During the coronavirus outbreak, practicing social distancing and implementing lockdowns are the only viable solution to mitigate the virus’s spread. But, due to this, many industries are suffering, and world economies are facing trying times.
Reports suggest that the pandemic could cause the global economy to shrink by 1% in 2020. The statistic makes sense because the coronavirus has disrupted global supply chains and halted international trade activities. Industries such as hospitality and tourism have taken the biggest hit since world tourism is practically impossible during a pandemic. Large-scale events that cater to large gatherings (such as music festivals and movie screenings) have been postponed indefinitely. And, unless we develop a vaccine or achieve herd immunity, there are no signs of such events returning anytime soon.
So, while the present reality isn’t showing many signs of economic promise, we don’t have any other choice but to put on our problem-solving hats and tackle this challenge. Emerging technologies such as AI can provide a much-needed boost to the economy. There are many challenges to confront due to the coronavirus pandemic. The one I’d like to focus on is the hurdles in manufacturing.
Problems faced by manufacturing
Manufacturing by nature doesn’t provide the luxury of working remotely, unlike industries such as Information Technology. And, the production of articles on a large scale using machinery cannot stop due to a pandemic. Most manufacturing setups are in developing countries, and halting operations will displace many workers and challenge their livelihoods. It will also create worldwide shortages which can cause further crises.
It’s clear that out of all industries affected, operations within manufacturing needs to return to normalcy as soon as possible. This can take place only if we can provide a hygienic and safe working environment that doesn’t put workers at risk of infection. Creating low contact processes and automating various factory floors could be strong first steps to get manufacturing up and running, and here’s where AI could provide saving grace, thus contributing to the economy:
AI in manufacturing
During times like these, AI can help manufacturing units by offering higher quality control, higher hygiene levels for workers, and transparency across teams with better communication. Also, AI-inspired robots can allow workers to maintain safe distances from each other, thus lowering the odds of contracting the virus. AI tools can give manufacturing the advantage it needs during this health crisis, and here’s how it will help get the economy back on track:
Contact-less machine control
Ideally, manufacturing floors will want to reduce the number of times workers come in contact with objects and shopfloor equipment pieces. AI-inspired gesture identifiers could take advantage of the human voice or human gestures. This is handy for switching on motors, initiating assembly line processes, and so on. For example, in a glass factory, workers could increase a furnace’s temperature by simply voicing a command or performing a hand gesture. Factories can train workers to use such new generation techniques and equipment. This will increase their skills and also reduce their chances of getting infected.
To develop such AI systems, we will need a variety of training data. Data that can teach systems to understand human communication and human languages. Such data will then be converted into system signals that instruct various mechanical processes. If it’s a machine that recognizes speech commands, the training data will comprise a large volume of audio files. Files that represent instructions, commands, and orders. And, if it’s meant to recognize hand gestures, it would use multiple annotated images of various hand signs that indicate a certain instruction or command.
If implemented, this could allow workers to avoid touching surfaces and thus encourage a safe working environment.
AI can automate many processes in factory assembly lines. Processes that presently use many workers at once. Automated processes will help factories stop workers from crowding in a single space.
For example, factories need to review and screen their products before shipment. The reviewing and screening process is generally a manual one, in which multiple workers physically examine the same product. This increases the number of contact points, thus increasing the probability of infection spread.
With the help of Artificial Intelligence, such review processes can be automated. AI developers can train computer vision systems to identify faulty products and packaging issues, after which they can alert concerned officers. Computer vision systems can also monitor the manufacturing floor. This will be especially useful for observing chemical reactions, heating/cooling operations, cutting/joining processes, and so on.
Leveraging data to handle supply/demand
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, manufacturing units cannot depend on historical figures to predict supply and demand. Demand for manufactured products has dwindled across industries. And, due to the world’s supply chain taking a hit, businesses can’t manufacture products with pre-pandemic efficiency.
Here’s where businesses can leverage the power of data. Artificial Intelligence models can learn from present trends in supply and demand, to suggest manufacturing solutions. For example, an AI model can scan databases representing the demand for a certain product and determine how much of that product a factory should manufacture. Such models can also study the amount of raw material generated across the world. This helps determine whether a factory will be able to meet present-day demands.
Using such data, businesses can zero-in on target markets and ensure that their inventory allows them to cater to such markets.
The coronavirus outbreak has revealed how Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Computer Vision are a blessing in disguise. Using such emerging technology, businesses can figure out novel methods to sail through these new and economically terrifying circumstances. Just like in manufacturing, we can develop AI systems for various industrial processes to ensure minimized contact without compromising on efficiency. With technology such as AI, we might just be able to maneuver through the pandemic successfully and bring the economy back on its feet.
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