In discussion with Professor Will Browne, chair in Manufacturing Robotics at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and CSIRO, with ARM Hub, Manufacturers’ Monthly learns how manufacturers can access AI as a tool to grow their business.
In a manufacturing business’ pursuit of competitiveness and growth, it may regard the use of robotics and artificial intelligence as a fundamental step forward. However, it can be a challenge to take that step, particularly for busy small-to-medium-sized manufacturers.
The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub (ARM Hub) is an independent, not-for-profit organisation focused on applying digital technologies to manufacturing businesses, to aid in the pursuit of increased technology adoption for productivity and business growth.
Professor Will Browne spearheads this work in his role at the ARM Hub.
“Many organisations do the research, but how can you take these great research ideas and deliver on the actual manufacturing applications needed?” he said.
Professor Browne is an expert in explainable AI. Explainable AI ensures humans can understand why the system made a particular decision – it can explain an evolved, useful solution that has pairs symbolic systems with general deep neural networks.
“Many companies have said ‘we want to have confidence; we want to have trust. We want to diagnose what’s going on and therefore we need the systems to be able to explain their decision-making process,’” he said.
But more than this, it’s about examining what you could do to change the outcome of a decision, Professor Browne said.
“You can integrate AI, not just as a decision-making tool that is independent, but the decision-making tool humans can collaborate with,” Professor Browne said. “A lot of my work is helping Australian businesses understand that AI is not some black box in a corner that spits out wisdom, but something we can interact with and understand why it’s making these decisions. We want to know how we can get it to change its decisions by changing the way we do things. And if we changed our processes, what would be the consequences of that?”
Interacting with robots
Facilitating the interaction with AI technology has become a key part of how the ARM Hub has helped companies to thrive. The ARM Hub is part of a current project to enable adaptive learning robots to complement the human workforce. It aims to address challenges around safety for people working in conjunction with robots in a shared environment.
“A lot of the time, SMEs don’t have the capacity to separate half of their workspace for robots and half for humans; they have to have humans and robots working together,” Professor Browne said.
“With forestry, for example, you need humans to actually plant the saplings to find the best place for them. But you don’t want them to carry 40kg of saplings up and down the mountain, so you get an autonomous robot to do it.”
According to Professor Browne, it is not efficient if the robot stops each time a human is nearby or if it moves as a human reaches to pick a sapling out of the bucket. For this, collaboration is needed. It is also beneficial in removing risks in a dangerous or repetitive job, with the robot and human working together for mutual benefit.
“UAP (Urban Art Projects), where ARM Hub is co-located, have an expert metal polisher who has refined the polishing of large scale metal sheets using traditional methods, which is time consuming and backbreaking work,” Professor Browne said. “On the Design Robotics project with UAP, IMCRC, QUT and RMIT, our robotics experts worked with him to get a robot up and running to collaborate on portions of his work, not only is this much faster, but the worker has less back strain, less stress and is now working to collaborate with robots more readily.”
“We’re finding ways that we can put robotics and AI into enhancing the way manufacturing works, securing jobs, improving profitability and making people’s lives better whilst they’re at work.”
Making AI accessible to manufacturers
ARM Hub establishes rapport with Australian manufacturers to discover what they really need for their business to flourish. This could be guidance in securing funding, advice on technology that best suits their needs, or referral to businesses that can provide an off-the-shelf solution to solve an issue.
For SMEs, ARM Hub typically helps scope their business processes and business model so the company is aware of all the opportunities available to them. ARM Hub is available to conduct audits and determine the best course of action to take the guess work out of digital adoption. Support to access funding is also available.
“For example, Consolidated Linen Services, accessed a small commercial grant through the Queensland government’s Essential Goods and Supply Chain program, where we assessed the feasibility of automated laundry solutions,” Professor Browne said.
“The food and agricultural sector are intensely innovating too. For example, we are investigating robotics to monitor different food stocks, where extra detail such as water in the atmosphere has to managed because of its potential impact on the results. We work with companies to find the best value proposition and provide un-biased options to meet company goals.”
With many links to expert talent, all outcomes are project specific and can engage ARM Hub technical and project staff, universities and strategic commercial businesses.
The ARM Hub has a large collaborative Learning Factory that provides space for businesses to scale up and prove out technology, with access to expertise and prototyping capabilities. There are up to six leasable spaces available for companies to use to enhance their manufacturing business.
Valiant Space, a Brisbane-based space propulsion company, uses the ARM Hub Learning Factory as the centre of operations where design, manufacture and testing of propulsion systems all happen under one roof. Another Learning Factory tenant Omron, the globally recognised automation, sensor and actuator company, utilises the space to demonstrate their robotic and production data management platforms.
ARM Hub’s driving objective is to support Australian manufacturers to understand operational challenges and potential technology solutions to improve their day-to-day operations, effect valuable change and support sustainable growth. AI is one industry 4.0 technology that ARM Hub deploys and is a major opportunity for Australian manufacturers to seek a market advantage.
“Netflix will happily tell you what you should be watching next,” Browne said.
“There’s no reason why manufacturers couldn’t use these types of recommender systems to figure out where or what they should be selling next, or how to innovate in their supply chain, or to determine the robustness of their processes, or to improve their customer experience. There are vast opportunities for what AI can do.”