Machine learning in business didn’t take long to go from a technological fantasy to a practical and accessible reality. Companies all over the world can begin using ML today to augment or replace many of their processes. The result is a leaner organization with more effective and efficient processes.
Some of the following examples of machine learning in business may be more applicable to some verticals than others, but each one can be a game-changer.
Monitoring Supply Chains for Supply and Demand
The economy is more global than ever and consumer expectations are higher than ever. Balancing supply and demand within supply chains was already a challenge. With the addition of shipped foods and other perishable goods, the stakes are even higher. E-commerce sales for consumables and foodstuffs rose by 21.7% in 2018, reaching $58 billion.
Keeping grocery stores and climate-controlled warehouses stocked practically demands machine learning. Therefore, companies increasingly rely on ML to monitor the reality on the ground and deliver actionable — oftentimes proactive — insights. These insights may be based on:
- Historical and real-time sales data
- Weather and seasonal forecasts
- Geopolitical shifts
- Vendor activities or supply chain disruptions
- Real-time store or online traffic
ML programs can study cause-and-effect more thoroughly and quickly than humans. As a result, they help vested parties reach decisions about quantities of products to stock, promotions to run, store hours to adjust, warehouses to relocate, and many other mission-critical factors.
Studying Business Documents for Risk and Opportunities
Nobody needs reminding just how complicated and legally fraught the business world can be. In the worlds of business law and risk management, machine learning is increasingly indispensable.
One way ML programs provide aid is through their ability to study large numbers of lengthy legal documents. These can include insurance policies, business contracts, and invoices. With machine learning capable of parsing natural language across hundreds or thousands of documents, companies can better understand or find errors within contracts or invoices. The advantage over manual business or process audits can be substantial.
Machine learning in business yields insurance opportunities as well. ML algorithms can study the factors which may result in liability across a whole company. The result is a more accurate and complete picture of that company’s risk portfolio, which potentially means savings on insurance policies compared with a blanket policy that provides more protection than is necessary.
Predicting Equipment Failure and Optimizing Maintenance Intervals
Anticipating failure in critical equipment is a longstanding engineering problem. Traditionally, companies relied on the break-fix model. This is where the equipment had to show obvious signs of struggling — such as longer takt times or more manufacturing errors — or fail completely before intervention.
This model is far from efficient. It results in unnecessary downtime and avoidable wear and tear on the equipment. Thanks to embedded sensors and logic boards, companies can now engage in predictive maintenance with edge computing.
For a typical example of predictive maintenance in action, consider the problem of keeping an industrial pump online:
- Pumps often operate in difficult-to-reach areas, including in oil and gas fields, underwater or in large holding or mixing tanks. Proactive manual inspections can be costly and time-consuming.
- Sensors embedded within the pump capture real-time data on signs of impending failure, such as lost pressure, lack of suction, or leaks.
- From here, trained machine learning models compare the state of the pump against known fault states, such as leaking valves, worn-out bearings, or blocked plungers.
With real-time data on the condition of the equipment and historical benchmarks for “satisfactory” and “ideal” operation, the ML system can alert engineers about failures before they happen.
ML can also make recommendations on ideal machine maintenance intervals. Doing so keeps industrial systems running at maximum efficiency with a minimum amount of wear, thereby optimizing replacement cycles and helping investments go further.
Improving Quality of Training and Information Retention
Technology has a significant role to play in general education and business training models. Intelligent tutoring or training systems, powered by machine learning, can improve the quality of a company’s training and help trainees better retain mission-critical information.
“Virtual tutors” with machine learning can automatically adapt their lessons based on the aptitudes and weaknesses of the user. With regular assessments of their knowledge and skills, the system may choose to reinforce some subject matter or move more quickly past others if the user shows proficiency early on.
The primary benefit is that one-size-fits-all training protocols are simply not efficient for groups of trainees. Using ML in business to train new hires or provide ongoing learning for existing employees results in higher productivity and lower costs, as well as improved employee satisfaction, engagement, and confidence as they grow in their roles.
Actionable Tips for Incorporating Machine Learning in Business
By now, you’re probably interested in finding out what ML platforms can do for your business. Before you start looking for a provider, it’s important to know how to get the most out of these systems. Here are some suggestions:
- Machine learning can be a “black box” if you don’t have subject matter experts who’ve bought into the concept and know how it works. Companies adopting ML need invested employees in specialized roles to take the lead during the transition and after.
- Start simple and use best-fit ML programs. It can be tempting to go for an all-or-nothing approach or let a vendor sell you something you don’t have a practical need for. The road map to successful ML adoption begins with a simple list of questions you want the system to answer or one or two problems to solve.
- If your system needs user data to be successful — such as in supply/demand models — make sure you follow best practices for gathering, transmitting and studying that data. Incentivize your customers for sharing data about their habits, and then make sure your ML partner builds the system with privacy and transparency in mind.
Machine learning in business is here to stay. And even in these relatively early days, it’s providing a significant return on investment for companies that take the plunge. So long as it’s pursued with clear goals in mind and follows ethical standards and best practices, investments in machine learning can more than pay for themselves over time.
Written by: Megan Ray Nichols, BOSS Contributor
Megan is a STEM writer and blogger at https://schooledbyscience.com/