Maryland Smith Research / April 20, 2022

A Look Into the Future of Business Operations

New Article Explores How AI, Machine Learning Will Change Things

Imagine a future where 3-D printing is done in the back of a truck instead of a factory or a lab. The same truck is driverless, eliminating the risk of drivers getting tired and causing delays or accidents en route. The truck custom prints the product for each of the many customers on the truck route at the exact time when it arrives at each customer site. Companies are now at the forefront of testing such ventures, according to a new article by Maryland Smith’s Zhi-Long Chen.

Chen, the Orkand Corporation Professor of Management Science, worked with colleagues from the University of South Florida and the University of Georgia. Their article, forthcoming in the journal Production and Operations Management, analyzes how Industry 4.0 technologies, including machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, 3-D printing, the internet of things (IoT), blockchain and robots will impact operations and supply chain management.

“Companies have already started using and experimenting with the next wave of advanced  technologies,” Chen says. “They don’t want to be left behind. Normally, research should be leading industry; however, right now companies are leading in experimenting. Our publication expresses urgency in terms of the need for more research in the academic community and offers suggestions to the direction of that research.”

One of the potential directions Chen and his colleagues offer is being prepared for unintended consequences such technologies may bring.

“We shouldn’t just focus on cost and revenue,” Chen says. “The considerations should also focus on the human impact of these technologies in terms of sustainability, employment, social justice, etc.”

Despite the cautions and uncertainties around these technologies, Chen says they present many new opportunities as well.

“Machine learning and big data have already been used by a lot of online retailers like Amazon to mine data and predict what customers will buy in the future,” he says. “While the costs for many of these technologies is still relatively high, over time the costs will go down, allowing more widespread applications that will change the supply chain landscape.”

While widespread adoption of these technologies would look different in varying industries, Chen says that overall, large-scale adoption would allow businesses to be more cost efficient as well as more responsive to their customer needs.

“In the area of machine learning, for example, it’s very time consuming to analyze big data sets without advanced computing power,” Chen says. “Now businesses are learning to build huge neural networks that can turn data into insights and create value for the business.”

With widespread adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies still a distant goal, he says for now the business community needs to be prepared for possible sea changes brought on by these technologies.

“Business operations will undergo profound changes in the wake of these technological advances,” Chen says. “Every aspect of the supply chain will be different. We want to make sure businesses are ready for the changes that are certain to happen.”

The article, “How Will Artificial Intelligence and Industry 4.0 Emerging Technologies Transform Operations Management?” is forthcoming in the journal Production and Operations Management.

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