AI (Artificial Intelligence) is expected to have a major impact on manufacturing, including woodworking industries and the way AI is accelerating, that impact may be sooner than we think. A number of leading suppliers to the woodworking trades are already using AI to improve their product performance.

Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to the development of computer systems that can perform tasks that typically require human intelligence. AI covers a range of systems, including machine learning, the ability to support and manipulate speech, analysing and understanding digital images, and robotics. AI technologies are increasingly being used to interpret complex data. AI algorithms can extract valuable insights and actionable information from data produced by computer controlled manufacturing equipment. (Insert image 1)

To get an insight into AI and what the future might hold for the woodworking industries we spoke with Biesse Chief Information and Technology officer, Konstantin Kostenarov at the recent Ligna Fair in Hannover, Germany. Konstantin has a Doctor’s Degree in IT Engineering and was previously Chief Technology Officer for Ducati Motor with 18 Years experience in Innovation Management, Processes optimization and Performance management. Raphaël Prati, Biesse Chief Marketing & Communications Officer; and Alberto Tuberti, Biesse Product Management Director were also on hand to assist us in understanding where the industry and particularly Biesse is heading.

The Next Stage?

Most of us were aware of the industrial revolution, and when Industry 4.0 arrived via a high-tech strategy program of the German government in 2011, most of us probably wondered where industries two (electricity) and three (computerisation and automation) went. So, what do we make of artificial intelligence? If all the hype is to be believed, AI will transform manufacturing and could become industry 5.0 No one we spoke to in Germany denied AI could be the next industrial revolution, although it is yet to be universally designated as such. It was many years after the steam engine was invented that the first industrial revolution was recognised.

As to whether or not we are there yet, Raphaël said, “Technology usually comes from the military or aviation sectors. The trick is to take that advantage and apply it to a completely different context. To have that application into the woodworking industry is a challenge because we have to use the same creativity they used at the beginning with Industry 4.0 and from what we can see, we don’t think that trick has already been made. It’s difficult to transfer the practical benefit of something that is highly theoretic or difficult to explain and this is one reason why no one is really talking about industrial AI yet.”

Konstantin added, “We are already applying data analytics in marketing and have just started looking to apply AI in manufacturing. AI will be able to connect the dots outside of our environment. In the automotive industry for example, analysing which would be the winning colour strategy for a specific model in a specific country, providing information to modify in near-real time the production process and provide insights for the forecasting, the supply chain to be more flexible and distribute this information throughout the company. At the moment the woodworking supply industry is mostly reactive. Anticipating the customer’s needs will be the next stage.” Alberto Tuberti explained, “A.I. will minimise our inefficiencies in understanding the data we have and help us get new technologies to the market in a much shorter time.”

Konstantin went on, “We already have a huge amount of data. We already have our IoT connected platform, but this was designed seven or eight years ago and was not based on this new aspect of predictive intelligence. We started from the analysis of the current datasets to understand how to re-design our current platform and create a New Global Industrial Dataspace of Biesse to give real time information to our customers and our internal staff. While we already have predictive capabilities through sensors on our machines, A.I. will be able to add information from the behaviours and the habits of the customer’s processes.”

Raphaël Prati explained Biesse commitment to their customers, “We are not thinking about what is going to be available tomorrow. Imagination is a very important word; we are imagining what is going to be the business in ten years’ time. If we really want to be ready then, we have to start now. It’s not about finding something for tomorrow, it’s having a long term perspective. Linked to this is emotion; AI can simulate emotion but it’s not going to be authentic. That emotion is going to keep the processes under control. AI is going to simplify what we don’t want to do anymore but it’s not going to replace the emotion and that’s what we need to leverage to keep control, and that’s the trick.”

Other Suppliers

Andreas Hettich (Hettich furniture hardware) told us “AI, it’s all or it’s nothing”, a term often used to mean that unless something is done completely, it is not acceptable. Andreas went on to say that AI would certainly speed up their hardware development but doubted it would replace designers. At Homag Group’s new technology exhibit, it was clear that AI will be used in part to check the quality of the saw cut on their panel saws; analyse and measure panels for stress cuts; and monitor energy consumption, one of the highest manufacturing costs. And at Altendorf Group, AI datasets of workers hands are used to identify if a worker is about to put their hand in a dangerous area of their machine fitted with new ‘Hand Guard’ safety system.

Jean Philippe Hildebrand is a software expert with Luxscan. They work with the Weinig Group to develop scanning technologies for the timber industry. Jean told us that they have developed a technology that scans the end of a board they say is much like a fingerprint for wood. That board can then be tracked through the factory using this fingerprint. Jean told us about half a million defects scanned so far that can be used to identify unwanted features that can be cut from the timber at 250 parts per minute. One such installation has already been shipped to Australia.

Data, Data, Data

The manufacturing industry will benefit significantly from AI. The World Economic Forum predicts a 9% increase over a five year period to 2027. With more data, companies can apply AI to reduce job times, increase accuracy, and perform administrative tasks. “By automating the interpretation of data, AI reduces human error and improves the efficiency of data analysis processes. AI-powered systems can uncover patterns, relationships, and anomalies in data that might not be easily discernible by human analysts” (Institute of Data). Raphaël adds, “AI could be a bigger leap than industry one through four combined. People don’t fully understand it and that is why we must keep the emotion in, so we can control it.”

A trending buzzword is machine learning, or ML. A subfield of AI, ML is a process by which systems can automatically learn, gaining information from patterns and structures so that they can self-improve, sometimes even without human supervision. The Australian furniture and cabinet industry is well advanced in its production processes with a majority of companies employing some kind of CNC machinery and design software. Already, computers and machines do most of the processing and AI is set to benefit industry in a way we are yet to fully comprehend, and yet we still understand will be a huge leap forward for everyone concerned.