Very few businesses know how to make the best use of the opportunities provided by artificial intelligence (AI) or where to get the best AI for their operations. The MEJOIN research network is helping small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Germany and Japan be able to meet future challenges and to introduce AI that is tailored to the needs of their business or project.
© Michael Hechtel / FAU (FAPS Lehrstuhl)
Artificial intelligence can help companies save time and resources and to improve products, processes and quality management. Yet, in Germany, it is mostly only large companies which have recognized the value that AI adds to their products and services. The majority of SMEs remain hesitant to adopt AI – for a number of reasons.
Too costly, too unproven and no tangible value added?
Research has shown that many SME executives lack the understanding and imagination to envision how AI might help improve the quality of their products or services or make processes more effective and thus save time and money. Some claim it is too expensive and complicated to introduce AI. But is this really the case?
'Simple AI applications can be surprisingly low-cost and somewhat easy to set up. Depending on its needs, a relatively good AI will cost a small-sized enterprise no more than a couple thousand euros', says Michael Hechtel of the Institute for Factory Automation and Production Systems at Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. 'The problem is that many AI providers offer standard solutions only, and they are too expensive and too outsized for smaller companies.'
AI skills: Skills shortage and lack of understanding is leaving companies behind
The major reason for the lagging introduction of AI initially surprised even Michael Hechtel, head of the MEJOIN research network (Japanese German Mechatronic Joint Initiative): 'Research has shown that a basic understanding and AI competence are still lacking in many companies – even in high-tech locations such as Germany and Japan – which makes it very difficult to introduce artificial intelligence.'
In addition, most companies lack important skills in change and transformation management to successfully introduce a new technology such as AI. 'Many businesspeople would like to have the right type of use cases to help guide them, yet these are still missing', says Michael Hechtel. However, this is about to change.
© Michael Hechtel / FAU (FAPS Lehrstuhl)
Customized solutions for SMEs
As the first of their kind, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Saitama University have joined ranks in the MEJOIN research network to promote the acceptance of AI together with two practical research centres – Cluster Mechatronik & Automation e.V. from Germany and Saitama City Foundation for Business Creation in Japan – and 10 SMEs.
The researchers in the network draft individual market analyses and lists of measures for each company and point out the specific opportunities that AI can offer them. 'AI means competitive edge and is very likely to become the industry standard in a few years’ time among companies in a variety of sectors. That means that not going along with technological progress could push you out of the market', says Michael Hechtel.
New and surprising discoveries
It is not only businesspeople who stand to gain important new, perhaps surprising information from the close international cooperation in the MEJOIN network – so do the participating researchers. 'Research has shown us that many companies do not fully understand AI, but nobody can say where exactly the problem is. Do these companies not know what AI is at all? Or do they not know how a specific algorithm works to arrive at a solution? We are learning where we really need to begin in order to familiarise companies with AI', Hechtel reports.
Just as important – something which the first German-Japanese workshops underscored – is the question of where businesspeople can source the appropriate and affordable KI to begin with. The MEJOIN research network can also provide useful advice and establish contacts in this respect.
MEJOIN invites other companies to join the network
The network currently includes 10 German and Japanese companies in medical engineering and the manufacturing industry. However, companies from other countries and sectors of industry are welcome to join the network.
Once every two months the researchers host a joint Skype call to answer any questions which the businesspeople have regarding the introduction of appropriate artificial intelligence, for example about partners and suppliers, or what technical AI standards to keep in mind if they wish to open a branch office in a foreign country.
Get in touch
Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
Institute for Factory Automation and Production Systems
Fürther Straße 246b