Engineering a big part of winning AI supply chain bid

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Canada’s supply chains will get a powerful new boost from artificial intelligence (AI) as an industry-led network of partners teams up with Waterloo Engineering to help drive economic growth through technological innovation.

SCALE.AI, a consortium of more than 100 companies, universities, research institutions and other organizations, was one of five proposals selected by the Canadian government today for a share of up to $950 million in funding through the Innovation Superclusters Initiative.

Also successful in the nation-wide competition was the NGM Canada advanced manufacturing supercluster, which includes Waterloo Engineering in a collaboration involving the technology and manufacturing sectors.

A robot inside a factory.

Clearpath Robotics, which makes self-driving vehicles for warehouses, is one of numerous local companies and companies with Waterloo Engineering ties involved in the AI supply chain initiative.

The five-year SCALE.AI project will harness the power of AI, combining data analytics and optimization software tools with new robotics, communications and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.

The ultimate goal is a supply chain with improved efficiency, agility, visibility and sustainability - from initial product idea, to manufacturing, to delivery to consumers, to recycling at the end of a product's life.

“Digitization of supply chains will require integration of new technologies from artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems, to big data analytics, mobile connectivity and the Internet of Things,” said Pearl Sullivan, the dean of Waterloo Engineering. “We are known as a hub for research, training, industry collaboration and startup activity in all of these areas.”

The raw material for sophisticated AI tools is data collected on everything from how long a product sits in a warehouse before it is shipped, to the impact of promotions on retail sales and countless other details.

Samir Elhedhli, chair of the management sciences department at Waterloo Engineering, said the impact of Al on supply chains will come primarily from the analysis of data to learn from the past in order to predict and prepare for the future - by more precisely matching supply with demand, for example.

Businesses large and small have been doing that to some degree, of course, for as long as there have been businesses.

'All the magic ingredients' in place

But with recent advances in AI algorithms and computational resources, as well as complementary technologies such as robotics and sensors to collect information at all stages of the supply chain, Elhedhli said the field is primed for a quantum leap forward.

"All the magic ingredients are now in place for researchers and industries to take advantage of them," said Elhedhli, co-director of the Waterloo Analytics and Optimization (WANOPT) Lab.

Central to anticipated breakthroughs is the ability of AI to analyze vast amounts of data, detect patterns and make decisions or recommendations based on them.

As one of the two primary post-secondary partners in SCALE.AI along with the Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO) in Montreal, Waterloo Engineering brings established expertise in operational AI, the IoT, communications, robotics, data analytics and supply chain management, plus a long history of industry partnerships and entrepreneurship.

Sullivan and Catherine Rosenberg, an electrical and computer engineering professor and Canada Research Chair in the Future Internet, will be on SCALE.AI’s board of directors.

Although details are still being worked out, Elhedhli expects Waterloo researchers to contribute by helping specific companies adopt AI supply chain tools and, using lessons learned from that process, refining and developing even more advanced tools.

Numerous local companies have roles

Among the possibilities he envisions for AI-powered supply chains - some of which are already in the early stages of adoption - are algorithms to optimize truck delivery routes to save time and money while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and retail systems capable of locating items in a shopping cart, scanning them and automatically billing the customer’s credit card.

SCALE.AI, which was picked from more than 50 applications, is led by the Optel Group. Its core operating region is the Quebec City-to-Waterloo corridor.

Involved local companies and companies with ties to Waterloo Engineering include Clearpath Robotics, Nulogy, OpenText, Kik Interactive, Acerta Analytics Solutions, Challenger Motor Freight and BlackBerry.

Major firms that are members of the consortium include Loblaw Companies, Bell Canada and Thomson Reuters. IVADO, the other leading academic partner, is a global leader in both AI and operations research.

The federal superclusters program, which put a premium on the potential of bids to energize the economy, act as engines of growth and create well-paying jobs, includes matching funding from industry participants.

SCALE.AI aims to position Canada at the forefront of the digitization of supply chains, which now provide almost a million jobs and account for 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

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