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AI Maintains Buzzword Status, But Other Tech Tools Reign Supreme

If AI isn’t quite ready for the full-on primetime, what does it mean for manufacturing?

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If you polled a hundred manufacturing industry professionals for their opinion on the biggest industry buzzword right now, you can bet 99 of them would say artificial intelligence.

Even in my industry, AI is gaining a foothold. While I can commiserate with the industry leaders who feel compelled to produce content in order to promote their subject matter expertise, we’ve seen a concerning rise in content submissions that have been ghost-written, seemingly, by a computer.

In a recent article for Forbes, Gene Marks – a writer, podcaster and CPA – attempted to take some air out of the balloon. Marks explained that, for all the hype, AI applications are still very much relegated to the tech teams of big, resource-advantaged businesses.

Secondly, said Marks, AI isn’t quite market ready for manufacturers in 2024. He added that there have been no “big advances in AI functionality built into mainstream manufacturing, ERP, order entry or inventory management applications” and that those companies who are leveraging AI for the aforementioned tasks very well may be building it themselves.

Still – at least anecdotally - we do hear manufacturers making a play for more efficiency gains. Even the biggest laggards among us have workforce gaps – maybe especially so – and finding a way to solve the problem through technology certainly has its appeal.

On the pioneering end, automakers from BMW and Mercedes to Tesla and Hyundai all made suggestions throughout the past year that their factories would bring on AI-enabled humanoid robots in order to offload tedious production tasks.

And while these are big manufacturers with big resources that Marks refers to, they’re also all in the same industry. I think it remains to be seen whether the humanoid robot experiment is something that hits in the near term, or if this topic saturation is simply one competitive group hoping to assure the market of its tech-savviness. It seems highly unlikely, to me, at least, that we see any related rollout in the near future.

So if AI isn’t quite ready for the full-on primetime we might expect, what does it mean for manufacturing? Even if you can’t AI-enable your business this year – or next, or the year after – there are still plenty of opportunities to incorporate technology into your processes.

And these available-now solutions, as they leverage things like cloud computing, are becoming more affordable for small and medium sized businesses. Rather than shoot for the moon on something like AI, it’s time to go after some of the foundational tech that can level the playing field as costs come down and both integration and ease of use improve.

And while we explore those options, AI won’t be sitting idle. We know there are lots of experts in this field that are helping to make the technology more practical and consistent for the industrial marketplace. At the recent Industrial Supply Association conference, one of the editors on our team – Andy Szal – reported that AI experts were bullish on the prospects of the technology as a useful tool for industrial companies – no surprise there.

But perhaps more importantly, they spoke to the practicality of implementation and how vendors with expertise in the space could do the heavy lifting in order to help offload cost and complexity for end users.

Mostly they spoke about data, and how software companies were uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between AI and your day-to-day – all the benefits (as they emerge, of course) without forcing businesses to create a home grown plan leveraging a to-be-determined business case. The idea here being purpose-built AI that can meet the very specific, complex needs of each company.

This dovetails with what Marks had to say – that the best of what AI had to offer wasn’t new, rather, it was an augmentation of the type of technology that should remain foundational in an industrial operating environment.

The vendors that can help you utilize these building blocks are the ones you might already know, which means two things: you can take the intimidation factor out and you can enjoy the benefits iteratively, piggybacking the tech you use in your business already.

So instead of viewing AI as something you need to do now or risk lagging behind, try looking at it another way: as an added feature that will continue to improve, the gains of which you can slowly leverage. And nothing will benefit you more than mature technologies that are already customized for manufacturing environments.

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