How AI will Revitalize the Manufacturing Industry

Heather Ames, Co-Founder and COO, Neurala

I am sitting in my parents’ closet – my favorite spot, buried in my dad’s dirty work shirts – playing hide and seek with my brother. The shirts smelled of smoke, metal, and oil; the color not quite khaki, but close enough, with the Ralston Purina checkerboard above the front pocket. My dad worked long hours, leaving him largely absent when I was young, and these shirts were a way for me to be close to him, and his world. He was a worker at the local Ralston Purina plant in the next town over, part of the larger Quad Cities’ metro area comprised of Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois. I took every chance I could to hide in those shirts, and to wear them, much to my mom’s annoyance.

My mom told me that we were lucky for him to have this job to support us, and to give her an opportunity to be home with us kids. In fact, her dad and both of her brothers worked at the same factory. They all wore the same uniform, carried the same hard case lunch boxes with their initials stenciled on the side and drank from the same thermoses filled with hot coffee. This was my early childhood: growing up in a family who survived and thrived around the factory. Birthday parties, holidays and meals were all planned around their schedules, making sure to factor in any opportunity for overtime hours, which funded any activities and life beyond our basic needs.

I was the first in my family to go to college. Previous generations did not have the means nor the wherewithal to find value in a college path. Iowa had been a leader in agriculture, but with the agricultural crisis in the early 80s, factory jobs became the target trajectory for a successful middle-class family life. Factories represented getting out of the fields and doing better than your parents. John Deere, whose home base was and continues to be located in the Quad Cities, is a great example of the migration from field to factory.

As I grew up and moved out of Iowa and away to college, the Quad Cities also evolved with the changing times. People lost jobs. Factories closed. Being hired at these companies became less prestigious and came with fewer benefits to employees (loss of pensions, loss of family activities like company picnics). Parents pushed kids to go to college. Kids not college bound – once the norm – found themselves in a situation where there were less meaningful opportunities. This broad shift has repeated all over the US. We even saw the emergence of the ‘Rust Belt,’ regions throughout the Midwest and Northeast that were impacted by this decline in work.

Even before the pandemic, the country faced a labor shortage and a widening gap between classes, with a narrowing of the middle class. But as factories were forced to shut down with the rest of the country and lost access to the bulk of their workforce, manufacturers faced tremendous challenges to respond to fluctuating customer demands and social distancing mandates. As always, the spirit of these towns and this industry moved us to look to innovation to solve these problems.

AI at work

Until recently, the gig economy and the flexibility of those jobs were much more appealing to today’s young people. Working in a factory was seen as mundane and repetitive. But the pandemic brought to light the importance of keeping production lines going, manufacturing products for everyday use and medical supplies for essential workers. Now the challenge was how to do it with fewer, or even no people on the factory floor.

By implementing technologies like AI, there is the potential to create new paradigm for the factory floor. One of the biggest challenges is quality control. Inspecting products while also meeting deadlines for massive orders can be impossible with a limited workforce. Moreover, humans are notoriously bad at visual inspection tasks, so why not leave that to AI?

By forming a partnership between human workers and the AI-based automation, in the same way that power drills changed the way we use screwdrivers, AI will make manufacturing more efficient. Implementing AI in factories will not only reduce the risks to the human workforce, but will also allow employees of new and old generations alike to spend time collaborating on new ideas that will push the industry forward and prepare for the next crisis.

Time for Innovation

There has never been a greater need for innovation in the manufacturing industry. And to prepare the next generation of manufacturers, we need to look beyond higher education, and introduce resources and in-house training programs to help employees better understand how to work with AI. For example, we can leverage tools that make AI applicable and easy to use, for data scientists and non-AI experts alike. In doing so, we’ll remove the barrier of needing an advanced degree – because we all know that takes time and money – so that every employee can feel good about using AI to help improve the production line. And critically, we’re ensuring that people without advanced degrees won’t be the ones penalized by the fourth industrial revolution.

As I look to the future, I am hopeful that new technologies such as AI will help an industry, already struggling in many parts of the country, crippled by the effects of the pandemic. As a young girl, I remember watching the shutdown of the Wonder Bread that left all those factory workers out of jobs. I think that AI has the ability to rejuvenate manufacturing and create new opportunities that will be more attractive to today’s young people.

Though innovation and new technology can be an adjustment, it should not be feared. The introduction of tools like the tractor and the computer jumpstarted struggling industries, even though at the time, these technologies were seen as scary and a potential threat. I believe the same is true for manufacturing. By leveraging AI and automation, we have the opportunity to make the manufacturing industry stronger than ever. We can create new, more attractive jobs, and prepare the future generation for a world that will inevitably offer up another crisis. We can’t sit back – let’s plan for it and seize the opportunity with both hands to make sure we get it right the next time.

I am proud to be part of this new wave of innovation and to bring the technology that my company, Neurala, has developed to the factories that shaped so much of my early years.