From virtual stockrooms to procurement advisors: how businesses can apply AI and AR

The Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) market combined is estimated to be worth $120bn by 2020, and the Artificial Intelligence (AI) market is predicted to hit the $70bn mark by the same year. Homes and businesses are a step closer to having another dimension added to how they carry out tasks like navigation and prototyping, thanks to the greater prevalence of holographic technology like Microsoft HoloLens and intelligent personal assistants like the Amazon Alexa. 

Robots in the workplace are slowly but surely becoming a reality thanks to these types of technologies and while they currently perform the role of the assistant in many respects, on a greater scale they have the potential to make well informed ‘human’ decisions. But what are the next steps for AR and AI in businesses, and how can companies apply these emerging technologies in the future?

AR filling in the gap

Retailers like Gap have already adopted AR and have begun using it to allow customers to try on clothes virtually when shopping online. Trying on clothes can make or break a buying decision for a customer so retailers like Gap are embracing new technology to enhance the customer experience and make the online experience as close to the real life shopping experience as possible. And as lift manufacturer ThyssenKrupp has shown, you can benefit from employees using AR too. 

ThyssenKrupp has rolled out Microsoft HoloLens, which creates AR using a pair of smart glasses, into its lift repair services. This allows technicians to view a projection of a lift and visualise its structure, before identifying its problems; all of which they can carry out remotely. Technicians can then head out to a job with much greater knowledge of the resources and time required to complete it, meaning that the company can assign employees to projects more efficiently and ultimately boost productivity.

Virtual stockrooms

Ordering resources for an organisation has long meant identifying a product in a catalogue, and often not knowing if it’s appropriate until the day it arrives. However, Microsoft HoloLens has the potential to change business procurement, enabling employees to get an accurate view of specifications like colour, size and functions prior to ordering, and essentially receive a ‘try before they buy’ service. 

Organisations could potentially use AR to act as virtual stockrooms, which see holograms of products projected onto shelves. What’s more, AR could help procurement become more effective by helping employees make more informed decisions about products they require and therefore saving businesses store room space and money on unwanted products.

Using analytics to inform an AI solution

Data collection is nothing new and businesses will be used to analysing what their customers buy, when and how frequently. However, if these data collection systems are integrated with technology that provides AI, such as the Amazon Alexa, you can very easily obtain the analysis you need by a simple voice command. Instead of the traditional reporting and analytics tools, merely a voice command such as “how much did we spend on X last quarter?” would be enough to find out key business information; a much simpler and quicker way of retrieving essential data.

AI also has the potential to act as an advisor to the business. Take the procurement department as an example: ordering new products largely sees an employee identifying a need for it and then informing procurement they want it. The buying team then researches the ideal product based on the employee’s role, job requirements and locations the employee works from, before placing an order. But AI can utilise big data analytics and do this for you. Using data based on previously bought products, details on the employee, and features of potential products, AI can make recommendations and automate part of the buying process. 

SAP Ariba has recently shown that an intelligent procurement system has the potential to go beyond purely product suggestions. The software provider has launched a procurement bot that can adapt according to different users, prioritising tasks that the user does the most, such as processing invoices. With every action the user makes on the system, it picks up more data so that it can automatically tailor itself to different individuals. 

For example, if an employee orders a set of stationery every Friday, the system will ask that employee whether they want to place the same order every week on the same day. When processing invoices, an intelligent procurement system can ensure that they are ready in time for that specific supplier by taking into account its payment run. And with the company’s policies, procedures and regulations programmed into it, the system can ensure that all actions carried out are in line with the organisation’s buying guidelines, and any errors in invoices can be identified automatically, taking away the need for employees to go back and rectify it themselves. An intelligent procurement system can take into account several of the necessary factors of the buying process for you.

Next steps for AI and AR

Robots taking over the workforce continues to be a hot talking point. Due to AI in particular, jobs like factory workers, receptionists and even taxi drivers could become extinct in years to come. Adidas has launched a robotic shoe manufacturing plant, taking away human involvement almost entirely from the shoe making process.  But while there are more and more examples of robots taking over certain job functions, what’s interesting to see is how businesses are exploring the use of robots to work with their employees side-by-side. The likes of Amazon Alexa and Microsoft HoloLens are more than just gimmicks; as we speak, vendors are looking at prototypes that integrate these technologies into their businesses to automate and improve a variety of business functions.

To make processes more efficient and ultimately get ahead of competitors these new technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way businesses conduct certain day to day functions. Employees shouldn’t feel threatened by these innovations but should look to embrace the efficiencies and new approaches they enable. 

Peter Kinder, CTO, Wax Digital
Image Credit: Razum / Shutterstock