The Next Frontier: Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing

For the last seven years or so, we have been on the brink of the next Industrial Revolution: the introduction of artificial intelligence as a major driver in the manufacturing industry.

Manufacturing firms that I talk to are now in various phases of responding to this call for a new paradigm with a variety of responses. Some companies have added capabilities like RFID-tracking of parts in the supply chain, while others have embraced a wholesale upgrade to smart devices that monitor their own usage and recommend repairs and maintenance based on artificial intelligence and sensor readings.

Where previously a precision-controlled machine could make parts to specification, but needed a human to measure and detect defects, now visual recognition software can allow automated inspection by a machine.

This revolution will indeed offer innovations that will improve safety, prevent emergencies, save money, and make other changes to improve our work and private lives.

‘Intellectual’ Manufacturing Led to Satellites, Smartphones and More

Efficiency has been at the heart of every industrial change. In the late 20th century, operations at the most advanced factories became automated and controlled by computers. Computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) machines could now produce parts at a level of precision unachievable by human hand.

Manufacturing became more intellectual in the process; engineers could focus on computer-aided design (CAD), and integrating new scientific methods and space-age materials, confident that computerized systems could now execute their designs with the required precision to make seemingly anything possible. This revolution gave us the world we know today, full of jet airplanes, satellite communications, and smartphones.

Where the automation revolution of the past century used machines as obedient dummies, mindlessly executing a program of simple commands in sequence, the next phase of automation will incorporate artificial intelligence, with machines that measure and analyze performance, synthesizing data to observe trends and make recommendations.

This next step is known as “Industry 4.0,” as dubbed by German thought leaders. Heavily connected to the concept of IoT (the Internet of Things) the future will bring more and more machines that seem to “think for themselves” and communicate with each other, tracking physical movements via sensors and taking corrective action, and even predicting the need for maintenance.

The Industry 4.0 efforts are the new icing on the cake for the world’s most advanced industries, like many of Connecticut’s high-tech firms in the aerospace sector. While Industry 4.0 is the gold standard for a company that has successfully reached the mountaintop of automated production, many industries and firms still have a long way to go to get there.

How to Prepare the Leaders of the Future?

At UConn, we have developed a distinctive dual-degree program, called Management and Engineering for Manufacturing (MEM), that delivers a uniquely bold education in business and engineering, designed to develop the leadership and technical skills to lead in this new arena.

We prepare students with engineering rigor—through courses like manufacturing automation, robotics, thermodynamics, and materials science—giving them the ability to communicate competently in enterprises with a high-tech core competency. They also need to communicate in the languages of finance and accounting, understand how to motivate and organize fellow workers, and formulate long-term strategy.

All of this culminates in senior design, in which MEM students get a unique experience in solving engineering process-improvement problems in a real-world business context. MEM students can put all the pieces together and see the big picture, and they can dig into the details: measuring, designing, and improving a system from all angles, including cost analysis, value-add, and accountability.

Our program is unique, and student enrollments have more than tripled in the past four years, reflecting the increased demand for the skill set we offer. In 2016, MEM students reported a higher median starting salary than any other UConn School of Business major.

Aside from UConn, there is no other undergraduate program in the country with such strong support from both a School of Business and a School of Engineering. We are proud to be developing the future high-tech leaders of tomorrow.


Robert Day
Professor of Operations & Information Management, UConn School of Business
Professor Robert Day is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the UConn School of Business and co-directs the Management and Engineering for Manufacturing Program at UConn with Engineering Professor Jiong Tang.
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