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AI and robotics integration: Transforming production and automation

| May 15, 2024

Advancements in technology, particularly in artificial intelligence, robotics and IoT, are transforming the industrial and production sectors. This shift leads to more efficient, cost-effective and high-quality manufacturing, with a focus on sustainability and green practices. The sector is also adapting to global supply chain challenges by prioritizing resilience and flexibility to respond to market changes and geopolitical factors.

Kestria Industrial Production Global Practice Group has invited five esteemed experts from various industries around the world to discuss the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics and their impact on transforming production lines and automation strategies.

Key takeaways:

Technological Efficiency: AI, robotics, and IoT are revolutionizing production by enhancing operational efficiency and sustainability. These technologies automate processes, reduce manual labor, increase precision, and optimize resource use, leading to higher quality and less waste.

Customized Production: AI allows for highly personalized manufacturing, adjusting production in real-time to meet specific consumer demands. This flexibility is enabled by AI-driven analytics and machine learning, facilitating faster and more accurate production from design to delivery.

Skills and Leadership: Effective integration of AI in manufacturing requires a skilled workforce and adaptable leadership. Upskilling, continuous learning, and strong leadership are essential to navigate the transition, fostering a culture that embraces technological advancements and innovation.

Current integrations and future plans

For Katja Gaiser from Switzerland, Vice President Global Operations & Supply Chain at Komax Group, the focus is on major virtual integration and ongoing digitalization. Foundational structures are being laid to integrate AI and robotics into processes. This includes leading a team to analyze relevant global technology trends to develop a strategic roadmap. Two years into this journey, the focus is on building a robust foundation to support a globally interconnected supply chain, primed for future automation enhancements. As the company transitions from a traditional, locally driven setup, there is a significant need for upskilling, reskilling and hiring to enhance competencies.

Jochen Mohn from Germany, General Manager at Hexagon, manages advanced measuring devices and scanning technologies for industries like automotive and construction. The company also offers CAD, CAM and simulation software to enhance productivity with real-world data. Based in Wetzlar, home to the world's most accurate measuring machine, Hexagon is building a smart, sustainable factory that will showcase full automation and AI integration. This includes creating a digital twin of the factory and using AI to streamline processes and remotely support technicians, reducing the need for travel. The ultimate goal is to integrate all these innovations into one exemplary factory.

Erich Weitgasser from Austria, Global Technical Director at IBS Paper Performance Group, represents a company that supplies specialized components and systems to the pulp and paper industry worldwide, with 24 locations globally. AI and robotics play pivotal roles, especially in enhancing quality control and safety in paper machine production, reducing manual tasks and increasing automation through algorithms. A significant challenge is managing and integrating data from various global systems to ensure accuracy and compatibility, crucial for optimizing AI applications due to the data's scale and diversity.

According to Thomas Van Hecke, Vice President of Digital and Product Line at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, Parts and Services in the Netherlands, the primary focus is on enhancing the efficiency and profitability of customer production environments by optimizing the use and availability of mining equipment. Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions has been actively engaged in automation for 20 years, progressing from simple point-to-point automation to optimizing entire fleets. The company is now on the journey to expand its Next Generation automation product toward 3D mine visualization and location-based analytics to increase productivity and reliability. Sandvik’s growth strategy involves acquiring companies such as Deswik to enhance mine planning and Newtrax for safety enhancements. Condition-based monitoring, like Sandvik‘s Remote Monitoring Service solution, are employed to prevent failures and optimize internal service channels and R&D through data analytics.

For Philippe Costemale from Singapore, Chief Operating Officer at Maxeon Solar Technologies, cost-effective solutions are key. The company has enhanced its processes through automation and predictive tools, despite challenges in ensuring data accuracy and high capital investment costs, exacerbated by reliance on external vendors. In the solar industry, our objectives include defect reduction and minimizing downtime. Automation remains essential for maintaining competitiveness, particularly in high-cost markets. While there may be some reductions in labor, automation is indispensable for sustaining competitiveness and achieving market prices.

Adaptive automation shaping the future of customized production

As Jochen Mohn points out, meeting customer demands efficiently requires maximum flexibility due to the prevalent trend toward lot size one. ‘Each machine is customized, presenting unique challenges that we're addressing by adapting to this evolving environment. Our focus is on increasing flexibility and adaptability, with AI playing a pivotal role in automating processes to unlock significant potential. For instance, using Gen AI in ChatGPT/AutoGemini allows real-time code generation, streamlining tasks like programming machines and enhancing flexibility. Embracing these technologies aims to intelligently optimize productivity, showcasing just one of many initiatives we're exploring.’

Katja Gaiser highlights that their machines are often fully customized, increasingly so to meet specific customer demands, with many requiring new designs Rapid customization is challenging but essential for growth. They manage this through a configure-price-quote system, automation of engineering tasks, and process standardization. Maintaining transparent and accurate information flow from customer needs to procurement is crucial.

‚We're transitioning to simpler, modular products for higher automation, akin to a Lego-like system. However, achieving plug-and-play functionality remains challenging due to software complexities. Despite this, we're committed to leveraging transparency and data management for a competitive edge. Managing the evolving landscape of applications poses challenges. Additionally, maintaining digital twins of installed bases and leveraging after-sales services for predictive maintenance are critical. Ensuring organizational alignment with the transformation's purpose, goals and path is essential for success,’ says Katja Gaiser.

As per Philippe Costemale, there is wonderful improvement done by everybody across the globe, but managing experiences and best Lean & best practices is crucial. AI is seen as one of the solutions to identify quickly efficiency opportunities by sharing best practices across factories. ‚Companies are becoming more agile, saving expenses and adjusting their operations. But it's a trade-off between what we want in preventive maintenance, transformation costs and fixed costs over the year. Each company has different products, so one rule doesn't fit all, and we have to be cautious about copying and pasting solutions from others,‘ adds Philippe Costemale.

From AI perspective, Thomas Van Hecke’s main focus is how well equipment performs in customer environments and the effective application of AI. He notes the challenges in implementing and validating AI recommendations to ensure that appropriate actions are taken. ‚We have a history of applying machine learning to our equipment and offering analytics products to customers, but relying the outcomes purely on what has been generated by AI was suboptimal. This highlights the need for a human AI translator to bridge the gap between AI insights and actionable decisions. Having someone who understands both the data and the customer's application can explain recommendations clearly and efficiently, leading to more effective implementation. Investing in human-AI translators has proven successful in generating value for customer sites and improving our own product development in R&D.‘

Erich Weitgasser emphasizes that paper industries and machines are highly diverse, with each of the 10,000 to 12,000 global machines tailored to specific market requirements and materials, so flexibility is absolutely key. Machines run for hours to finalize products before changing over, with waste materials and process parameters varying constantly. This variability necessitates tools that can quickly adapt to changes, as delays in detecting errors can lead to significant waste.

‚Implementing AI in production often requires year-long validation to achieve automation. The paper industry's move to paper-based plastics is hindered by a lack of data, complicating AI use. Effective AI deployment hinges on selecting the right segments and ensuring sufficient, high-quality data for training. Managing AI projects effectively requires roles like project managers and software engineers to define goals and prevent errors. Data security is vital, especially with customer-provided data, to ensure accessibility and integrity for future AI applications,‘ says Erich Weitgasser.

AI and Robotics support in skilled worker shortages

Jochen Mohn leads a transition toward using robots for tasks that don't require skilled workers. For example, logistical transportation processes, previously handled by humans using carts and forklifts, are now being automated. The goal is to optimize these processes by eliminating less valuable tasks and enhancing the skills of our workforce for more valuable work. This reflects a commitment to maximizing resource efficiency, particularly in light of limited human resources and automating less valuable jobs with robots, AGVs or similar tech. ‚Safety is always a concern in our production environments, but the primary motivation is truly maximizing the efficiency of our resources by delegating routine processes or production steps to robots, automated vehicles, or other technologies. Perhaps the challenge arises due to a shortage of resources in this area.‘

According to Philippe Costemale, in the solar industry adjacent to semiconductor operations with chemicals and automation, a fully automated line notably lowers the incident rate to below 0.5 TRIR, much lower than other sectors. While manufacturing incidents decrease, ¼ maintenance-related ones increase, yet the overall incident count drops significantly, impacting the company's EHS scores.

Thomas Van Hecke notes that mining production differs from factories due to its challenging environments. Managing geological risks and ensuring worker safety underground are critical, with challenges in ventilation, positioning, and visibility necessitating minimized human presence. Our customers are automating production and development equipment, however, some tasks still require human intervention, prompting investment in automated charging facilities to reduce human-machine interactions while operating Battery Electric Fleets. Collision Avoidance Systems are essential to ensure safe human-machine interactions.

Erich Weitgasser points out that paper machines are inherently hazardous, given the presence of high temperatures and chemicals, which drives the need for automation. Reducing operator numbers, from 7 to 4 for example, directly impacts the bottom line. Efforts to utilize cameras or algorithms for reproducibility face some resistance, as human evaluation can vary. However, automated systems ensure consistent performance, which is crucial for maintaining product quality, especially for customers expecting homogeneous quality. AI solutions offer a faster ramp-up for product consistency, making reproducibility a compelling selling point.

AI's role in transforming maintenance and quality control in production lines

As per Katja Gaiser, there's always an internal and external aspect to consider. ‚We have heavily invest in camera systems and quality control stations for our automated wire harness processing machines, giving us a competitive edge. This unique selling proposition is essential for our high-end products, ensuring top-notch quality controlled by embedded artificial intelligence. This level of quality control is crucial, especially for components in cars, where reliability is paramount. However, shifting from quality assurance to maintenance is challenging as customers often hesitate to share data, raising concerns about security. We seek insights from others on how to navigate this dilemma: how to convince customers of the benefits of sharing data while ensuring its safe usage,‘ says Katja Gaiser.

For Philippe Costemale, in solar industry, minimizing downtime is paramount for profitability. Comprehensive data analysis in centralized systems is crucial for AI projects, facilitating inventory management and cost analysis. Despite data-sharing challenges from some manufacturers, standardized operations enable global comparisons. The ultimate goal is to minimize both planned and unplanned downtime, enhancing operational efficiency and financial performance. Achieving this objective requires strategic resource optimization and productivity maximization efforts.

Leadership skills in AI and robotics manufacturing

According to Erich Weitgasser, young professionals must grasp modern language and effectively communicate with stakeholders while leveraging historical knowledge. Integrating past data with modern technology is crucial for future readiness. Combining the expertise of seasoned employees with the younger generation poses a significant challenge. Developing soft skills is crucial for effective teamwork and achieving optimal results.

For Philippe Costemale to evolve effectively, it’s crucial to break down silos between IT and operations, fostering hybrid organizations where data analytics and engineering expertise blend seamlessly. Cross-training between operations and digital realms can fill skill gaps. Hybrid structures empower teams to drive change and adapt to evolving demands, addressing the shortage of readily available talent in the market.

Jochen Mohn strongly advocates for integrating coding and programming into our education system, from schools to higher education. This is essential for the future workforce, where a blend of electronics and software or mechanics and software skills are increasingly sought after. The push for this curriculum shift to ensure we cultivate the right skills in the next generation is imperative.

To navigate the transformation effectively, Katja Gaiser prioritizes upskilling direct reports. This entails not just theoretical training but also practical know-how, delving into available technologies and their real-life applications. ‚Currently, our focus is on preparing the company for cloud integration and streamlining processes with SAP and Salesforce. Strategic workforce planning helps identify competency gaps, guiding decisions on upskilling, reskilling or hiring. We've also streamlined operations to allocate resources for necessary investments. This holistic approach ensures our initiatives are aligned and resources are optimized for maximum impact.‘

Summary

The discussion emphasized the transformative impact of advancements in AI, robotics and IoT on industrial and production sectors worldwide. It highlights how companies are integrating AI and robotics into their processes to enhance efficiency, quality and sustainability while addressing global supply chain challenges. Key outcomes include insights from industry experts representing various sectors, discussing topics such as current integrations, future plans, adaptive automation, skilled worker shortages and AI's role in maintenance and quality control. It emphasizes the importance of leadership skills, upskilling, and cross-training to navigate these technological shifts effectively.

The Kestria Industrial/Production Practice Group stands as an ideal partner for international manufacturing businesses, by speaking their industry language, offering extensive knowledge and experience of their industry, technologies, and organizational structures, while embracing diversity and providing boutique-level commitment and passion to delivering senior talent.

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