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Much Ado About AI

By Geoff Williams

March 20, 2024

Artificial intelligence has arrived – and is advancing quickly – so what are the advantages for boxmakers?

If you’re an owner, executive, or anyone working in the corrugated packaging industry, you’re probably not too worried about an artificial intelligence (AI) apocalypse. After all, if someday our AI robot overlords take over the world and enslave us all, they still may have packaging needs.

 That’s one dispiriting way to look at it. Fortunately, some members of the AICC AI Committee have more hopeful predictions and believe the evolution of AI will not result in some dystopian future but something much more exciting and appealing. Still, nobody knows how AI will actually affect paper packaging manufacturers. That is, ultimately, why the AICC AI Committee was recently formed.

AI will change the industry and world—everybody seems to agree on that. It’s how it will change that isn’t certain, and rather than reacting to technology, AICC is proactively looking to steer and shape the events to come.

With that in mind, how will AI change the future of packaging? No idea, of course, but BoxScore caught up with some members of the AICC AI Committee.

AI Is Going to Disrupt the World – Hopefully in a Good Way

You can expect AI to be revolutionary. “AI will change everything, like the internet changed everything and then smartphones changed everything,” says Jeff Putt, managing director of DeLine Box & Display.

Greg Tucker, chairman and CEO of Bay Cities, agrees. “AI is going to affect everyone’s lives as we utilize it to help us in everything we do. Every industry will be affected,” he says.

That is why the new AICC AI Committee is forming right when it should, he adds. “I think the timing is perfect for this advancement,” Tucker says, referring to the push AICC is making to look at best practices for implementing AI into the industry.

How Will AI Change the Industry?

Many companies are already wielding AI in some capacity such as using AI-powered tools to design packaging that can stand out against competitors. AI can analyze colors, fonts, and images far faster than its human counterparts, who still ultimately get to do the fun and most important steps in the process of making the final decision on what a package will look like.

But across the board, AI is going to do more of that, erasing steps it takes to reach a goal and automating a lot of low- to mid-level tasks, says Gokul Gopakumar, vice president of technology and business development at SUN Automation Group.

“AI is taking some of the legwork that you’re doing and allowing you to grow without adding more people,” Gopakumar says. “You can add fewer people to your company and get more done. People are cautious and worried about AI, existentially worried about jobs being lost. But if history is a good indicator, some specific types of jobs will become obsolete, but typically opportunities for other jobs will
open up.”

Gopakumar likens it to when the car came along, and suddenly people were buying automobiles instead of horses. Many people were no longer working in the horse industry, but maybe some of them started selling cars. Meanwhile, if you loved working with horses, you could continue doing that. “There are still horses,” Gopakumar says.

Or, for anyone who worries about AI replacing jobs, look at it this way: For some time now, many packaging companies, and companies in industries nationwide, have had trouble filling openings. AI could actually help with labor shortages. “This is why the time for AI is so needed,” Gopakumar says. “It really isn’t as gloom and doom as some people seem to think it could be.”

AI could also make packaging machinery far more efficient. As an example of how AI could improve the boxmaking industry, Putt says to imagine a machine telling you that a bearing looks like it’ll fail in a week or that a motor is going to need to undergo a rewinding. “If we can go to a smart chatbot on any laptop and ask it, ‘What are the things that I need to order for upcoming maintenance?’, and it’ll say, ‘You need to do this and that,’ that could be incredibly useful data,” he says.

Tucker is also enthused. “Ultimately, we want to harvest all the data we can out of these machines,” he says. “Think about this for a minute. If we were measuring the rotation speed and torque values of a lead-edge feed roll, and we saw that after X amount of turns at Y speed at Z torque, we would quickly understand after X times and those Y experiences that we need to replace a simple feed roll.”

Potentially, Tucker says, “we would reduce significant hours of downtime and increase quality outcomes all relating to making money.”

He adds, self-deprecatingly, “This is just one stupid simple idea as to what can be accomplished with data, and the real-time use of data and how we can make a shopping cart full of money with it.”

Why Hasn’t AI Taken Over Yet?

Before the boxmaking industry can harness the power of AI, production lines will need to be upgraded.

“We thought all of this would be easy until we began to look across our factory floor, which is made up of all kinds of machines, old and modern,” Tucker says. “Dialing into these processing centers is not as easy as we would think. The idea of hooking up edge equipment to gather the data and shoot it into a unique numbering system isn’t a walk in the park.”

He adds, “Oh sure, we can connect to a sensor and grab some data, but don’t we want it all?”

But right now, getting it all isn’t possible. It won’t be until older machines catch up to newer ones, and newer machines are upgraded to AI-friendly components. Tech folks call this transition “Industry 4.0,” which describes the digitization of the manufacturing sector. “Once this world of Industry 4.0 becomes accepted and the norm, these barriers will all be wiped out. Technology will help us all get there,” Tucker says.

In the meantime, Putt says there is an ongoing debate between some of the suppliers of the machinery and their clients about the data AI programs collect on packaging machines. “There’s some confusion about who owns the data,” Putt says, noting that while a corrugated box’s proprietary information may obviously be their own, if an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system has allowed a packaging company client to collect intel, that ERP software brand can make an argument that it actually belongs to them.

Putt thinks that eventually it’ll be worked out, and it’ll be written in contracts that the industry clients own the data and not the ERPs. “But you have to fight that battle,” he says.

What’s Next?

In many ways, AI in the 2020s is kind of like websites in the 1990s, when every business knew they needed one. But CEOs and executives weren’t really sure how to go about doing it, and nobody was entirely sure the effort was worth it. Maybe websites wouldn’t last.

So, what’s next for AI and box manufacturers? It’s preparing for whatever comes next. “Only the visionary pioneer companies and those that see this future of Industry 4.0 will be able to truly master what AI and machine learning (ML) will bring to our factory floors,” Tucker says.

Mastering the marriage of AI and ML is why AICC’s AI Committee is so important, Tucker says. If all goes well,
it will give manufacturers “the opportunity to see what’s out there and guide them in such a way that hopefully they make great bets with their money and grow into the future.”

That said, as enthusiastic as Tucker is about AI, he believes any company rushing headlong into AI, adopting it immediately, and changing their business model overnight is risking a lot. “From an investment perspective, everyone has joined the bandwagon and is dumping trillions of dollars into the movement and development of this powerful advent,” he says. “We will see many losers and just a few winners when everything shakes out.”

He sees AI as something similar to the way society has reacted in the past to the next big thing, whether you’re talking about the California gold rush of 1849 or more costly ventures in recent years. “It is very similar to the dot-com bubble,” Tucker says.

In other words, be aware of AI and invest in it—but do it carefully. Don’t go crazy before you see how things shake out. Don’t be a cautionary tale.

At the same time, you could become a cautionary tale by moving too slowly, Putt warns. “AI is going to change things really fast, and our industry is going to have to adapt and change,” Putt says.

That’s how Gopakumar sees it, too. He doesn’t see AI enslaving human beings; instead, it’ll be the usual cutthroat business of humans versus humans. It’s just that AI, like websites and smartphones, will be ever present in our day-to-day battles against our competitors.

Gopakumar envisions a not-so-distant future when companies like Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, and the biggest pharmaceutical companies are implementing AI tools over the next five to 10 years, and he predicts it will shake up the industry in a big way.

“They’re going to want to know if their AI system can talk to your AI system, and so we won’t just have people talking to people but systems talking to systems,” Gopakumar says. “So, it’s feasible that in the near future, if you already have your AI system set up on your end, that will be a competitive advantage.”

Geoff Williams is a journalist and writer based in Loveland, Ohio.