Despite decades of progress already made, digitalisation continues to sustain the hottest new technology trends according to Research Professor Heikki Ailisto of the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT). These changes do not happen overnight, and such aspects as industrial process automation have advanced gradually in the background. In many sectors these processes have largely shifted towards a comprehensive digital data and control stream. Some of the current hype concerning such fields as artificial intelligence is nevertheless unwarranted, tending to overstate the impact of certain aspects and overshadowing other progress.
“Artificial intelligence is not a single issue topic involving quantum leaps, but has various levels. The AI currently in use is a narrow AI that works well with simple, limited functions, for example in optimising process elements, but has no understanding of the overall context,” Ailisto explains.
The next stage of development, strong AI, will call for broad understanding and human-like awareness, as the super AI of more ambitious predictions surpasses human abilities, builds its own intelligence and takes control. Ailisto nevertheless sees neither threats nor opportunities of this kind emerging in the near future with respect to creating strong AI.
“Three reasons for the emergence of the AI trend seem evident from the point of view of business needs and benefits. The quantity of exploitable digital data is increasing exponentially, there is greater access to affordable computing power, and algorithms have been successfully assembled into serviceable tools,” Ailisto notes.
A forest industry on the cutting edge of progress
Ailisto refers to the industrial Internet using the broader notion of an Internet of Things (IoT), which he feels is the most significant development already currently influencing business operations. The industrial Internet brings together intelligent machines, appliances and the people who use them, enabling an improved decision-making process through advanced information analysis, and thereby streamlining operations and generating new business.
“Metsä Fibre also seems to be quite advanced already in this respect. Smart devices and processes beginning with forestry machinery and wood procurement, combined with production analytics and staff access to information, are all core IoT factors.”
Ailisto feels that on the whole the forest industry is very much in the vanguard of digitalisation, even by the standards of other industrial sectors. It is even a pioneer, if we consider the development of remote links between production plants and machinery even before the spread of Internet communications. Forest inventories and channels of sale and distribution have likewise already been part of the digital information flow for many years. They have now been joined by electronic services and wood trading for forest owners.
Information to back up METSÄ FIBRE'S decisions
Ailisto feels that wearable technology and virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) have become important rising technological trends that may ultimately displace conventional mobile communications. Trials of virtual applications in portable devices have already taken place in industry, e.g. for servicing and training purposes. VR and AR are also increasing, with game applications already making these approaches familiar to younger people and fostering the expectation of a similar user experience at work.
Other emerging trends noted by Ailisto include blockchains and the platform economy. The blockchains chiefly applied in the trading and financial sectors relate in practice to decentralised storage of information on multiple sites, making it more difficult to compromise and making the system more transparent and robust. With the growth of online trading sites, the platform economy has in turn become a business format that reinforces the status of the consumer and of the platform enterprise itself. The best-known examples of platform economy operators that are rewriting the ground rules of trading include Amazon, Airbnb and Uber.
Ailisto says that the particular opportunities of digitalisation for Metsä Fibre lie in more accurate measurement and use of information, and in computational optimisation with respect to quality control in the forest industry, logistics and production.
“It would be possible, for example, to secure precise origin and growth information on each individual wood unit, including weather conditions, by combining imaging, geographic data and data analytics. A wealth of information and AI methods could enhance processes by supporting a more rapid decision-making process and more efficient use of resources.”
Impacts TO FOREST INDUSTRY hard to forecast
Discussing potential threat scenarios related to digitalisation, Ailisto observes that AI and the platform economy may have drawbacks for the world of work and the traditional economy, where a backfire effect may even emerge.
“The platform economy and software-based business operation may lead to an even greater concentration of incomes and assets. AI may also pose a threat to many occupations, with lower incomes leading to slump in demand. On the other hand, we may also surmise that automating routine work will improve productivity, stimulating growth and the emergence of new occupations.”
The main threats to industry nevertheless arise in the field of cybersecurity.
“Potential uses of ransomware and malware by hostile elements can even paralyse or destroy business operations, so it is vital to detect and ward off cyber risks.”