Generative AI’s potential

From the October 2023 print edition

Last Christmas, my family got a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner as a gift. It’s really a remarkable little piece of technology, the kind of thing science fiction shows on television featured when I was a kid.

The device vacuums your house autonomously, leaving you free to do other things. It learns and maps your home. The more you use it, the better it learns how to do this. It learns to dodge objects in its path. Some models (not ours, sadly) can respond to voice commands.

Michael Power is editor of Supply Professional magazine.

Yet, the device sat in its box for almost eight months before we unpacked and started using it. Why? Good question. Perhaps it was fear of new technology or stubborn thinking that we could do a better job.

The vacuum cleaner, of course, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform these feats. Not surprisingly, manufacturers are adopting such technology faster than my family.

In his article on page 14, writer Jacob Stoller looks at how companies are using generative AI to transfer human expertise to robots and other mechanical devices.
Generative AI, a subset of artificial intelligence, uses algorithms to generate new content or designs from scratch, given a set of rules and inputs.

In the past, it’s been tough for robots to match the flexibility of their human counterparts in manufacturing or supply chain settings, our article says. Yet this flexibility has become all the more valuable as changes
in work accelerate.

Generative AI allows workers to guide a robot, showing it how to do tasks in a more intuitive, human manner.

An example the article gives is of an operator guiding a robotic arm to pick up an object. The AI can learn from the different trajectories that the human guide takes it through.

There are plenty of cool benefits to this. It can help to deal with labour shortages. It also empowers the worker to use the product without needing lots of education or background in robotics engineering.

There are multiple ways in which generative AI can be used in both manufacturing and supply chain. Organizations can employ the technology in the design and development stages of their processes. General Motors is among the companies to have done this, using it to generate several design options for parts, coming up with parts that reduce a vehicle’s weight, for example.

In supply chain, the technology can anticipate demand patterns and optimize inventory management. Generative AI has been shown to be able to negotiate costs and purchasing terms with vendors in a shorter time.

The technology appears to have transformative potential for manufacturing and supply chain, among other industries. There are limitations, but it seems able to multiply what human workers are capable of.

As for our Roomba vacuum cleaner, we now use it all the time. Seems crazy that we kept it in the box so long.