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Ford drives scheduling with artificial intelligence

Sharon Gaudin | Feb. 5, 2015
Automaker relieves burden of scheduling worker assignments with AI software.

Virtual face of artificial intelligence circuits and binary data

At Ford Motor Co., managers were struggling to work out a schedule for the growing number of people in a three-year program for new hires fresh out of college.

They were caught in a quagmire of employee requests, the need for rotational assignments and a growing number of participants and jobs. Even with a group of people working on the schedule, the project was taking too much time and effort -- and getting worse.

For Ford, the answer came from a new hire in the very program that needed fixing: artificial intelligence.

While many people think of artificial intelligence, or AI, as something out of a sci-fi movie that has robots waging war on people, AI can be the answer for complex and weighty problems like scheduling.

"It was [a problem] that was taking away time from people who didn't have time," said Leonard Kinnaird-Heether, an AI researcher at Ford who built the program. "There was a way to solve this. AI was a good idea for this because this problem represents a core function that AI can take care of.... We developed a tool to automate it so we can give that time back."

Stephen Smith, a research professor focused on Ai at Carnegie Mellon University, said this kind of scheduling issue is a classic problem for AI to handle, and Ford was smart to use it.

"We need to rethink AI," he said. "It can be a powerful amplifier of human decision making without taking over the decision making.... It's a time saver.... In the area of planning and scheduling, that's one of the advantages that the AI model brings -- this flexibility, this tool that you can adapt to solve different problems pretty quickly."

Getting the grads
In the 1960s, the automaker created what is known as the Ford College Graduate Program to help recent college grads acclimate to the corporate environment at Ford. Most organizations inside the company -- like IT -- have their own implementation of the program.

Here's how it works: If the company hires someone freshly out of college, they need to work rotational job assignments. He or she gets three different jobs in the first three years at Ford.

"Ford has all these other opportunities in IT that we can do and in college you don't really think about it," said Kinnaird-Heether. "It gives you business acumen and helps you understand what positions are at the company and you have a better idea of what you want to do with the company."

As more people joined, it became increasingly difficult for managers to fit workers into the right jobs, taking into account seniority and participants' own assignment preferences.


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