Jaan Kraav, head of production at Tarmeko Spoon: ‘Investing in artificial intelligence was the right call!’

‘Compared to human labour, artificial intelligence (AI) yields a more consistent quality. Robots are particularly good at tasks that involve routine work,’ stated Jaan Kraav, the head of production at AS Tarmeko Spoon. The positive impact of AI can be seen both in tangible results and in numbers.

Tarmeko Spoon, which had been looking for a way to boost production efficiency and eliminate certain bottlenecks for some time, decided to participate in an AI development marathon organised by Tehnopol, which brought them a triumphant capital injection and an investment that changed the company’s life.

Out of more than 20 candidates, the jury initially selected 14 artificial intelligence projects for manufacturing companies, of which the top four were granted a total of 190,000 euros for investment and to use towards achieving the project goals. The winners included the joint project of Tarmeko Spoon, a veneer and plywood manufacturer, and Leanest, with whom the company had previously collaborated.

A visible improvement

The 65,000-euro grant enabled the company to deploy an AI-driven camera that is able to identify defects in veneer while still on the turning line, determine the quality of the material, and, based on this information, decide where the material needs to be cut. The AI heavily outperforms human labourers. The final results of the project should be revealed in a year or two.

The AI has the potential to speed up the operation of the veneer-turning line by up to 30%, as well as increase the quality of dried veneer by 3% compared to the system in use today. This would allow the company to cut one whole shift from their operations. And if demand should grow, it would not be a problem for the company either.

Going forward, the company is also planning to deploy AI for the sorting of finished products. This job is currently performed by a total of six people working in three shifts, who will be assigned to other duties. The deployment of AI and the increase in efficiency does not mean that any employees will be laid off, simply that their tasks and work processes will be adjusted and revised.

According to Kraav, human labour is irreplaceable. While AI can perform routine or high-precision tasks at speeds that are unattainable by humans, the whole process still needs to be managed and defined by a person. The company currently has three robots in operation, but is not planning to stop there. Tarmeko Spoon has managed to escape the effects of both the coronavirus crisis and the war in Ukraine so far. In fact their business is growing rather than shrinking.

If the AI project with which Tarmeko Spoon, in partnership with Leanest, won the AI development marathon organised by the Tehnopol science and business park and for which they were awarded funding is carried out in full, the company can expect an up to 15% increase in turnover as well as lower production costs thanks to a reduced need for timber and power. And these are not the only benefits of the deployment of the AI system, although, according to Jaan Kraav, it is still early to go into details about everything.

How does a manufacturing plant arrive at artificial intelligence?  

In light of the above, other manufacturing enterprises might find themselves asking how you can determine whether investing in AI is reasonable or how you can get there. What are the risks? ‘Tarmeko Spoon had actually been looking for solutions to various problems for some time, but had not managed to find anything that would be a perfect fit,’ Kraav revealed. ‘Our good partner Leanest OÜ did offer one solution earlier on, but since it was on the expensive side, and implementation would have taken a very long time, the plan was dropped.’ Eventually, Leanest came up with an idea for utilising AI in a way that would be more affordable as well as cost-effective for Tarmeko Spoon.

‘The first project we started working on was a log-sorting line. An AI-driven camera would assess quality and would quickly identify all defective logs. A human operator might not notice every flaw across the full circumference of a log, but an AI camera certainly could.’

The original plan for the project presented at the AI marathon was actually to boost the efficiency and output of another production line. ‘We were planning to install a camera that would tell the line where it is best to cut the material, but found that this would be extremely expensive. So we set about looking for a different solution. Eventually, we arrived at what we ended up presenting at the AI marathon with Leanest: a way to avoid veneer being sent on for drying if it would later be rejected anyway during post-processing, as this involves a major commitment of time and resources. So, as you can see, we approached the bottleneck from a completely different angle. And it was the right call! Now we can determine the quality of the veneer right away instead of later on down the road, after committing resources unnecessarily.’

Meeting with AIRE

During the AI marathon that took place in winter, Tarmeko Spoon also met with representatives of AIRE, or AI & Robotics Estonia. AIRE is Estonia’s candidate for the European Digital Innovation Hubs Network, which is financing hubs across Europe in 2022–2025. AIRE can be considered an Estonian digital innovation hub that offers help to every Estonian company interested in AI or the latest technologies. Co-operation with researchers from the Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu further boosts the credibility of the organisation.

It was AIRE that recommended a mentor to Tarmeko Spoon to help implement the AI solution and advise the company during the project. After all, AI in theory and AI in actual production processes, where there are a number of other factors to consider, are two totally different things.

The support person that was engaged for the project, who deals with a wide variety of AI solutions on a daily basis, is Tähve Lõpp – a man who has been active in IT for 22 years and who has been involved in the development of all manner of software solutions. For the past three years, he has served as the head of the Smart Manufacturing Unit at Ericsson Eesti, where several exciting innovations are underway, the details of which, according to Lõpp, are still too early to discuss. Most of them have to do with AI, of course. ‘The only hint I can give is that, one day, there might a digital twin of Ericsson’s Tallinn factory… It will take time, obviously, but it will happen eventually.’

AI cannot help where production processes are not in order

Tähve Lõpp disclosed that although he has developed various software solutions in Estonia and abroad both for private and public sector entities for ten years, his heart now belongs firmly to industry. Which is one reason why he wants to contribute to the deployment of AI at Tarmeko Spoon. ‘I admit that I have always been drawn to the manufacturing sector, perhaps because it’s oriented towards producing something concrete that we need in our daily lives. At Ericsson, for example, we manufacture mobile devices so people can communicate with each other.’

At the same time, it is no secret that in Estonia the manufacturing sector is lagging behind many other sectors when it comes to digitisation (maybe as much as ten years, in fact), but AI will eventually also make its way there. ‘Not today, not yet, but the time will come, and quite soon.’ According to Tähve, any company that wants to remain in business for another 10 or 15 years should definitely be thinking about AI, or else they will lose any advantages they currently may have before they realise it. The future belongs to AI.

‘The primary prerequisite is for production processes to be in order; they must be airtight. AI cannot fix flawed processes. When considering innovative solutions, you should first ascertain how useful it will be in the aggregate.’ For AI technology, the expert proposed the following rule of thumb: if it will get you the necessary changes in a year, make the investment right away; if in two years, take some more time to think about it. If it will take three years, however, you are better off ditching the plan. ‘Automation can be done in many different ways; the key is to determine where efficiency is most needed and what makes the most sense – i.e., where it will save you the greatest amount of time and money. At Ericsson, analysing the company’s enormous testing datasets by means of a machine learning system is such a point,’ Lõpp noted. Companies that are struggling with the decision as to whether or not to deploy AI can certainly seek assistance from AIRE, but there are also a number of other good IT experts and consultancy firms that can help with this in Estonia. ‘Just find them, asking for advice does not require making any investments,’ Lõpp said.

The projects of AS Tarmeko Spoon and Ericsson Eesti were supported under Tehnopol’s AI programme in co-operation with AI & Robotics Estonia (AIRE).

   

Jaan Kraav, head of production at Tarmeko Spoon: ‘Investing in artificial intelligence was the right call!’

AIRE Club x Innovation Leaders Club: About innovation in robotics and AI, examples by Fyma and Thermory

AIRE Club #3 was organized in collaboration with the Innovation Leaders Club and Tartu Science Park. The event took place in SPARK Demo at Tartu. Two Estonian companies – Fyma and Thermory – spoke about using robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in their everyday work.

The members of the two clubs were greeted by Kirke Maar, the Project Manager of AIRE (AI & Robotics Estonia) and Martin Goroško, the Business Service Manager at Tehnopol Science and Business Park. Last year, Tartu City Government also joined the Innovation Leader’s Club and thus Mayor Urmas Klaas also greeted the listeners. Martin Goroško gave a brief overview of Tehnopol’s AI development programme that was launched last week.

AI HELPS TO MAKE THE CITY SMARTER

Startup Fyma (For Your Motion Analytics) spoke about how to use AI solutions to make the city smarter. Fyma uses technology to determine patterns, gather and store data. Based on the gathered data, companies that buy Fyma’s service, can make smart decisions.

Using AI can create a lot of questions. For example, does AI go against the General Data Protection Regulation requirements? Fyma has taught their AI not to identify faces and this is in accordance with GDPR.

MORE EFFICIENT PRODUCTION WITH THE HELP OF AI

Thermory makes products out of thermowood and they also use AI solutions. Today, they have eight factories in Northern Europe and three sawmills, their production units are equipped with modern technology. Thermory is the leading thermowood producer in the world.

According to the representative of Thermory, their biggest challenges have been related to human resources – how to produce more with the people they already have? This is where smart AI solutions can be of great help. Thermory’s experience has shown that it is very wise to use AI and robotics in those production lines that are physically the most challenging and require a lot of motorized work.

Keep an eye on the Innovation Leaders Club 

and on AIRE

Photos by: Brait Pilvik

The first AIRE Club brings together manufacturers and providers of support services

The first AIRE Club was held at the start of November to bring together the clients of AIRE, who are manufacturers and industrial companies, and the scientists, engineers, experts, IT developers, robot importers, banks, telecommunications companies, and public and private financiers that provide support services for them. The monthly AIRE Club is planned to help people work together in a relaxed format through discussion and dialogue that can lead to artificial intelligence and robotics projects being carried out. At a time when businesses have moved a large part of their communications over to digital channels, there is an increased real need for face-to-face communication in person. This was proved by the enthusiastic participation by industrial businesses in the event at the University of Tartu.

The artificial intelligence and robotics hub AIRE led by Tallinn University of Technology is the Estonian candidate to join the future pan-European network of digital innovation hubs that will next year have over 200 members from across the European Union. This means that AIRE Club can be a physical meeting space for presenting local services and success stories, alongside information on the work of other European hubs that may be of interest to Estonian manufacturing companies. It can also tell stories of Estonian cooperative success to audiences across Europe.

Vice Rector of Tallinn University of Technology Sven Illing spoke about how Silicon Valley has shown that success stories emerge from contacts, discussions and networks. One of the key ambitions for AIRE is to help manufacturers and their supporters at universities, IT firms and elsewhere to open the right doors to access additional sources of funding, as money will always be attracted to good ideas, but bringing the money and the idea together is not always easy.

At the first meeting, students from the University of Tartu presented robots that will in future serve the clients of medical institutions, and leisure and entertainment centres. At the next meeting, there will be presentations by businesses that have already used robots to change our consumption habits. “Successful enterprise needs cooperation, and cooperation needs the parties to meet each other”, said Kirke Maar, head of the AIRE hub, to explain the aim behind AIRE Club. The next AIRE Club meeting will be held on 10 December in Tallinn. More information soon!

Tööstusuudised.ee: The AI & Robotics Estonia hub AIRE is bringing universities closer to manufacturing

The piloting phase of AIRE was launched in October to test services for the industry – consult and advise manufacturing companies on how to apply artificial intelligence and robotics in developing their products.

“Our name is AI & Robotics Estonia, which gives us the short form AIRE”, said head of AIRE Kirke Maar recently in an interview with Äripäev radio.

She explained that the hub is an Estonian candidate to the European Digital Innovation Hubs network or EDIH in 2022. “This is a European programme that will fund 200 similar hubs across Europe. Each country chose what to focus on, and the choice in Estonia was for artificial intelligence and robotics”.

For more see: Tööstusuudised.ee, 11 October 2021. .

Estonian manufacturers can become more competitive in foreign markets with additional support from AIRE

AIRE, or the AI & Robotics Estoniatechnology hub, is offering manufacturing companies training, advice, and new, digital, tailor-made solutions that cannot be found on the open market. Currently we are in a preparatory piloting phase – legally the centre will be launched in 2022 after the funding decision from the European Commission. The hub is aiming to help make Estonian manufacturing companies more competitive in foreign markets.

AIRE is led by Tallinn University of Technology, and its partners are the University of Tartu, the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Tehnopol Science and Business Park, Tartu Science Park, and the Innovative Manufacturing Engineering Systems Competence Centre IMECC. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is putting almost half a million euros into the preparation phase in 2021-2022: preparing the final proposal to EC, developing the services of the hub and its work will be piloted through Estonian universities and science parks. Professional associations, clusters, chambers of commerce, telecoms companies, developers of robotics systems, banks, importers of robotics and many others are also involved as collaboration partners.

One important goal is to help companies find additional funding for applying artificial intelligence and robotics in their development projects, using funds from structural grants, the recovery fund, the Horizon programme, the Digital Europe Programme (DEP) and elsewhere.

Head of the AIRE hub Kirke Maar explained that the key idea is to bring universities closer to industrial companies, so that teaching and research work can be made more applicable in practice, and better aligned with the needs of employers. “In the longer term AIRE will help to ease the concerns of businesses about labour supplies, such as where to find additional production managers, engineers, IT specialists and quality managers. We are currently trying to take small steps to give clear examples through the training, consultation and demo projects of AIRE of how industrial companies can collect and process data and so use big data to build AI solutions in future to manage their businesses better and so optimise production, control quality, manage energy consumption, avoid stoppages on production lines, and much more. We are also very keen on hearing the ideas of manufacturing companies and their proposals for how we can work together, and we are planning an open call for small projects at the start of 2022”, she said.

“One of the top priorities of the AIRE for universities is the network and the mapping of exactly which data companies have and how it could be collected in future. Then we can ask what kind of strategic issues there are in production management that could be answered by analysing and building algorithms with big data and possible ways to use artificial intelligence in creating development at businesses”, said Professor Jaak Vilo, head of the Institute of Computer Science of University of Tartu. He explained further that by working together, possible standard solutions and providers for them can be thought of, while problems that desperately need applied science from universities can be identified, and fundamental research could possibly even be carried out. “It is difficult to know without starting a dialogue what one party wants and what the other can do, and where there are bottlenecks preventing ready-made solutions from being applied”, he noted.

AIRE is the Estonian candidate to the network of European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIH), that will be launched over Europe in 2022. Top European experts from other EDIH’s will also be able to bring their knowledge, experience and contacts to Estonia.

First robotics training for Estonian manufacturing companies started on 26 October, with a training course in robotics led by experts in Estonian manufacturing and science. The course will be led by Professor Jüri Riives of Tallinn University of Technology, founder of the Innovative Manufacturing Engineering Systems Competence Centre (IMECC), who explained that it will give an understanding of the feasibility of robotisation, clear explanations of the choice between industrial and cooperative robots, guidelines on robotising a workplace, and help in assessing the risks of robotisation (for more see https://aire-edih.eu/yritus/?27983). Registration for the training course is open until 22 October.

The AIRE Club will start work in November to build a community where information can be exchanged about development prospects in robotics and artificial intelligence, best practice, financial support, and the digitalisation of manufacturing. The first AIRE Club meetings will be held on 3 Novemberin Tartu and 10 December in Tallinn (for more see aire-edih.eu). The demonstration projects of AIRE and its plans for 2022 are described on its website.

News about the launch of AIRE can also be found at: Tööstusuudised.ee; Geenius.ee; Postimees.