Artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t a new concept in manufacturing, but its potential is more significant than ever today. Expectations are high, particularly given the productivity and competitive advantages AI technologies deliver across the entire supply chain. By Jeff Nygaard.

Largely driven by Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing initiatives, AI is creating self-adaptive and automatically reconfigurable production capabilities for manufacturers in Asia Pacific. Smarter robots, more connected and precise processes and more responsive supply chains are transforming the industry. All of these factors have the potential to bring new levels of scale, customer service, decision quality and operational efficiency to processes formerly operated by human labour.

As the long-term benefits associated with AI adoption are realised, we’re starting to see broader Factory of the Future initiatives, or if you prefer to call it the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the Connected Factory, or the Smart Factory. The new initiatives and production lines being created are focusing on efficiency, flexibility and speed.

None of these can be achieved, however, without automation as the foundation for AI enablement. Unless you have some level of automation in place to connect to data enabled platforms, it’s extremely difficult to proceed.

The good news is that most organisations in the Asia Pacific region believe that AI will have a growing impact on their future relevance, with 89% planning to start or adopt more AI solutions in the next 12 months, according to Seagate’s recent study ‘Data Pulse: Maximising the Potential of AI’.

Yet many still face hurdles when it comes to understanding and applying AI within their business, with 73% in the survey reporting that their organisations are unsure of where to start with AI. Other responses suggest this is largely due to lack of strategy and direction; commitment from the leadership team; talent; and IT infrastructure and budget. On the upside, those manufacturers that explore and embrace AI and automation are in the box seat for operational success.

The Three Ps

There are many steps in the journey towards AI-enabled manufacturing, but what we’ve learned from our own AI journey at Seagate is that it’s important to address three key areas first and foremost – process, people and planning.

  1. Optimise processes. There are thousands of processes in manufacturing, but not all can or should be optimised with AI. Identify the opportunities for greatest value and proceed accordingly. Don’t forget your business processes during your assessment. Applications like Natural Language Processing lend themselves well to processes in Customer Service and Quality.
  2. Address the skills shortage (people). The increasing use of AI means that jobs change, forcing the need for skills to evolve. The jobs of employees in Seagate’s factories, for example, are no longer about how well they handle component parts with their hands. They must now learn how to manage equipment, and even data analysis processes. Retraining and reskilling your employees to be effective in the changing manufacturing environment is a top priority. Equally important is sourcing new talent armed with the necessary skills to drive your AI initiatives forward. Success requires you to build a talent base that’s adept with using big data to make decisions.
  3. Long-term planning is crucial. The journey to automation and AI is a long-term strategy. To reach automation alone often takes at least 5-10 years. The process often involves product redesigns to make products more automation friendly and to allow data gathering. As this progresses, increasingly sophisticated data feeds enable integrated demand and supply chain planning. This in turn improves overall production, business planning and profitability.

Honing investments in IT infrastructure

Your IT infrastructure also needs to be customised to support the use of AI and, in particular, the edge devices that enable real-time data gathering, analysis and use. Seagate’s Data Pulse study indicated that one in five organisations in Asia Pacific believe they’re not ready to handle the increasing data streams with their current IT infrastructure.

It’s important to have a robust infrastructure that includes hardware and software platforms that gather and manage the huge amounts of data flow from automation. Work closely with your IT department to secure the most appropriate platforms and ensure they’re located where they need to be. For many, that means having edge devices close to factory equipment, rather than offsite.

Securing your AI future

At the very heart of securing your organisation’s AI future is knowledge; because with knowledge comes power. If you take the time and effort to explore how your organisation will benefit from adopting an AI enhanced future, you’ll put yourself in a position to build a clear strategy and direction. And importantly you are able to establish an economically prudent approach to embracing the future opportunities that AI offers. Indeed, without this knowledge, and the accompanying strategic leadership to champion the necessary change and investments, the speed of successful AI adoption will be put at risk.

Our own experience at Seagate shows clearly that if you move your organisation forward with clarity and purpose, and without fear you can realise significant gains. It’s a long journey and one that cannot be rushed, but once you have built the strong foundations for automation and addressed the process, people and planning issues, the ability to take advantage of AI will transform your organisation for the better.

Jeff Nygaard is Executive Vice-President and Head of Operations, Products & Technology at Seagate Technology.