What is your view of new technology? How do you think artificial intelligence (AI) will affect our thermal-processing businesses? We would like to primarily focus on AI in this column. Perhaps what we discuss will help you to think differently about the pros and cons of AI. As a starter, check out a recent Industrial Heating online exclusive article written by an industry outsider at www.industrialheating.com/AI

Here’s what I said about AI in my article titled “Technology Speeds Change of Thermal Processing” last year. “It is predicted that software will disrupt most traditional industries in the next 5-10 years, and our industry is certainly traditional. It is anticipated that computers will become more intelligent than humans by 2030. The Internet of Things (IoT) has developed with AI, and both are moving exponentially. Simply, the IoT is the network of connected devices. In time, nearly everything will be connected in such a way that we can access and control devices with our cell phones. In high-temperature thermal processing, AI and the IoT are impacting the way we do temperature surveys and perform maintenance.”

As evidence that AI is really happening, FORTUNE magazine indicated that “last year venture capitalists invested $5 billion in 658 (AI) companies, a 61% increase from the prior year.” This $5 billion in 2016 compares to just $589 million as recently as 2012. A graphic used by FORTUNE interestingly showed that most of this investment came from the U.S. in 14 different segments. These include automotive technology, core AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics.

It appears that AI is here to stay. How can you use it to grow your business? McKinsey & Co. took a look at the various market sectors to predict which have the greatest growth potential. They believe that “manufacturing” has a 60% potential for automation to have a large impact. Manufacturing is second on their list, next to “accommodation, food services.” McKinsey identified 12 technologies that could have a potential economic impact of $14-33 trillion in 2025. A sampling of these technologies includes IoT, advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, energy storage, 3D printing and advanced materials. All of these technologies have a potential to disrupt our industry.

Is this disruption a bad thing? Specifically, is a robot/cobot friend or foe? In reality, the answer is yes, but it could be argued that this disruption is a good thing. In fact, AI such as robots might just be what will make American manufacturing competitive again. How? Well, a company might re-shore jobs if domestic technology results in fewer workers. For example, a company with 60-70 workers in China could move back to the U.S. with six or seven American jobs plus automation. Technology (AI) is the way the U.S. will see a greater share of global production and a net increase in factory jobs.

Another example involves a company in Michigan that added robots, which resulted in a revenue boost from $8 to $50 million. The workforce actually increased from 100 to 180, and only one-third of those jobs involve repetitive tasks.

Not only will repetitive tasks be reduced, robots can replace workers doing dangerous jobs. An example would be bridge inspection. AI options for this hazardous occupation include a battery-powered robot that uses ground-penetrating radar and sensors to locate deteriorating steel or concrete. Also, Carnegie Mellon University has developed a drone that can “create a high-resolution 3-D model of the bridge, which can then be safely analyzed by an inspector on the ground.” 

Another way we will see AI simplify our lives would be to use it to analyze all of the data generated by the IoT. Instead of engineers and technicians spending time combing through piles of data, AI can do it and alert engineers to problem areas that may need their attention. 

AI is nothing more than a tool we can use or ignore at our peril. It’s your choice, but choose wisely!