by Byron Connolly

AI, robotics to drive Visy’s future

Apr 11, 2018
Technology Industry

Packaging giant Visy sees a future where its boxes have the intelligence to be self-monitoring, according to its billionaire boss, Anthony Pratt.

Speaking at the AWS Summit in Sydney on Wednesday, Visy’s chief told the audience the organisation is “not far away” from seeing packaging that can monitor its contents in the consumer’s home, automatically trigger a reorder, or provide proof of origin for supply chain integrity.

“So that a mother who needs infant formula for her baby knows exactly what she is getting, when it is ordered and that it’s not an inferior copy. Or with new advances in digital printing, the box may have personalised printing so when you open the box, it may say, ‘happy birthday Anthony’ when you open the lid,” he said.

Visy recently established a technology and digital hub in Singapore with a brief to incorporate IT, AI and robotics into every aspect of its packaging, paper-making and recycling businesses globally, said Pratt.

Understandably, Visy and Amazon Web Services have a close business relationship. Last year, Visy went into the public cloud, moving most of its workloads to AWS. Around 100 applications, including its core SAP system, went across to the platform.Pratt said that its SAP platform is running 10 times faster in the cloud, tech costs have dropped by 30 per cent, and outages have been eliminated.

Visy works with Amazon to shorten supply chains to reduce the cost of shipping goods from the tech giant’s warehouses to the end customer. Pratt Industries in the United States has already created custom-made boxes for Amazon in America that, for example, keep fresh food cooler, he said.

“Technology, robotics and artificial intelligence are becoming central to Visy. We will soon have one of the only fully-automated corrugated factory warehouses employing robotic, driverless forklifts. Beyond that we have a vision which I call the ‘lights out’ factory – a fully automated box factory that operates in the dark because robots don’t need lights.”

But despite the increased use of AI and robotics technologies, Pratt said the company will still employ more people every year to support its national growth.

“We want to use technology to help us do a better of job of looking after our customers, lowering our costs and innovating. But it has to be the right sort of innovation; 80 per cent of keeping machines running well, maintenance, is oiling and greasing the machines but engineers get bored and we end up spending money on things that don’t add to profit.

“So, it’s also important to go for not just the cool things in technology but the ones that have the fastest payback where there is sufficient margin of error,” he said.

Pratt said that over the past 30 years, Visy’s technology investment has grown from its first website and the introduction of ‘racing car-like’ dashboards on its machines to real time information being provided direct from the machine. Vendors then built processes into the machine itself and robots built into the machines, so they are not visible. In more recent years, the company has built an e-commerce website selling 17,000 products in an ‘Amazon-style’ shopping cart system, he said.

“We are now trailing additional services, including machine learning, to help with our sales and OHS data. Energy is a huge cost for us and the alliance with AWS is enabling us to trial artificial intelligence to bring down our energy usage,” he said.

Pratt claimed the level of automation provided by robots make labour costs irrelevant and are helping the Australian manufacturing industry compete against organisations overseas.

“The level of automation in robotics now involved in the best box factories is as sophisticated as the world’s most modern manufacturing facilities,” he said.