The Future Hits the Shop Floor

18 Oaks Sign Co. is incorporating artificial intelligence to improve shop processes.
BJ Barlow

BJ Barlow, owner of 18 Oaks Sign Co. (McMinnville, OR), was searching for ways to improve his shop – and also protect himself against the realities of running a modern business in America. Instead of settling on a more traditional fix, Barlow went futuristic: artificial intelligence (AI).

If you stop by 18 Oaks today, you won’t see robots making channel letters. The change is more subtle, with Barlow incorporating AI into his shop’s processes on an analytical level and working to implement audio recognition devices onto the shop floor, so that AI can learn the sound frequencies of different equipment and alert an employee to changes or potential problems. “It eliminates the guesswork in the sales or manufacturing processes,” Barlow said.

With AI, Barlow is aiming for consistency across his business while guarding himself against the reality of the 21st century employee. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, in January 2018 the median employee tenure for men was 4.3 years. For women it was 4 years. Furthermore, many signshop owners could tell you that the skilled labor market has taken a hit in recent years. With that in mind, AI can be used as a support system for someone who may not have “30 years of experience in that position,” Barlow said.

Barlow acknowledged that the implementation of AI into 18 Oaks lacks an end date. “We’ll consistently be in the process,” he said. “Every time you think you’ve got a grasp on it or a leading edge, it seems there are new developments and ideas.”

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