The Next Challenge For Manufacturers: Get smart!


Manufacturers and other business owners tour the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility at Georgia Tech, which serves as a proving ground for new technologies in the manufacturing process. The facility is a partner on the Georgia AIM project. (Photo courtesy Georgia AIM)

Integrating artificial intelligence in a manufacturing process requires planning and small steps, say experts with Georgia AIM

The flat, wheeled robot gingerly moved across the floor, aiming for a taped square in the far corner.

Suddenly, someone stepped into its path. The robot stopped, blinked its lights, then carefully turned to a slightly different path. Its goal remained the same, but it adjusted the route on the fly.

“This is an autonomous mobile robot,” explained Sean Madhavaraman, project manager specializing in industry 4.0 strategy and leadership development for the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2). “No programming experience is necessary, and it can map a room by itself. It’s also very safe — you can step in front of it, and it will reroute.”

That demonstration was one of several on display at a recent event hosted by EI2’s Georgia Artificial Intelligence in Manufacturing (Georgia AIM) and the Georgia MBDA Business Center. The program of speakers, a tour and a panel discussion took place at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility and served as an introduction into the world of artificial intelligence.

With about 50 manufacturers and engineers in attendance, the goal of the event was twofold, said Donna Ennis, Georgia AIM co-director. First, it served as an introduction to the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility, which conducts research on new manufacturing technologies through its public-private partnerships. But also, it was an opportunity for manufacturers of all sizes to learn about the roles AI can play in their processes.

“Artificial intelligence has the power to bring transformative change to our manufacturers and our workforce, but it can seem overwhelming — where do you start?” Ennis said. “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.”

A Statewide Initiative

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 that 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 older workers — 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 University of Georgia and the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs 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 21st Century Partnership, 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.

“We recognize that not every community across the state has had equal access to these new technologies. We want to break down those barriers,” added Ennis. “By taking these smart technologies to traditionally underserved communities, we aim to inspire and encourage Georgia’s workforce. This technology has the power to be transformative for our manufacturing community.”

Other programs offered by Georgia AIM focus on manufacturers and adoption of new technologies. And that was part of the presentation offered by Ennis and project co-director Aaron Stebner, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science engineering at Georgia Tech. In addition to workforce development and deployment, Georgia AIM also offers cybersecurity assessments and assistance with technology development and deployment for manufacturers.

For example, the GaMEP project provides a range of assistance, including cyber assessments, gap assessments and automation training. Another partner, EI2’s Advanced Technology Development Center, assists new tech startups and can help connect them with manufacturers that could use the technology. And Georgia Tech’s Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility 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,” Stebner said. 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.”

The facility’s new Georgia Tech Manufacturing 4.0 Consortium is 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.)

AI: More than ‘the spice’

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 processes 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.

During a tour of the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility, attendees met graduate students who specialize in metals, 3-D printing technologies and other areas and got first-hand looks at new innovations in action. Some stations at the facility represented old practices merged with updated technology — such as a welder merged with a computer numerical control (CNC) device to automate its movements. In other places, entirely new technologies, such as large-format 3-D scanners, helped attendees think about new production methods that might incorporate smart technology.

Madhavaraman and other GaMEP representatives demonstrated the use of sensors, collaborative robots and autonomous mobile robots in the manufacturing process. Attendees were intrigued, especially as Madhavaraman explained how the robots could be integrated into a manufacturing process to work alongside a person.

“That’s why we call them ‘co-bots,’ not robots,” he said. “Collaborative robots are great for packaging and palleting products. No programming experience is necessary — you can use a tablet to tell the robot what to do or point the robot in the direction you want it to go.”

Before the event closed, a panel of three experts fielded questions from Madhavaraman 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 the 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 it is best to start small. 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. 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.

“Involve your people—they are going to know when the data is wrong,” she said. “You don’t need to do it all at once; if you want to get involved with AI, you can really break those costs down and do it a little piece at a time.”

For more information on Georgia AIM and the opportunities provided through its partner projects, visit:

This article was originally published by Georgia Pathways Magazine, Feb. 2024, a publication of the Technology Association of Georgia.