Mark Shortt

Artificial intelligence will have strong ramifications for the components that new products will require, and how they will be manufactured.

Speed has always been important to manufacturers.  From product design to delivery of the finished product, it creates opportunities for substantial revenue gains. It’s a big reason why the desire to accelerate the process of going from design to finished part, or product, has been the driving force behind many of the technologies that manufacturers have tended to embrace.

When you look out at the manufacturing landscape today, you see a lot of powerful technologies in various stages of implementation throughout the industry—advanced modeling and simulation software, 3D printing, collaborative robotics, and augmented reality, to name a few. Even more mysterious to many are tools like materials informatics, advanced analytics, remote monitoring, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and the digital thread.

One benefit that these technologies have in common, in one way or another, is speed. When taken together, these technologies add up to what may best be described as a bold new vision for manufacturing—an ambitious spirit to maximize opportunities for bringing unprecedented value to manufacturers, their customers, and their suppliers. Although each one of these tools has great potential in its own right, their greatest impact will be realized when used in combination with another or others, in a synergistic fashion. Think about pairing materials informatics with either 3D printing or part modeling and simulation software, for instance, or collaborative robotics with artificial intelligence.

While it’s really just the beginning for many of these technologies, it’s a good time to find out more about them, how they’re currently being used, and what their potential ramifications may be—for better or for worse, considering their upsides and downsides.

One of the most exciting for many—and scary for others—is artificial intelligence. The sheer power of its potential reminds us that great capabilities come with an even greater responsibility to use them in ways that help, rather than harm, humanity. Yes, it’s time to take the technology equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. That gives technology developers, software engineers, product designers, design engineers, mechanical engineers, and manufacturers more to consider, and more reason to collaborate on the development of well-conceived, software-driven products.

An inherent strength of artificial intelligence is its astonishing speed in accomplishing gargantuan tasks—specifically, its ability to analyze large amounts of data and solve problems much faster than any human can. With that in mind, what better representation of AI’s benefits can there be than the fastest creature on the planet—the cheetah?

Professor Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is leading a team of researchers at the MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab who are developing a unique robotic cheetah. Dubbed Cheetah III, the robot embodies many of the benefits that artificial intelligence holds for intelligent products, such as robots. It may also shed light on better ways of designing and manufacturing such products. For now, the Cheetah III is a pioneer in making use of artificial intelligence to navigate and interact with its environment in ways that haven’t been seen previously. Professor Kim’s work is outlined in Mary Beth O’Leary’s story, “Revolutionizing Everyday Products with Artificial Intelligence.”

Artificial intelligence has strong ramifications for the components that new products will require. How a product like the Cheetah III senses, perceives, and navigates its environment depends on how well its sensors, cameras, and algorithms work. So, too, does its ability to interact with the humans in its environment. Artificial intelligence will have a dramatic impact on how future products will be conceived, designed, developed, and manufactured. Part designers, for instance, can use AI-powered generative design to solve part design problems, and select the best design for their application, much more quickly than if they had to evaluate each option individually, on their own. Given the design objectives and constraints, the algorithms will not only take care of the heavy lifting, but will do it in the blink of an eye.

Artificial intelligence is already being used to help product developers select customized material formulations for their applications.  But it’s also going well beyond that to help companies discover and speed the development of new materials that can boost the value of their products.  It’s what some materials informatics specialists call “materials-enabled product value.” Materials discovery has traditionally been painfully slow, and AI is seen as a powerful tool for accelerating that process. When AI is paired with other digital tools, such as modeling and simulation software, its potential benefits for part design become even more apparent.

By now, most manufacturers know that machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to optimize the efficiency and quality of production lines. When used in combination with machine sensors, cloud data acquisition tools, data analytics, and predictive algorithms, it can enable remote monitoring of factory operations in real time. Manufacturers can identify the root causes of part defects, feed the information into their algorithms, and retrain them to predict when similar errors might occur. It all happens very quickly, allowing manufacturers to implement preventive measures and enhance quality control.

Artificial intelligence is also being used in the automotive industry to develop autonomous cars, and the medical industry is a prime destination for intelligent, interactive robots that can do all manner of tasks. There are so many other possibilities. Where will artificial intelligence take us? Our next question should be “Where will we take it?” Remember, the end goal is to help make life better—by complementing, enhancing, and assisting human beings.

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