Customer Experience

Rewiring Manufacturing: Navigating the Future with AI and Design Thinking

Denis Lacasse
June 19, 2023

In a recent conversation with a large manufacturing company, they shared that AI can potentially help them save a significant amount of the $900 million they spend annually on business intake through their program lifecycle management. That made us think about how we can leverage AI when dealing with the challenges in front of manufacturing companies.

The Current Manufacturing Conundrum 

Standing at the crossroads of transformation, the manufacturing sector faces multiple challenges. The first is an aging workforce. The industry has heavily leaned on the accumulated knowledge and experience of the baby boomer generation, who are now inching towards retirement, leaving behind a gaping knowledge chasm. Secondly, the sector encounters amplified competition in this era marked by globalization and rapid technological advancements. Differentiation, maintaining relevance, and relentless innovation have transitioned from being exceptional tactics to prerequisites for success. Lastly, and somewhat paradoxically, despite the technological boom, a significant number of manufacturers grapple with obsolete and inefficient processes. These outdated methods increase operational expenses, resource wastage, and suboptimal customer experiences.

AI and Data: The Tools of Tomorrow 

To effectively address these challenges, the industry needs to look toward the future and leverage AI and data analytics advancements. Artificial Intelligence’s ability to analyze vast data sets, identify patterns, and make informed predictions, has the potential to bridge the knowledge gap left by the aging workforce. It can offer manufacturers a competitive advantage by transforming vast pools of untapped data into meaningful, actionable insights and rooting out operational inefficiencies plaguing the industry. However, AI is not a magic bullet. Instead, it is an enhancer—a tool that supports and augments human capabilities rather than replacing them. It is most effective when thoughtfully integrated into existing workflows where it can deliver the most value and provide transformative insights. Applying Design Thinking enables us to define those integrations.

The Human Touch: Infusing Design Thinking into the Manufacturing Process 

Design thinking is a method that places humans at the heart of the solution. This iterative, empathy-driven approach enables a deep understanding of the user's perspective, encourages defining problems in a human-centric manner, promotes the ideation of innovative solutions, and supports the prototyping and testing of these solutions.

Design thinking can tackle the triad of challenges in the industry. It will solve how to integrate technology to complement the skills and experience of the aging workforce. It can help manufacturers differentiate their offerings in a highly competitive landscape by tailoring customer experiences. Targeted offerings can drive higher value for customers and increase retention. Lastly, it can help identify existing processes' bottlenecks and pain points, leading to innovative solutions that improve efficiency, reduce waste, and cut costs. Design thinking provides a blueprint for this transformational journey.

Interweaving AI and Design Thinking: A New Blueprint for Manufacturing

When we imagine the confluence of AI and design thinking, we see the real potential for transformative change. For example, AI might identify that 80% of widgets can be produced using a set of 20 standard templates or even create new templates that meet the market's demands. This insight, achieved through analyzing historical data and identifying commonalities, can form the basis for a new, streamlined manufacturing process.

Design thinking comes into play next. By empathizing with the needs of the workforce and customers, manufacturers can prototype and test new manufacturing processes that focus on these standard templates. It makes the process more efficient and ensures that it meets the customer's needs. Simultaneously, understanding that the remaining 20% of custom orders require significantly more resources can trigger a reimagined approach to handling these orders. Through design thinking, manufacturers can better understand the needs and expectations of the customers who require these custom orders. This understanding can lead to innovative solutions that enhance the customer experience and improve operational efficiency.

Here are some other examples where leveraging design thinking to incorporate AI can yield substantial benefits:

  • Automating Routine Tasks: By taking over many routine tasks, AI enables the workforce to concentrate on complex, value-added activities. The work becomes less physically demanding and more intellectually stimulating.
  • Bridging the Knowledge Gap: Training LLMs on decades of industry knowledge, best practices, and problem-solving methods allows the valuable expertise of retiring employees to be captured and digitized. This AI-enabled knowledge management ensures that crucial insights and experiences don't retire when employees do.
  • Enhancing Decision Making: AI's capacity to analyze large volumes of data can provide valuable insights to aid decision-making. By presenting these insights in a user-friendly manner, AI empowers the workforce to make informed decisions, thus boosting their productivity and contribution.
  • Assisting with Training: AI can provide personalized learning experiences based on each individual's skills and knowledge gaps. It can simulate various scenarios for hands-on learning.
  • Improving Workplace Safety: AI can also contribute to a safer working environment. It can predict potential hazards and spot unsafe practices using real-time monitoring, helping to prevent accidents.

Embracing a New Era in Manufacturing 

While the road ahead may seem complex and filled with challenges, the marriage of AI and design thinking provides a robust framework for finding innovative, cross-disciplinary solutions. The future isn't about replacing humans with machines. Instead, it's about leveraging AI to augment human skills and harnessing design thinking to ensure processes remain human-centric. As the manufacturing company leader shared with us, the potential cost savings are substantial. But the benefits extend beyond just the bottom line. Improved workflows can lead to a more engaged workforce, and better customer experiences can foster loyalty and increase market share.

Manufacturers can redefine their operations from the ground up by harnessing the analytical power of AI and the user-centric approach of design thinking. This paradigm shift isn't just an option—it's necessary for companies seeking to stay competitive and relevant in the ever-evolving manufacturing landscape. It's a call to action for industry leaders to break away from traditional practices, embrace this new era, and pioneer the future of manufacturing.

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