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Event connects manufacturers with ideas in smart technologies

A group watches a demonstration of new manufacturing technologies.

Last updated on March 22nd, 2024 at 12:33 pm

Manufacturers from across Georgia recently learned a valuable lesson. The core of the message? Start small.

That was the homework assigned by experts from Georgia Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing (Georgia AIM), which recently co-sponsored an event with the Georgia Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Business Center to connect manufacturers with artificial intelligence (AI). As smart technologies find their way into the manufacturing process, the result could be a game-changer for businesses as well as the state’s economy.

Adopting AI can also feel overwhelming, however. That’s why event hosts and invited experts recommended manufacturers start small, collect data on their ideas, and move forward at a pace that makes sense for their business.

“Artificial intelligence has the power to bring transformative change to our manufacturers and our workforce, but it can seem overwhelming — where do you start?” said Donna Ennis, co-director of Georgia AIM. “We wanted to create an opportunity to show manufacturers that you don’t need a large investment or a large time commitment to begin to implement AI. Think about your process, explore your options and use the resources we have available to you.”

The event, which took place at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility, featured a tour of the facility, opportunities for manufacturers to network and talk with graduate students specializing in a variety of new manufacturing technologies, a panel of experts who have incorporated AI into their manufacturing processes and an introduction to the resources offered to manufacturers by Georgia AIM.

Georgia AIM was created through a $65 million Build Back Better Regional Challenge grant awarded through the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The grant funds 17 projects/subprojects throughout the state to work in education, manufacturing, workforce development and new technologies. At its core, Ennis said, Georgia AIM is working to reach all Georgia residents — specifically residents in communities underrepresented in manufacturing spaces, including veterans; women; Black, indigenous and people of color; rural residents; and people without a college degree — and empower them to fully participate in a diverse AI manufacturing workforce.

In the area of workforce development, the grant supports programs that upskill adults in the workforce, as well as programs that reach K-12 students, technical college students and those attending four-year universities. For example, Georgia AIM is supporting the construction of a new lab at South Georgia Regional Technical College that will train students and area residents on new technologies in food processing — a key industry in that region. Another project partner, Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) is developing curricula and educational materials for K-12 students and hosts regional STEM-based competitions to promote science and technology.

Other projects are connecting with communities to help train the workforce on AI technologies. A partnership between the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs and the University of Georgia is developing a mobile lab stocked with technology “vignettes”—self-contained examples of real-world AI applications. This mobile lab, as well as two others developed by Middle Georgia’s Fort Valley State University, 21st Century Partnership and the Development Authority of Houston County, will travel across the state to work with schools and community organizations. The goal is to introduce underserved communities to AI technologies and open new doors to employees—and employers.

At the event, participants got a first-hand look at another Georgia AIM partner, the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility, which provides a space for companies to try new technologies without losing time on their own manufacturing line.

“We’re really a proving ground for new technology adoption,” said Aaron Stebner, Georgia AIM co-director and associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science engineering at Georgia Tech. The Georgia AIM grant is funding an expansion of the facility, which will allow for more smart technologies in the space. “Our plan is to integrate autonomous robots and build out the manufacturing units to provide even more examples of manufacturing integrating with smart technologies.”

Georgia AIM has also launched the Georgia Tech Manufacturing 4.0 Consortium, a member-based group that connects industry with academic and government research resources. Consortium members gain access to facility equipment, workforce training programs, new manufacturing systems and networking opportunities with other members. (For details, visit ampf.research.gatech.edu/how-engage.)

But first, Ennis and Stebner told the manufacturers and business owners gathered at the manufacturing pilot facility, it was important to take stock of their current process and think of where automation might occur. Start small and identify repetitive motions or places where human-machine collaborations might occur. Perhaps adding some sensors could help predict a mechanical failure, or a small automation might make a process more streamlined.

Before the event closed, a panel of three experts fielded questions on AI adoption and making the leap into smart technologies. The panel included Mitchell Tartar, project engineer with CJB Industries; Sentil Ramamurthy, senior engineer with Novelis; and Subbu Vishnubhatia, director of project management for Hexagon Management Intelligence.

In addition to addressing workforce needs, the panel stressed that manufacturers walk—not run—toward embracing smart technologies. Find your pinch points, start collecting data and think about small, holistic changes, they said.

“AI is not the spice in the dish that makes it very tasty,” said Vishnubhatia. He and the other panel members agreed that while it was best to start small, manufacturers should at least start. Incorporating smart technologies doesn’t need to be overly expensive or time-consuming — but it does require managers and employees to think outside the box.

And, getting buy-in from those who work with manufacturing equipment is key. Not only is training imperative, added Tartar, but it’s important to have everyone on board with adopting new technology. Change is hard, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

The advanced manufacturing focus is one of more than a dozen projects across Georgia funded through Georgia AIM, which is supported by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. For more information, visit georgiaaim.org.