The Future Reality of Manufacturing

Artificial, virtual, augmented, extended are now the realities for Prairie manufacturers

By Tyler Schmidt

Jason Tate, CEO and Managing Partner of Adocera, has always been on the forefront of new technologies in both his professional and personal lives. In February 2023, Tate hosted a session where he gave a demonstration of, which in function is like the widely publicized ChatGPT.

Attendees were blown away by how user friendly and accessible it was, never mind that in a matter of seconds, Jasper could come up with “10 catchy slogans for my company,” “10 social media post ideas,” and “A professionally written out-of-office reply” just to name a few. 

While this is merely scratching the surface, on a broader scale, artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic, with McKinsey estimating the economic impact of AI will be $13 trillion (USD) annually by 2030, increasing global GDP by 1.2 per cent.

In addition to AI, Tate also explored topics including automation, virtual reality, extended reality, and additive manufacturing (3D printing). With all these emerging technologies, Tate emphasized their importance, saying “As we move into 2023 and beyond, AI will undoubtedly continue to shape the business landscape in new and exciting ways. As a business leader, it’s crucial to stay up to date with these trends or risk falling behind.”

While this might be stress-inducing for those less technologically inclined, it should, at the same time, inspire curiosity in those who are bold enough to explore and learn. And what might this application look like in the real world?

Let go, and let AI

One of the most fascinating cases of implementing AI can be found in Grande Prairie’s Grain Bin Brewing Company. Head Brewer Dalen Landis and his team at Grain Bin recently started to produce a beer made completely by AI.

“We are constantly looking for new, innovative ways to do things, and this idea was primarily formed from the discussion surrounding AI and the future of employment, craft, artistry, etc,” explained Landis. “We figured it would be a good trial to see how relying fully on AI for our job would be disrupted, if at all, as well as the use of implementing this technology for the creation of a craft good.”

Grain Bin consulted ChatGPT with the goal of creating an entirely new beer from scratch. ChatGPT has access to everything on the internet regarding craft beer recipes, packaging artwork, as well as what consumers post online about what they like – or don’t like – when it comes to craft beer.

Armed with this information, ChatGPT formulated Amber Waves of Grain, featuring the tagline “American Amber Beer Designed by Artificial Intelligence.”

With a beer in hand

When hearing about the application of AI and Grain Bin’s experience, many see the potential of leveraging similar technologies in their own business processes. However, Landis says, “AI overall is a polarizing subject, and it’s easy to blow some ideas off as irrelevant or non-craft.” 

In addition to defying convention, to some, technologies such as AI, automation, and robotics cause significant worry about the future of employment, with many individuals worried about being replaced by a machine. Landis doesn’t deny the polarization around this topic, but he emphasizes curiosity instead of quick dismissal of new ways of thinking.

“We try to remain open to trying new processes and not being limited by convention,” says Landis. “Our goal wasn’t to save money or time, or remove ourselves from the process, but to create a product that encourages discussion. The technology is improving quickly, and we feel it’s important to have candid conversations about our goals and fears for the future, and the best way to do that is with a beer in hand.”

Advancing the field, embracing the future

While the future of the workforce will be undeniably changed by new technologies, whenever there is a shift or interruption, there is also an opportunity for growth and success. One such field effected by advancements and changes in technology is engineering. Technological advancements in areas such as automation and robotics have had similar disruptive effects to those anticipated by AI and machine learning.

Dr. Andre McDonald at the University of Alberta is one voice helping to inform the conversation around the positive impacts that new technology can have on the workforce. As Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Director of the ELITE Program for Black Youth, Dr McDonald explains that there will be different skills needed, and jobs will tend to be of better quality.

The ELITE Program, officially launched in late 2020, was started with the overarching goal of providing Black youth in Canada with access to the latest advancements in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields. This program is offered in collaboration with government, academia through the U of A, and various industry internship hosts. 

Through Dr. McDonald’s own secondary research, he set a few main areas of focus for the ELITE Program, including AI, machine learning, additive manufacturing, and regenerative medicine, all of which are projected to be vitally important both in academia and in the workforce by 2030.

Let go of the mundane

Dr. McDonald reframes how we should look at the issue of employment by saying that technology isn’t a threat to employment, but an improvement.

“While routine, transactional, ‘pick-and-place’ labour is something that can be easily automated, it provides the perfect opportunity to up-skill and re-skill these employees and empower them to use more of their skills and abilities which until now have laid dormant,” says McDonald. “These people will be able to fly above their station and work in tandem with these technologies. Most menial tasks will be offloaded to automated machines, but there will always be a need for quality assessment of both the manufactured products and the machines themselves. This is what leads to the up-skilling and re-skilling of employees.”

Putting AI learning to the task

In another focus area of Dr. McDonald’s research, the Advanced Heat Transfer and Surface Technologies Laboratory produces a conductive coating which allows an electrical current to be passed through the coating applied to different machine parts. 

Because the coating can and does produce heat when current is passed through it, components such as wind turbine blades or oil pipelines can use the heat to ensure they stay at a safe and consistent temperature to avoid freezing or ice accumulation. The current can also be used to identify if there is any structural damage to the machine, such as a pipeline rupture, by examining the resistance measured in the current which can point to both quantitative and qualitative evidence of disruption or damage in the structure.

While this technology is being developed and implemented by Dr. McDonald and his team, there are ways to implement AI and machine learning to assess the performance of coatings for wear resistance, heating, and damage detection on structures. 

Diving into the new reality

Another area with growing interest is Extended Reality, which includes the more commonly recognized terms Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented & Mixed Reality. While all have some degree of overlap, they are quite distinct fields.

Virtual reality is by far the most popular with video game developers and media companies taking advantage of its immersive nature. Through a headset, you’re transported to and enveloped in a completely different world.

Through augmented reality, the world still mostly is as it appears with different videos or images enhanced with technology. Filters on many social media platforms are an example of mixed reality, and popular apps like Pokémon GO have at least some degree of augmented reality integration.

The uses of AR expand far beyond consumer technology. Tours of ancient ruins in Athens now feature the ability to re-create structures before your eyes using a tablet and AR software. Instead of seeing 2D blueprints of buildings, construction companies can create 3D renderings of what buildings will look like when completed. 

Tina Kingstree, Founder and Digital Strategist at Torch7, understands that VR’s applications are truly limitless. 

“The manufacturing industry is one of the sectors most affected by these emerging technologies,” explains Kingstree. “With VR and similar technologies, manufacturers can improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve safety. VR is also being used to improve the overall quality of products and reduce waste.”

Not only can VR be used in a wide range of sectors, but it can be used with other technologies to unlock additional benefits.

Kingstree says, “Using AI for predictive maintenance allows data to be analyzed from sensors and machines. AI could predict when maintenance will be required and alert the maintenance team before a breakdown occurs.”

“AI could even be used at preliminary stages to predict or identify potential issues by analyzing blueprints and building specifications to ensure there aren’t any potential structural failures due to improper design,” Kingstree explains.

For more widespread use, companies are developing VR/AR glasses as a successor for the bulkier VR headsets. This would allow for images or video to be projected in your field of view, without needing to put on cumbersome headgear. 

If the future is now, what’s still in store?

When asked about the future for VR developers and digital manufacturers, Kingstree says, “We can now create applications compatible with multiple platforms, so smaller studios can create high-quality VR applications on par with those developed by larger companies, giving them a competitive edge in the industry and making VR/AR more accessible to businesses with smaller budgets.” 

The technologies being developed and implemented across Canada is nothing short of spectacular, whether it’s leveraging the power of AI and machine learning, creating solutions to manufacturing and engineering problems with new technology, using the latest in AR and VR and their near boundless applications, or preparing the next generation of the workforce and equipping them with the skills they need to be successful. 

Whenever there’s disruptive change, there will always be skepticism and avoidance, but for those folks able to explore their curiosity, and develop and tap into the potential of these new technologies, there is always room to grow and thrive.