‘Thrilled about the prospects of Artificial Intelligence in Pakistan’
Salman Chaudhary has 30 years of experience in senior leadership roles in enterprise software, Internet, and technology consulting firms. He has a successful track record of starting and growing businesses in North America, Europe, and Asia and developing innovative technology solutions to deliver business value to leading Global 1000 companies.
Prior to EmpiricAI, Salman was Managing Director, EMEA for MaintenanceNet, a leading SaaS solution provider, that was sold to Cisco in 2016. He also served as Managing Director, EMEA & APAC, at InQuira Inc, a leading Knowledge Management software company, where he was responsible for the company’s international business. InQuira was acquired by Oracle Corp. in 2011. Salman was an early hire, and served as Managing Director, EMEA, at Scient, a leading eBusiness consulting firm. Scient had a successful listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange, and was later acquired by SBI, Inc.
Salman was an early hire at Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP), a business and technology consulting company, where he held several leadership roles, including GM, Financial Services. CTP had a successful listing on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange and was later acquired by Novell, Inc. Salman holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. BR Research recently had a detailed conversation, the edited excerpts of which are as under.
BRR: Tell us about the company and how it all started.
Salman Chaudhary: A very exciting opportunity arose that brought me back to Pakistan, as a result of Dawood Hercules Corporation’s (DH Corp) desire to leverage its experience of operating industrial plants and invest in transformative and disruptive technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. My partner, Zafar Khan, and I have both been involved in building technology businesses around the world, and the opportunity to work with DH Corp, Engro, and GE, to develop cutting edge Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and AI solutions for the industrial sector excited us both.
The venture came about as a collaboration between General Electric and Dawood Hercules Corporation at the highest levels. GE had decided that the most significant future opportunity for it was to develop IIoT and data sciences based digital solutions, rather than continuing to rely on its industrial hardware business. IIoT has created a massive opportunity for businesses to make existing industrial assets and industrial plants and manufacturing more efficient and productive.
GE placed a large bet on digital solutions and invested very heavily in IIoT and Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML), and focuses on making the customers more efficient, more productive, more sustainable, at lower fuel and raw material costs. Those were very ambitious goals but that resonated very well with the DH Corp, and it started a partnership in which our team worked with the GE Digital team to create propositions for customers around the world that would help them leverage Artificial Intelligence, data science, creating new models based on data, and to make the plants more efficient.
We have been working with GE for about four years now. We are working in several sectors with customers all around the world. In the metals manufacturing sector with one of our early customers, we jointly developed AI models to better predict the maintenance of key components in their manufacturing plant. We helped that company, based in Greece, realizing annual savings of USD 8 million. These are the kind of cost savings that organizations can realize by implementing AI and Machine Learning solutions.
BRR: What are some of the key sectors that you have targeted your solutions at?
SC: AI/ML solutions have been adopted in many sectors, including financial services, healthcare, hi-tech, pharmaceuticals, logistics and transportation. The industrial manufacturing sector is generally a laggard in new technology adoption. The opportunity to leverage IIoT AI, and Machine Learning is phenomenal. It not only improves yields and reduces cost, but also reduces wastage and makes industry more sustainable. By improving maintenance processes, you are reducing the new materials and increasing the sustainability of not only the enterprise but also of our planet.
We have developed a cross functional team in Pakistan that is developing and implementing digital solutions for chemical process manufacturing, industrial manufacturing, large scale construction, petrochemicals, pharma, and mining sectors. The team consists of experts from industry having a wealth of experience and expertise in plant operations and health and safety. Our data scientists and software developers work with our industry experts to create AI/ML models and intelligent analytics software that improves the performance of the plant and its safety,
By bringing these three teams together we have been able to create a strong value proposition that we believe is unique, not just in Pakistan, but across the world.
We look at AI and IIoT as enablers for the industry. Our vision is to bring some of these laggard sectors such as industrial manufacturing, oil & gas, and construction sector more into the current age or perhaps even into the future, to move them away from basic IT tools they are using and to start leveraging intelligent and predictive analytics. Predictive analytics not only provides companies with an accurate and comprehensive view of what is happening on site but also predicts potential problems and provides insights into their resolution, enabling organizations to shift from their current reactive mode to a proactive mode.
BRR: How much of an impact did Covid make on your operations and how you approach your target market in terms of solution offerings?
SC: When Covid hit, we realized that a lot of our customers in the industrial sector were facing significant challenges that ranged from securing supply chains to having uncertain customer demand. Workplace safety became an incredibly significant challenge for a lot of our customers. Most organizations implemented social distancing and face mask SOPs, but the level of monitoring and compliance has been patchy at best. Without active and comprehensive monitoring of how the guidelines are being followed, you cannot really know whether you are actually reducing the risk of infection, as well as the risk of disruption to operations.
In the UK, there have been several cases of large outbreaks in food processing plants, construction sites, and manufacturing plants, that have led to plant shutdowns. To help solve such challenges, we shifted gears and created a proposition to help our customers deal with this unprecedented challenge.
We created a solution that leveraged another branch of AI, Computer Vision AI, which is a relatively new branch that focuses on visual data and algorithms that can be applied to images and videos. Our goal was to help our customers accurately and comprehensively monitor how well people at the worksites were complying with the safety guidelines they had put in place. We do this by applying our AI models on CCTV camera video feeds to detect proper face mask usage, social distancing, and crowding within a workplace, and then to analyze and assess the results to provide specific insights that will improve workplace safety.
It is only when you have the data from comprehensive monitoring, can you really assess the risk of infection and disruption to your business. Our solution is now being used in offices and factories, that our customers are finding incredibly useful in helping them not just to reduce the risks of infection, but also giving them insights on specific steps that need to be taken to ensure social distancing, SOP implementation, and so forth. This assures businesses by reducing the risk of infection and it reassures employees that they are working in a safe environment, protecting themselves and their families.
There are a lot of exciting avenues about Computer Vision AI and we are starting to work with our customers beyond Covid, especially for activities that require human inspection and are repetitive. We are thrilled about the prospects of AI (Machine Learning and Computer Vision) in Pakistan as well as outside Pakistan, to help make businesses more productive, to reduce their operational costs and carbon footprints, and to keep employees safe and business protected.
BRR: Is Pakistan’s industrial space ripe enough for the kind of solutions you offer?
SC: Pakistan is very much a target market for us, alongside North America, Europe, and the Middle East. We have two products that we think would be very successful in Pakistan which have already been deployed at customer sites while there is growing interest from prospective customers that we are in talks with.
The first of those products is what we discussed earlier, which focused purely on industrial plants in the chemical, oil & gas, and power sectors. We make the job of engineers at these plants far easier through our products. Our software enables better and timely monitoring of key plant metrics, improves the productivity of plant engineers, and dramatically reduces the time to identify issues and root causes making troubleshooting much easier.
Our second product gives businesses control over managing the risk of Covid. The solution allows them to monitor real time through technology without having to dedicate people to do the job. It gives them a view on SOP compliance that could not be obtained through spot inspections and provides visual dashboards and heatmaps to highlight problem areas that need to be addressed through education and awareness, physical measures, and other means. This gives employees the confidence to return to workplaces and business to return to full productivity.
Even in office environments, where many companies have adapted to working from home, there is a loss of productivity, and that is not just lost at the individual level, but at team levels as well. More than the loss of productivity, companies are experiencing a loss of innovation, that comes from physical interaction and brainstorming. In this rapidly changing environment of Covid, I believe businesses will have to take measures to continue to deal with Covid protection for much longer than people are expecting.
BRR: Is there enough traction in Pakistan or does Pakistan lag other countries in terms of adaptability and readiness to encourage the use of technology?
SC: I don’t think Pakistan lags behind other countries in their understanding of technology or the ability to implement technology. I see a lot of organizations utilizing new and relevant technologies. The Industrial manufacturing sector, and in particular chemical manufacturing, has always been more conservative in adopting new technologies not just in Pakistan, but across the world.
The reason why businesses in Pakistan may not have adopted newer innovative technologies as much as they should have, is due to the lack of competitive pressures. This is largely because of extended period of subsidizing and protective (and anti-competitive) policies. Technology is an efficiency enabler, and if businesses don’t need to be more efficient to make money, there are no incentives for them to invest in technology. We see that is slowly changing now. Businesses are now more open to investing in new technologies to improve profits, improve yields and reduce costs, and make their employees more productive.
As Pakistan now moves towards being more competitive, and less reliant on subsidies and protection mechanism, companies are looking at leveraging technology to be more efficient. Even in the absence of competition, people want to engage in technology to generate higher profits, and this is what we help them do. In these Covid times, we can help them achieve these goals remotely as well.
BRR: Are your solutions aimed only at the large-scale manufacturers?
SC: Our Industrial Analytics product is better suited to larger industrial plants and not to small manufacturing units because it relies upon the data that a plant generates. Smaller units usually do not have the kind of data sensors and control systems that are imperative for this solution.
Our WorkSafe Analytics product uses the same analytics framework but uses a different type of data (video), and is therefore relevant to large and small units, and not only industrial, but also to construction sites, food processing plants, corporate offices, and customer interaction branches. Wherever there is a risk of Covid infection and measures are being taken to reduce that risk to keep the operations productive and running, our product can help organizations, ensure safety and continuity of business operations, leveraging their existing CCTV/surveillance investments.
BRR: You touched upon saving and efficiency improvements in industrial settings. Is that a significant number in terms of plant efficiency, dollar saving value, etc.?
SC: There are savings at multiple levels. Our solution provides savings in terms of productivity gains, savings on maintenance of different assets where you can extend the life of parts by up to 20 percent in some instances. There is then the running of the plants, where you can achieve two kinds of savings.
There are plants which start to yield suboptimal production, be it power generation or a chemical plant, and our product in many cases can predict and prevent such situations. At large plants, troubleshooting issues of performance or quality degradation can take days, weeks or even longer. Through our software, we aim to detect such issues before they occur, leading to substantial savings, in terms of both money and time, as well as drastically reducing the time it takes to troubleshoot, when that is required.
BRR: We keep hearing how data science, AI and machine learning are the future. Is Pakistan going in the right direction in terms of the quality of human resources that will be needed and is there enough linkage between the industry and academia to ensure Pakistan does not miss the boat again?
SC: I will give you a candid answer based on my experience of mostly working outside Pakistan and the recent one in Pakistan. I think we have some great raw talent but with little exposure to applying these technologies to solve business problems. That can only be developed into world class talent that can compete at the international stage as a result of industry using AI, and data sciences. Educational institutions and businesses together have a role to play in developing our talent to being world class. Companies are starting to engage on Proof of Concept (POC) and Pilot implementations, but the industrial sector is still at a very early stage in terms of realizing the true potential of data sciences, Machine Learning and Computer Vision AI.