AI Strategy Sustainable Manufacturing

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Est. reading time: 7 minutes
Author: Steph Locke

Persistent COVID-19 uncertainty, disruptive technologies, and supply chain challenges are some of the big concerns facing manufacturing CEOs and corporate leaders right now. However, despite uncertainty, we are seeing some promising trends around automation and transforming processes from the back office to the factory floor. Here are the top six board-level agenda items and a look into how AI can help.

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Steph Locke

Technologist and consultant with a track record of delivering transformation of businesses into data science and AI companies.

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There is a lot to be done in the world of manufacturing, from struggling to find qualified staff, to reducing waste and emissions, manufacturers are trying their best to keep up with the changing needs of consumers. Here are six items you’ll find on most manufacturers' agendas and we explore how AI can help with each one:

  1. Struggling to find qualified staff? AI can automate repetitive tasks and augment humans so they can do more high-value or productive work reducing the need to take on new staff.
  2. Reducing waste and emissions? AI could make sure that every product has its own material usage plan which would minimise wasted materials.
  3. Reducing overheads? AI could recommend cost-cutting measures based on data collected from machines or other devices.
  4. Boosting staff productivity? AI and no-code tools can scale processes that have traditionally been manual.
  5. Adding value to your products through servitisation? AI-powered features and sophisticated data processing can add real value to digital complements to your physical products.
  6. Improve your supply chain? AI and no-code automation can help you increase your number of suppliers, optimise your procurement, and provide better forecasting of demand.

Agenda item #1: Recruit qualified staff

Skills shortages are real, whether in the back-office or the factory floor. It’s tough to find engineers of all stripes and we hear all too often from manufacturers that they browse hundreds of CVs but only hire a few or worse, they get no CVs at all! There’s a number of areas AI can help.

In the recruitment process, AI can be used to ensure there are no biases in job descriptions and adverts, pre-filter CVs, and transcribe video interviews. You can find Software as a Service solutions (SaaS) out there to help, or you can also build your own with no-code solutions and off-the-shelf AI. You probably already have Microsoft 365 and many of these capabilities are already there, just waiting to be strung together.

In a recent study by Microsoft & McKinsey, staff retention was found to increase when employees are given productivity-boosting tools. Investing in things like using AI-powered collaboration and planning tools can help you keep staff with you for longer and the easiest person to hire is the person you already employ!

Improving the productivity per employee means you need fewer employees to achieve the same output but you can also use AI-powered onboarding and professional development learning platforms to help upskill people to create your own qualified workforce.

Agenda item #2: Become more sustainable

In 2020 UK manufacturers output an estimated seventy-seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the Office of National Statistics. Using AI-powered predictive analytics to reduce your energy usage, water usage, raw material use can have big benefits for the environment. Upskilling for the green revolution and digital training more generally are also major considerations to driving greater sustainability longer term.

In a recent presentation, we broke down some AI-supported routes for reducing scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions:

  • Scope 1

    • Use defect detection to reduce waste
    • Use generative design to reduce the materials used in a product
    • Use machine learning (ML) to reduce the number of physical resources needed in prototyping and R&D activities.
  • Scope 2

  • Scope 3

    • Detect driving factors in upstream or downstream emissions with ML to start prescribing changes to reduce indirect emissions
    • Use personalisation routines to target sustainability and effective use tips to customers.

Agenda Item #3: Reduce overheads

A high Cost Of Goods due to material or machine costs can be tough. One of the great things about many of the ways AI can support the reduction of Scope 1 & 2 emissions is that they can also reduce your costs per unit too.

We also need to think about where things like our back-office functions or sales efforts can be costly and look at how we can do more with the same amount of people, reduce spending and effort on processes, and improve how your cost of acquisition of new customers.

AI-powered no-code solutions exist to automate processes, move data between systems, and scale your marketing. With computer vision to read invoices and paper documents, you can scan and grab data from things that normally would be a costly manual data entry task. With Robotic Process Automation you can save time using moving data from on-premises legacy ERP solutions to other software systems. Social listening or trigger-based marketing tools can help you identify the right time and person to send key details to.

Agenda Item #4: Increase productivity

Tied with it being tough to find new staff, manufacturers are supporting staff to be more productive so they can scale the manufacturing process and make it more profitable.

Automation of the factory floor through robotics is one key way you can help your staff do more but we know it’s not always the easiest or the most fitting solution. We talk to manufacturers who are exploring augmented reality and computer vision-driven solutions to help scale assembly processes.

When we chat with manufacturers, we still find a huge amount of paperwork or manual data entry. Some of the ways we can use AI to change this situation include:

  • Document recognition and processing
  • No-code system integrations
  • Conversational AI (like bots) communication systems
  • No-code/low-code data entry solutions

Agenda Item #5: Move up the value chain

Manufacturers are increasingly adopting a move to change their business model so that they have more of a relationship with the end-user. This might be an app that controls the IoT-enabled device or it might be radical new-as a Service style solutions like Volta Trucks' Truck as a Service.

Developing new digital technology capabilities can be tough but integrating AI features into applications using tech like Microsoft Cognitive services can help you integrate computer vision, speech processing, and conversational AI into your apps with minimal knowledge of AI needed.

AI also becomes critical for tasks like detecting fraud, personalising content, predicting cash flows, and other tasks associated with a high-scale digital business.

Agenda Item #6: Supply chain integration

Changing regulations, needing to be greener, disruptions in the global supply chain due to the global pandemic have made many manufacturers we talk to evaluate their relationship with their supply chain to seek improved ways of doing things.

One of the first issues manufacturers (and their suppliers!) complain about is how time consuming it can be to onboard suppliers. Between compliance processes, contract review, and getting them set up on any system, it can take a frustratingly huge amount of hours just to add a supplier.

Building a supplier portal to digitally onboard suppliers is a critical first step in this area. AI can be used to extract information from scanned documents and review contracts.

Data sharing and electronic documents are the next level up for improving your supply chain integration. Suppliers can be set up with APIs to access the data that you have shared. This way, they will always have an updated version of your information and it ensures that there are no duplicates. AI can be integrated to monitor for issues, streamline data sending, or even provide a chatbot for suppliers to reduce queries.

What’s on your agenda?

We’re working with manufacturers to help them address these board-level priorities. We believe that these are some of the most important issues for manufacturers. Please email us or schedule a call to talk about how we can assist you in these areas, as well as discuss whether there’s another topic we could explore and help you with.

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Talk to us about your strategic priorities

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