The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing
How AI can democratize production of and access to goods
“Robots and AI (artificial intelligence) will take over the manufacturing, delivery, design, and marketing of most goods,” says Kai-Fu Lee, author of AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future.1
This bold statement blueprints a future in which AI and manufacturing are inextricably linked, which leads to a few key shifts: 1) the decentralization of manufacturing; 2) large-scale customization; and 3) the promise of a more democratic access to goods. Everyone will be affected: those who design products and services, those who build them, and those who consume them.
Manufacturing revolutions have driven watershed moments throughout history. In the eighteenth century, the advent of the steam engine enabled the vast, logistically complex transportation of people and merchandise . In the early twentieth century, mass production enabled the mass consumption of telephones, cars, and, later, televisions. Automation in food and toy manufacturing heralded a new era, too: Machines dipped ice cream bars in just the right amount of chocolate, kneaded mounds of dough, and assembled dolls in record time.
These technological advances relegated many tedious, rote, and unsafe tasks to machines instead of people. While they eliminated some jobs, however, they also created new ones—many of which demanded more technologically astute operators.
Today, as AI captures more and more market space—just as automation did before it—numerous industries, from manufacturing, health care, and entertainment, to financial technologies and marketing, are experiencing the onset of a complete overhaul.
In this article, we’ll explore how AI is transforming the manufacturing space, as well as the opportunities and challenges this transformation will bring, for those who are shaping the space technologically, and for consumers.
AI and Machine Learning in Manufacturing Today
Today, in very concrete ways, AI is creating mass efficiencies in the production of goods and in the supply chain. With the power of interconnected devices and sensors, as well as machine learning (ML) algorithms, manufacturers are “utilizing many machine data points to predict breakdowns, to keep machines in top notch condition, and the production floor running smoothly.”2
Supply Chain Logistics
AI is optimizing the supply chain and provides efficient data on questions regarding inventory, logistics, expiration dates, factory floor distributions, and more — all things that would previously rely on human estimations, historical knowledge, and, often, guesswork.
Robotics and 3D Printing
Robotics, as well as additive manufacturing—better known as 3D printing—impact the industry in powerful ways, too. For instance, in car assembly, robots protect workers from welding and painting fumes, loud stamping press noises, and even injuries. 3D printing—the construction of a three-dimensional object from a digital model—on the other hand, is now poised to transform nearly every industry, from healthcare and manufacturing, to food, steel, and plastic. In August 2021, for example, the city of Amsterdam unveiled the first 3D-printed steel bridge in the world, made of steel and nearly 40 feet long.
3D printing could also completely transform housing development by automating the design and construction processes, dramatically lowering costs and increasing access.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Another key aspect of AI, virtual reality (VR), also creates efficiencies in the manufacturing space by training builders in assembly or preventative maintenance tasks. Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, can also provide real-time reporting on the factory floor or in the field, and help to quickly identify defective products and areas for operational improvement.3
Envisioning the Future Power of AI in Manufacturing
While these very real applications of AI in manufacturing exist today, the future is even more promising. The market is projected to reach$16.3 billion by 2027, having registered a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 47.9% during the forecast period.4
In his TED Talk on the topic, Olivier Scalabre, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group and an industrial goods expert, calls this growth “the next manufacturing revolution.”5 He adds, “The most exciting part…is about producing better, smarter products. It’s about scale customization. Imagine a world where you can buy the exact products you want, with the functionalities you need, with the design you want, with the same cost and lead time as a product that’s been mass produced, like your car, or your clothes, or your cell phone.”
While the promise of this future is exciting, it raises some crucial questions: How will lives be changed as a result of these transformations? Who will lose their jobs? How will we replace these jobs and how will we educate the workforce? Will things really cost less? Or more? Below, we explore some answers.
Where Will Goods Be Produced?
One of the most impactful consequences of this sea change in how consumer goods are manufactured will be where they are produced. The distance between where things are made and where consumers are located is shrinking: The shift to smaller production bases, argues Scalabre, will make “consumer proximity the new norm,” thereby completely upending the outsourcing model that so many countries with advanced economies have relied on over the past 30 years.
How Will Labor Be Transformed?
In a perfect world, AI will bring to fruition a sort of happy collaboration between technology and humans; a world where numerous new jobs are created with humans overseeing machines in a way that not only pays more, but also eliminates difficult, labor-intensive, and often dangerous tasks.
In reality, however, while some jobs will be turned into better, more sophisticated ones, AI could also potentially eliminate other jobs, especially those currently held by some of the most vulnerable members of the population. An 2019 Oxford Economics study found that for every robot, 1.6 human-held jobs disappear; by 2030, the use of robots could eliminate as many as 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide.6
How Can We Balance Innovation and Humanity?
This raises questions regarding workforce education, income inequality, and even the possibility of a universal basic income—all topics that affect even prosperous nations such as the U.S., but affect, even more critically, those who live and work in emerging and developing economies.
What aspiring and established technology business leaders must now think about is how to balance the very real, inarguable need for innovation in the manufacturing space with growth that is also humanly ethical and sustainable in the long term.
Explore the Future of AI in Manufacturing with Columbia
At Columbia Engineering, the belief that technology cannot exist without humanity is a core driving principle to building the frameworks for a healthy, connected, and creative world. It’s why ouronline executive education AI program was developed: To help business leaders create a vision for how AI can be used to transform services, build new products, optimize operational efficiency, and disrupt all facets of industry — manufacturing and beyond.
The program gives learners both a 30-thousand-foot view and the deep technical expertise to lead engineers, developers, and programmers in executing their vision. As a learner in the online AI executive education program, you will not only receive a holistic education capturing the fundamentals of AI, such as design and analysis of efficient algorithms, theoretical underpinnings, architecture, performance, datasets, and applications of neural networks and deep learning (DL); you will also be challenged to explore how these relate to issues like security, privacy, data mining, and storage, as well as their legal and social contexts and frameworks.