Artificial intelligence is spreading across myriad industries and manufacturing is no exception. As the technology becomes more affordable manufacturers of all sizes are evaluating its use for understanding anomalies and outliers in their business, and how it can help them make actionable decisions faster and more accurately.
To gain a better understanding of how manufacturers can leverage AI for ecommerce and their business in general, Digital Commerce 360 sat down with Mo Abuali, senior director, digital, at Wipfli, a Milwaukee -based accounting and advisory firm. Over the course of more than 23 years, Dr. Abuali, who has a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, has helped manufacturers implement digital solutions, such as the Industrial Internet of Things, digital transformation technologies, services and training, as well as apply them within the supply chain. Abuali has worked with such companies as IBM Corp., Procter & Gamble Co., and Toyota Motor Corp.
Digital Commerce 360: How big a lift is it for manufacturers to implement AI across their business?
Abuali: Use of artificial intelligence has been increasing across manufacturing in terms of implementation and is adding value in quite a lot of use cases. When we look at industrial manufacturing, AI is being used to improve production, quality and maintenance, to name a few key areas. The whole idea is to use AI to solve business problems around improving uptime, scrap rates, overall labor efficiency, and operations.
In recent years the advent of ChatGPT and regenerative AI have sprung a new approach of implementing AI, impacting the back and front offices. AI is also starting to cover all areas of manufacturing, including ERP, ecommerce, the planning layer, human resources, and strategic planning, not just the factory. I advise manufacturers always to understand their priorities and the biggest business case for implementing AI. Many tend to start on the manufacturing floor, but some start in other areas, such as ecommerce, sales, and business development.
DC360: What are some of the ways manufacturers can use AI to improve strategic planning and research?
Abuali: In general, strategic planning and research could yield significant savings in time, money, and labor efficiencies. The whole purpose is to identify your business’s critical processes and how AI tools can automate and streamline your processes.
AI utilizes computing power, the internet, and the cloud, and is able to collect and analyze huge amounts of data in seconds. If you feed AI the right kind of information and requests and connect it to the right places in your business systems, it can quickly generate, evaluate, and benchmark ideas and convert all that data, whether it be structured or unstructured, into insights and recommendations to make informed decisions.
There are many AI tools out there, such as ChatGPT, but there are a lot of other tools that rely on this regenerative AI model. For example, Microsoft has recently released Copilot, which is becoming entrenched in the digital tools we use every day, such as Office, and it allows people to do things faster, including creating presentations, researching and writing text. Manufacturers now have a wealth of AI tools available, many of which are free to trial, but the questions are always: Do I have the internal skill sets? How can I educate my workforce to use these tools correctly and validate the output of these AI tools?
DC360: What are some of the ways manufacturers can use AI to improve internal communications?
Abuali: One of the frequent use cases in this area is how to automate repetitive tasks. If you have to write a specific email to communicate internally or externally, for example, that email can be automated, personalized, and set up in terms of workflows based automatically on people’s responses. If there are non-responses, the email can be automatically resent. AI can be used to automate workflows that are intelligent to sense, learn and automate repetitive, time-consuming tasks.
Another area is around content creation: using AI to research or summarize very long articles or documents or even create communication documents. But validating the output and making sure that the content is reviewed by a real person is crucial.
A third area where AI can improve communications is through corporate intranets. Many employees go to intranets to access benefits and other company information. In this instance, there are chatbots and AI tools that can answer frequently asked questions and quickly guide the employee, and, if all else fails, can connect the employee to a live person to answer more complex questions. AI can be applied across all communications channels, including social media and websites.
DC360: How can AI be used by manufacturers to improve their ecommerce site?
Abuali: AI tools are good at recognizing patterns, so they can provide insights on what people are buying and understanding the different buyer personas and buyer segments. By understanding the historical data on a buyer’s previous purchase, AI can start to generate predictive insights on stocking, inventory, demand, as well as supply chain issues you could face if certain products are being over-purchased or under-purchased. Those insights could lead to more optimized scheduling and supply chain activities, which is a big issue facing manufacturers.
Another area is recurring activity, such as purchasing the same product over and over. Automating this activity by offering an option to save 5% on a customer’s next purchase by converting a one-time transaction to a subscription, for example, can convert the purchase into an automatically recurring one.
Another way AI can improve the ecommerce experience is using chatbots to handle returns, warranty information, and recalls. AI solutions can easily manage these situations.
DC360: You mention chatbots as a tool that can automate a lot of tasks around customer interactions. Are there concerns that AI-based chatbots may misuse customer information or steer customers in the wrong direction?
Abuali: There are cybersecurity concerns around chatbots, generative AI and Chat GPT in general. Chabot data could be used by third parties without the customer’s knowledge or consent. This is where folks need to read the fine print and agree or disagree to their data being utilized or sold. Many of us don’t take that level of caution when using those tools, but we should.
Data gathered through AI tools can potentially be used for targeted advertising or other purposes through cookies and many users may not be comfortable with that. At Wipfli, we have a cybersecurity team that is evaluating vulnerabilities. One of those vulnerabilities could be AI tools, such as chatbots, and how they could be impacting the user experience in a negative way.
DC360: How can AI be used by manufacturers to improve search and SEO?
Abuali: It comes back to understanding user behavior, what people are searching for, and understanding their search personas and profiles. I can also run an AI search across competitor websites and start tracking their rankings and benchmarking their rankings versus my rankings and potentially capture new keywords that can bridge new content ideas based on those keywords. Companies can use competitive benchmarking with AI to sense what competitors are doing around search engine optimization and improve their own SEO.
AI can also generate SEO content briefs faster and, in some cases, fully automate the process as the AI solution learns those SEO content activities. In addition, you can leverage AI to create content that matches SEO needs and improve SEO rankings compared to a competitor’s SEO rankings. It’s a great tool for the marketing department’s strategy to improve inbound and outbound marketing communications.
DC360: What are some of the ways manufacturers can use AI to improve branding?
Abuali: One good thing about branding is the ability to track customer activity around multiple channels, such as the website, mobile apps, social media. The ability to track data across those multiple channels and populate that metadata to understand personas and buying behaviors provides insights into how you can improve those channels’ usability to generate more sales and qualified leads.
Another area is better customer care. Through tracking customer activities across multiple channels, you can then address whether there are concerns with certain products and customers. This technique could improve customer trust in your products and your confidence in leveraging AI over time.
Brand reputation is also a key area. AI tools can help a manufacturer to understand how their online brand is being perceived and take action to improve the online brand, and gain insights into how their online brand reputation compares to that of their competition. AI tools have also been used to enhance the customer experience, such as in the ease of finding products, reaching customer support, or handling returns and recalls.
The biggest use of AI from a branding perspective is tracking customer activity, monitoring and improving brand reputation, and delivering a better customer experience and customer care.
DC360: What advice would you give to manufacturers thinking about implementing AI solutions?
Abuali: AI solutions have a variety of applications, but it’s important for manufacturers to think big and ask what is their vision for the use of AI, then assess their digital maturity to embrace this technology. Thinking big and having a vision allows manufacturers to start small, pick the right area to start implementation, and pilot the solution in a strategic way while keeping the business case in mind to make sure you deliver your return on investment, then scale. Scaling requires internal resources to be trained and well-versed with these types of solutions, allowing for quicker scaling.
Then go on to the next area or use case. In other words, rinse and repeat in a strategic way.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Abuali’s colleague Bill Boucher, national industry leader and partner at Wipfli, will moderate a panel discussion on June 22 entitled, “Digital Strategies For Building Resilient Supply Chains,” at the EnvisionB2B 2023 Conference & Exhibition in Chicago. The panel will discuss AI, IoT and other technologies helping B2B businesses build better connections with suppliers.
Peter Lucas is a Digital Commerce 360 contributing editor covering B2B digital commerce technology and strategy.
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