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Blog – 'Employing' the next generation of AI

Blog – 'Employing' the next generation of AI

Would your machinery pass a job interview? Part Three

In this final part of our series, we learn about how the next generation of technology – Artificial Intelligence – and how the introduction of AI into the workplace can significantly boost employee productivity and morale.

Have you ever found yourself with a machine that ‘looked good in the shop’ but didn’t exactly deliver what was promised?

Paul Hughes (PH): “There's a company in Germany that makes panel-folding technology, and they're pretty expensive machines. We saw one come up at an auction and, even though it wasn't an automated version and it couldn't do what the current ones did, we thought it would still be a pretty useful machine. So we bought it – it wasn't a large cost – but it was useless.”

Russell Hughes (RH): “It was trumpeted that it could do a lot more than what it could. But it had a lot of shortcomings, and it wasn't going to make better product.”

Erika Hughes (EH): “You almost had to remodel your production processes around this machine. And we weren't going to do that.”

RH: “But we got the same price for it when we sold it so, luckily, we got out of it.”

PH: “Another one was a punching machine that we bought with a tooling grinder. It came from a big, American tooling company, and they'd gone into making grinders as well. But they had a grinder that was made in America and a grinder that was made in China. They said the Chinese one is equally as good as the American one at half the price. So we had it delivered and we removed the crate off the top of it and – fair dinkum – tooling grinders have to be spot on… really square, accurate and everything. Well, this thing looked like the Ettamogah Pub! We didn't even take it off the pallet! We rang the company and said, ‘Take it back – we don't want this’. It was a lesson that you really get what you pay for, if you only shop on price.”

Without giving away any trade secrets, of course, what sort of new technology or machinery are you looking at incorporated into the business?

PH: “One area that we are looking at is robotics. We're getting what's called a collaborative robot. It's a robot that works unguarded, to a degree – it can't be totally unguarded because the process has to be safe. They're designed to operate with a much slower movement and a high sensitivity so, if they touch something, they'll stop or, if someone gets within certain proximity of it, they slow down, things like that. They'll be more of an assistant to a person rather than something that replaces a person. We'd use it for repetitive, labour-intensive assembly tasks, for example, instead of employing someone to put a rivet in.”

EH: “The high repetition processes within production, where you can actually get exposed to workplace injuries, that's where the robot takes over and assists people with that repetitive action. The person value adds and the machine provides the repetition.”

That’s one of the pillars of AI design – high risk, repetitive work. So that’s what you're looking at doing at Integra?

PH: “Yeah, introducing automation to the more repetitive work always helps your business. If you take care of that at the backend, it helps you grow and, ultimately, you're employing more people in the long-run at a higher level than what you would have if you didn’t have that automation.”

EH: “There will always be room for supporting people who are unskilled too. It's not like the whole of Australia now have to become engineers or computer programmers. There will always be a place for that human interaction. Perhaps the AI trains the person or drives the productivity of that person? It's not like we're all going to have to up-skill forever, and those who don't want to or can't up-skill are going to get left behind – they won't.”

Krystal Davis (KD): “With this collaborative robot, we’re taking out the really mundane processes of manufacturing, which means we can free up our workers to do the more intensive skilled labour at a level they find more enjoyable. That has flow-on effects of raising morale and, from that, you raise better productivities.” 

“With this robot, you're not actually ever replacing people; you're basically taking out what they might consider the boring part of their job. You're making it more exciting for them and you will be bumping up your productivity if everyone is happier with what they are doing day-to-day.”

PH (to EH, RH and KD): “Remember, a couple months ago, we got a demo of this robot and, when it was transported into the factory, people had a look of horror on their faces? It really scared them! But, when we explained how it’s something that's going to work alongside them and they saw the benefits, they actually became really excited about it.”

KD: “Everyone really wanted it. They were saying, ‘Install it over here’. What they thought was going to replace them they started welcoming with open arms. Now they say, ‘I want to work with it on Thursday – I'll use it’. It's been a real change of perception.”

PH: “With new stuff too, you’ve got to introduce it with your most positive, willing people and then the others will follow.”

EH: “Then you get advocates on the floor. Because of the culture that we've created – which is surrounded by innovation, progressiveness and positive people – even though initially it might be a shock, people adapt really quickly to these changes because they can see the benefits in it.”

“The same applies when we introduce new process change or something like that. Initially, people say, ‘Well, what does this mean for me?’ And then, within a very short time, they identify that it's going to make life easier for them, not that we're judging their performance or we're going to replace them. We're actually going to try and make things easier for them. Then the whole attitude changes – it's embraced.”

RH: “People are more worried about what the robot is going to take in the person's job. But no one's ever questioned when their purchasing man writes out an order and gets something made in China – nothing's questioned about that. Yet they're scared about the robot. In actual fact, you’ll bring a lot of jobs back home just by getting the robot to do some of these mundane roles.”

What would you suggest are the top tips for anyone looking to recruit new machinery into their business?

PH: “I'd say definitely look at the countries known for high-quality production – Western European countries, Japan and USA – because the worldwide trend is that the cutting-edge stuff is introduced in Europe. About a year later, the Americans start to catch on and copy a lot of what they saw in Europe six months to a year before. And then, six months to a year after that, the Chinese start to copy that technology. By the time it gets to a low-cost country, you're going to be at least a year to two years behind in the level of innovation that you get in that equipment.”

EH: “Also, always look at something that'll satisfy your current needs but do something for your business that you can't do now. That'll drive growth.”

PH: “It's like if you're buying something new for yourself at home – a new phone or a new stereo or whatever. You've got to buy something that you need but there's got to be a degree of want, or excitement, about it as well. You've got to have something that you sort of aspire to, because that will help you drive and create a vision for others. If we all just bought something out of necessity – a ‘that's all I need’ mentality – you're not future-proofing your investment.”

EH: “I think it’s also about looking for an element of breakthrough technology in the equipment, something that's going to deliver some form of innovation or revolutionise the way you approach something or even revolutionise the way it delivers the service.”

RH: “You've got to visit some current fairs because technology's changing dramatically. So, if you don't go and see what's available, if you just listen to some salesman here, you might be missing out on a new breakthrough.”

EH: “Yes. Do global research.”

PH: “And you've got to be comfortable with your decision. You've got to be comfortable with the people who are going to support the machine and know that it's well-supported in Australia. You've got to be able to get backup as soon as you need it to get you up and running. That's critical.” 

“A machine that's high-tech, well-presented and looks really good in your place is like employing a person with a positive attitude. It makes people feel good about the workplace, and that helps people embrace it. The quality and the presentation of the equipment is really important.”

KD: “You'd probably want something that would push the boundaries but not be so out there that your company has to completely rewrite itself, and what it's all about, to use it. It's got to fit what you want but it's just got to have that little bit of extra something to it so you can keep up-scaling.

Have you started at the end of this story? It's not too late to go back and read Part One and Part Two

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Published in Blog
K2_WRITTEN_ON March 04 2019
Written by Emma Westwood