting challenge of upskilling workers.

Alison Houston, manager of NextGen manufacturing analytics at Ford Motor Company, and Harry Kekedjian, controls engineering manager, also at Ford, gave a talk called “How Manufacturers Can Get Started on Artificial Intelligence,” drawing from their experiences with AI rollouts at Ford.

Referencing the preceding panel discussion, “The Industrial Internet of Things” — that featured four local technology and manufacturing leaders — Kekedjian said having a strategy around IoT and technology adoption is paramount.

“I really agree with don’t just do IoT, AI and analytics just for the sake of doing it — have a purpose,” he said. “It will either be used within safety, quality or productivity at Ford. You’ve got to have a purpose and be trying to solve a problem.”

Houston said AI has allowed Ford “to solve complex problems we would not be able to solve with traditional engineering tools.” The company pairs data scientists with work groups to deploy technology in the most efficient and effective way.

“We are taking data-rich systems and giving actionable knowledge to end users,” she said. “With AI, we are able to foresee anomalies that would lead to losses in production and determine the quality of products. AI augments our engineers. It’s making us stronger. It’s pushing the burden onto the data versus onto our engineers.”

The IoT panel mentioned one example of how AI can work. New cars are so smart that after a collision, they can send a message to the manufacturer saying a front bumper or wheel needs to be replaced.

Kekedjian said Ford has made strides in recent years using AI in machine visioning, the automatic imaging technology used in inspections and analysis.

“It’s allowed us to solve more difficult problems than we could solve in past,” he said. But AI doesn’t work for everything, he added. It is best at bringing “a level of sophistication” that was previously unreachable in qualitative analysis.

“It’s very difficult to look for quality in electrical connectors or wrinkles in seats,” he said. “It’s been very difficult historically to solve problems with machine vision tools,” but AI is getting there.

Another application Ford uses AI for is scheduling and planning, as artificial intelligence is better than humans are at responding to variability in the process flow and the constraints of part availability in a job shop.

“An AI scheduling system optimizes to meet the demand at any moment,” Houston said. “You’ve taken the variation out of the system and reduced the time it takes to make those gears.”

AI and vision technology also can work in tandem with robotics, Kekedjian said. He shared a video by Realtime Robotics Inc. that showed a robot picking parts out of a bin and moving them into a tray, and AI acted on the robots in real time to “modify their trajectory and performance to avoid a collision” when a human stepped into their path.

“(AI) could provide a safer work environment for robots and people and help robots still complete their mission,” Kekedjian said.

With AI, manufacturers can fuse a series of functions including machine vision, speech and object recognition and dynamic path optimization to create one robotic system and then reprogram the same robot to have a different set of functions deployed for a different purpose, he said.

Houston and Kekedjian said Ford has moved beyond the need for change management, as it has so much buy-in from employees that the company has to prioritize the influx of ideas and suggestions it receives.

During her presentation, “Digital Disruption: The Future of Work, Skills & Leadership in the New Industrial World,” Tracey Wilen, a researcher, author and speaker in the tech field, said not all companies are seeing the level of success Ford has when it comes to change management.

She said disruption touches all facets of life, including in society, where everyone has three devices per person and will have four by 2020; in work, where AI and robots are replacing or changing jobs; and in industry, where companies like Uber, Airbnb and Amazon have changed the way the world runs.

Wilen’s forthcoming book of the same title as her presentation focuses on the forces impacting organizations, the new skills that are and will be required of employees, and the new leadership strategies that need to emerge.

As humans’ lifespans increase, some workplaces are accommodating five generations — all with varying expectations, work goals, motivations, learning styles, views on leadership, and attitudes and abilities regarding technology.

A change some companies still need to make, Wilen said, is transforming their information delivery from “flat formats” such as text-only to a multimedia approach, including video tutorials, wearable technology, AI, augmented and virtual reality, and robotics.

“Multimedia is the new text,” Wilen said. “Eighty-five percent of people are visual learners. Eighteen- to 34-year-olds would rather watch a YouTube tutorial instead of reading a manual.”

She showed a video of a BMW technician repairing a car using an augmented reality tutorial that highlighted each step of the job — requiring a different set of skills than auto mechanics needed in the past.

“You can see how different it would be if we started to think about integrating multimedia literacy into customer relations, training, etc.,” she said.

Wilen said when manufacturers are trying to deploy the right mix of human and robotic labor, they should keep one principle in mind.

“If a task requires problem-solving and critical thinking, keep it for the person,” she said.

Technology advances in industry require “different kinds of leaders and employees,” Wilen said.

“Now, we all have to be generalists, specialists and technologists in the workforce.”

She said employers need to think about their employees learning via “interconnected” knowledge; about vision, direction and transparency with employees; and about success planning and delegation to equip future leaders.

Employees need to develop an “entrepreneurial mindset — encouraging employees to think through how they can be the CEO of their job”; complex problem-solving skills; re-skilling to close the technology gap; and taking a “career selfie,” a snapshot of their professional life to help them examine gaps and set goals, Wilen said.

She closed her presentation by sharing a video of a “virtual choir” created by a music teacher at the suggestion of a 10-year-old student. Thousands of performers recorded themselves singing and sent their videos to the teacher, who then compiled them to create a unified, entirely virtual performance.

“Ideas can come from anywhere,” Wilen said. “People all over the virtual world can work together.”

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