Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) – machines that can process information and/or make decisions with little human intervention – have the potential to enable big changes in the processing industry. But are these changes always positive, and are they contributing to improving sustainability? As part of project ERGO of ISPT’s Industry 4.0 theme, a team at Utrecht University is studying the impact of digitalization and artificial intelligence in the sustainability of the steel industry. We spoke to Nikhil John about their recent research. How can someone working in the industry contribute going forward?
What is your research about?
From solving labour shortages and improving regional competitiveness to increasing sustainability, Artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced digital tools are often seen as a silver bullet to to the large challenges facing processing industries. The most prominent theme of sustainability is decarbonization. We wanted to understand how AI is currently being used in the Dutch processing industry and identify its potential for improving the industry’s decarbonisation efforts.
What did you do in your research?
We first narrowed the analysis to one sector – the steel industry. It was important to know what is really going on in the industry. Using scientific journal articles, we built and analysed a comprehensive list of all the AI tools we could find in the industry. We then also interviewed several experts to understand AI innovation’s complex interaction with the decarbonization transition.
What is the most striking result?
The results show that within the steel industry, AI tools are targeted more towards improving the existing fossil fuel-based system in areas like the blast furnace, rolling and casting. There is shockingly little use of AI innovation for essential future low-carbon technologies like hydrogen.
Are there benefits of AI for sustainability and a low-carbon industry?
Absolutely! We were also surprised by the huge variety of AI tools just in the steel industry. There are many areas where AI can directly help deep decarbonization and we need to actively promote such applications. Our research also provides evidence that AI and digitalization are starting to fundamentally change the industry in ways that could help reduce barriers to innovation. Making the traditional, slow-moving sectors more innovative as a whole might unlock new potential for sustainability.
What will be your next steps?
We, as an industry, need to find ways to make the best use of digital technologies like AI while minimizing negative effects such as further lock-in of fossil-based-systems. Our follow-up research is trying understand how digital innovations emerge and diffuse in the industry. We can then find the right kind policy solutions to build an effective and sustainable digital innovation ecosystem within the processing industries.
If you are involved with digitalization in the Dutch processing industry, my colleagues and I at Utrecht University would like to speak to you! It is critical to hear experiences of all companies and experts to find the best solutions for effective policy support.
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The full publication can be read on open-access: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652622032024