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Greenville Business Magazine

Say hello to co-bots, chat-friendly AI, and other manufacturing innovations

Oct 04, 2018 03:46PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By David Clayton
Executive Director, Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation

In the recent movie “The Founder,” which tells the story of the early years of McDonald’s, the breaking point in the relationship between Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers occurs when Mr. Kroc greenlights a switch from an ice cream-based milkshake to a powder-based milkshake product. This switch to an artificial product was anathema to the McDonald brothers’ principle of authenticity. 

More recently, start-up companies in California are again revolutionizing the hamburger business by completely automating the restaurant with robotics. 

“Flippy the Robot” makes hundreds of burgers a day at a restaurant called Caliburger. Although diners may question the authenticity of a restaurant meal cooked by Flippy, collaborative robots are part of a global movement called Industry 4.0, aimed at digitizing manufacturing and connecting machines through software for smart enterprise management. 

Some forward-thinking companies are already positioning toward Industry 5.0, focusing on human-centered manufacturing and the mass customization and personalization of manufactured goods.  We are entering an era where new technologies can help us create both authentic products and services or, as predicted by the McDonald brothers, undermine authenticity in the eyes of consumers.

Whether you call it Industry 4.0, Industry 5.0, or “the smart factory,” when you cut through the marketing static and buzz of manufacturing salespeople, we are undeniably in an age of continuous, rapid advances in how goods are produced.

This transition has an enormous impact on the workforce of today and tomorrow, calling for a more technically advanced professional in the manufacturing environment and a willingness on behalf of these workers to adopt new tools and methods in their work. 

Among the many robots installed at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), eight of our newest robotic arms are known as collaborative robots or co-bots. While they don’t flip burgers like Flippy, these machines can work in a space without cages or shields, side-by-side with humans. The co-bots can also be trained to perform tasks quite easily, in a manner that almost mimics a video game. This new technology allows small manufacturers to adopt robotics for many tasks at a reasonable cost and work flexibly alongside manufacturing associates. 

Major advances are currently being made in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and its most common application: machine vision. 

Similar to facial recognition algorithms employed by Facebook or Google, machine vision systems open up countless opportunities for manufacturers to automate part loading, packing, quality inspection, and even navigation within a warehouse. 

The power of cognitive computing will also lead to a day where manufacturing associates interact with machines using voice commands or other inputs to control machines, i.e. Alexa for manufacturing. Research in these areas is currently being conducted by Clemson University faculty and students at CMI. 

Personalized, human-centric interactions in other industries are also being aided by artificial intelligence. The most sophisticated customer service chat-bots are powered by systems, like IBM’s Watson, to seamlessly integrate AI-assisted responses with real human responses to the more nuanced questions the computer is unable to handle. Over time, these systems learn and adapt to handle more situations and become more responsive. Thus, the line between human-to-machine communication and authentic human-to-human communication will continue to blur.

With technology evolving at a rapidly increasing rate, it’s more important than ever for companies to reinvest in their employees. Industry 4.0 and human-centered manufacturing require new skill sets and competencies to make the most of these innovations. 

In August, Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law history-making legislation allowing technical colleges to offer four-year degrees in advanced manufacturing technology. Because of the expanding needs expressed by our industry partners, Greenville Technical College plans to become the first technical college in the state to offer this applied baccalaureate degree.

It speaks volumes about the importance of manufacturing in our state’s economy that this groundbreaking legislation was directed toward advanced manufacturing. 

By educating the next generation of workers in Industry 4.0 technologies, our hope is to maintain the person as the most valuable asset of manufacturing firms and contribute to the creation of authentic products for South Carolina consumers. In our own backyard, dozens of Greenville Tech graduates work at Michelin, which still proudly asserts that its tires are inspected by hand, “every tire, every time.” 

From luxury goods to the products that keep us safe on the roads, the human touch is a valuable, irreplaceable part of modern manufacturing. Even Ray Kroc learned the importance of authenticity in his product, eventually switching back to “real” milkshakes.

Only time will tell if Flippy is an “only in California” novelty or a true trailblazer in the restaurant business.

David Clayton is executive director of Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation.