Future Factories: How AI Enables Smart Manufacturing


Today’s consumers are pickier than ever. They want customized, personalized, and unique products over standardized ones and prefer local, smaller producers over large-scale global manufacturers. At the same time, they also expect locally-produced products to be as cheap and reliable as those industrially produced. Factories, power plants, and manufacturing centers around the world must rely on automation, machine learning, computer vision, and other fields of AI to meet these rising demands and transform the way we make, move, and market things.


Since the industrial revolution, factories have been optimized to mass produce a few products rapidly and cheaply to satisfy global demand. “The largest inefficiency that most manufacturers face is inflexibility,” says Jim Lawton, Chief Product & Marketing Officer of Rethink Robotics, maker of collaborative industrial robots. “Traditional industrial automation requires hundreds of hours to reprogram, making it very impractical to change how the task is performed.”

Catering to finicky consumers is not the only challenge confronting modern factories. Costs of production in traditionally affordable countries like China and Mexico are rising. Oil and gas industries have been hit incredibly hard by historically low oil prices, driving the need for further efficiencies and cost reduction.

In virtually all factories, poor demand forecasting and capacity planning, unexpected equipment failures and downtimes, supply chain bottlenecks, and inefficient or unsafe workplace processes can lead to resource wastage, longer production periods, low yields on production inputs, and lost revenue. Manufacturers are also strapped for qualified labor, both skilled and unskilled, as older employees retire, younger generations lose interest in manufacturing jobs, and immigration policies tighten.

Prabir Chetia, Head of Business Research and Advisory at global analytics firm Aranca, details the current dilemma faced by many manufacturers around the world: “Energy costs among makers of electronic products can reach as high as 45 percent of the overall production costs. A significant amount of energy usage is redundant and can be easily avoided. In the food processing industry, supply chain bottlenecks can even result in 40 to 50 percent of dry crop matter getting wasted due to spoilage.”


Innovative manufacturers already use artificial intelligence to tackle these many challenges. Here are the key ways that “Industry 4.0”, the latest trends in smart factories, leverage automation, data exchange, and emerging technologies:

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