Confused about AI and Machine Learning?

Are you confused about what is AI and what is machine learning? Are you unsure why knowing more will help you with your job in inventory planning? Don’t despair. You’ll be ok, and we’ll show you how some of whatever-it-is can be useful.

What is and what isn’t

What is AI and how does it differ from ML? Well, what does anybody do these days when they want to know something? They Google it. And when they do, the confusion starts.

One source says that the neural net methodology called deep learning is a subset of machine learning, which is a subset of AI. But another source says that deep learning is already a part of AI because it sort of mimics the way the human mind works, while machine learning doesn’t try to do that.

One source says there are two types of machine learning: supervised and unsupervised. Another says there are four: supervised, unsupervised, semi-supervised and reinforcement.

Some say reinforcement learning is machine learning; others call it AI.

Some of us traditionalists call a lot of it “statistics”, though not all of it is.

In the naming of methods, there is a lot of room for both emotion and salesmanship. If a software vendor thinks you want to hear the phrase “AI”, they may well say it for you just to make you happy.

Better to focus on what comes out at the end

You can avoid some confusing hype if you focus on the end result you get from some analytic technology, regardless of its label. There are several analytical tasks that are relevant to inventory planners and demand planners. These include clustering, anomaly detection, regime change detection, and regression analysis. All four methods are usually, but not always, classified as machine learning methods. But their algorithms can come straight out of classical statistics.


Clustering means grouping together things that are similar and distancing them from things that are dissimilar. Sometimes clustering is easy: to separate your customers geographically, simply sort them by state or sales region. When the problem is not so dead obvious, you can use data and clustering algorithms to get the job done automatically even when dealing with massive datasets.

For example, Figure 1 illustrates a cluster of “demand profiles”, which in this case divides all a customer’s items into nine clusters based on the shape of their cumulative demand curves. Cluster 1.1 in the top left contains items whose demand has been petering out, while Cluster 3.1 in the bottom left contains items whose demand has accelerated.  Clustering can also be done on suppliers. The choice of number of clusters is typically left to user judgement, but ML can guide that choice.  For example, a user might instruct the software to “break my parts into 4 clusters” but using ML may reveal that there are really 6 distinct clusters the user should analyze. 


Confused about AI and Machine Learning Inventory Planning

Figure 1: Clustering items based on the shapes of their cumulative demand

Anomaly Detection

Demand forecasting is traditionally done using time series extrapolation. For instance, simple exponential smoothing works to find the “middle” of the demand distribution at any time and project that level forward. However, if there has been a sudden, one-time jump up or down in demand in the recent past, that anomalous value can have a significant but unwelcome effect on the near-term forecast.  Just as serious for inventory planning, the anomaly can have an outsized effect on the estimate of demand variability, which goes directly to the calculation of safety stock requirements.

Planners may prefer to find and remove such anomalies (and maybe do offline follow-up to find out the reason for the weirdness). But nobody with a big job to do will want to visually scan thousands of demand plots to spot outliers, expunge them from the demand history, then recalculate everything. Human intelligence could do that, but human patience would soon fail. Anomaly detection algorithms could do the work automatically using relatively straightforward statistical methods. You could call this “artificial intelligence” if you wish.

Regime Change Detection

Regime change detection is like the big brother of anomaly detection. Regime change is a sustained, rather than temporary, shift in one or more aspects of the character of a time series. While anomaly detection usually focuses on sudden shifts in mean demand, regime change could involve shifts in other features of the demand, such as its volatility or its distributional shape.  

Figure 2 illustrates an extreme example of regime change. The bottom dropped out of demand for this item around day 120. Inventory control policies and demand forecasts based on the older data would be wildly off base at the end of the demand history.

Confused about AI and Machine Learning Demand Planning

Figure 2: An example of extreme regime change in an item with intermittent demand

Here too, statistical algorithms can be developed to solve this problem, and it would be fair play to call them “machine learning” or “artificial intelligence” if so motivated.  Using ML or AI to identify regime changes in demand history enables demand planning software to automatically use only the relevant history when forecasting instead of having to manually pick the amount of history to introduce to the model. 

Regression analysis

Regression analysis relates one variable to another through an equation. For example, sales of window frames in one month may be predicted from building permits issued a few months earlier. Regression analysis has been considered a part of statistics for over a century, but we can say it is “machine learning” since an algorithm works out the precise way to convert knowledge of one variable into a prediction of the value of another.


It is reasonable to be interested in what’s going on in the areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence. While the attention given to ChatGPT and its competitors is interesting, it is not relevant to the numerical side of demand planning or inventory management. The numerical aspects of ML and AI are potentially relevant, but you should try to see through the cloud of hype surrounding these methods and focus on what they can do.  If you can get the job done with classical statistical methods, you might just do that, then exercise your option to stick the ML label on anything that moves.



Centering Act: Spare Parts Timing, Pricing, and Reliability

Just as the renowned astronomer Copernicus transformed our understanding of astronomy by placing the sun at the center of our universe, today, we invite you to re-center your approach to inventory management. And while not quite as enlightening, this advice will help your company avoid being caught in the gravitational pull of inventory woes—constantly orbiting between stockouts, surplus gravity, and the unexpected cosmic expenses of expediting?

In this article, we’ll walk you through the process of crafting a spare parts inventory plan that prioritizes availability metrics such as service levels and fill rates while ensuring cost efficiency. We’ll focus on an approach to inventory planning called Service Level-Driven Inventory Optimization. Next, we’ll discuss how to determine what parts you should include in your inventory and those that might not be necessary. Lastly, we’ll explore ways to enhance your service-level-driven inventory plan consistently.

In service-oriented businesses, the consequences of stockouts are often very significant.  Achieving high service levels depends on having the right parts at the right time. However, having the right parts isn’t the only factor. Your Supply Chain Team must develop a consensus inventory plan for every part, then continuously update it to reflect real-time changes in demand, supply, and financial priorities.


Managing inventory with Service-level-driven planning combines the ability to plan thousands of items with high-level strategic modeling. This requires addressing core issues facing inventory executives:

  • Lack of control over supply and associated lead times.
  • Unpredictable intermittent demand.
  • Conflicting priorities between maintenance/mechanical teams and Materials Management.
  • Reactive “wait and see” approach to planning.
  • Misallocated inventory, causing stockouts and excess.
  • Lack of trust in systems and processes.

The key to optimal service parts management is to grasp the balance between providing excellent service and controlling costs. To do this, we must compare the costs of stockout with the cost of carrying additional spare parts inventory. The costs of a stockout will be higher for critical or emergency spares, when there is a service level agreement with external customers, for parts used in multiple assets, for parts with longer supplier lead times, and for parts with a single supplier. The cost of inventory may be assessed by considering the unit costs, interest rates, warehouse space that will be consumed, and potential for obsolescence (parts used on a soon-to-be-retired fleet have a higher obsolescence risk, for example).

To arbitrate how much stock should be put on the shelf for each part, it is critical to establish consensus on the desired key metrics that expose the tradeoffs the business must make to achieve the desired KPIs. These KPIs will include Service Levels that tell you how often you meet usage needs without falling short on stock, Fill Rates that tell you what percentage of demand is filled, and Ordering costs detail the expenses incurred when you place and receive replenishment orders. You also have Holding costs, which encompass expenses like obsolescence, taxes, and warehousing, and Shortage costs that pertain to expenses incurred when stockouts happen.

An MRO business or Aftermarket Parts Planning team might desire a 99% service level across all parts – i.e., the minimum stockout risk that they are willing to accept is 1%. But what if the amount of inventory needed to support that service level is too expensive? To make an informed decision on whether there is going to be a return on that additional inventory investment, you’ll need to know the stockout costs and compare that to the inventory costs. To get stockout costs, multiply two key elements: the cost per stockout and the projected number of stockouts. To get inventory value, multiply the units required by the unit cost of each part. Then determine the annual holding costs (typically 25-35% of the unit cost). Choose the option that yields a total lower cost. In other words, if the benefit associated with adding more stock (reduced shortage costs) outweighs the cost (higher inventory holding costs), then go for it. A thorough understanding of these metrics and the associated tradeoffs serves as the compass for decision-making.

Modern software aids in this process by allowing you to simulate a multitude of future scenarios. By doing so, you can assess how well your current inventory stocking strategies are likely to perform in the face of different demand and supply patterns. If anything falls short or goes awry, it’s time to recalibrate your approach, factoring in current data on usage history, supplier lead times, and costs to prevent both stockouts and overstock situations.


Enhance your service-level-driven inventory plan consistently.

In conclusion, it’s crucial to assess your service-level-driven plan continuously. By systematically constructing and refining performance scenarios, you can define key metrics and goals, benchmark expected performance, and automate the calculation of stocking policies for all items. This iterative process involves monitoring, revising, and repeating each planning cycle.

The depth of your analysis within these stocking policies relies on the data at your disposal and the configuration capabilities of your planning system. To achieve optimal outcomes, it’s imperative to maintain ongoing data analysis. This implies that a manual approach to data examination is typically insufficient for the needs of most organizations.

For information on how Smart Software can help you meet your service supply chain goals with service-driven planning and more, visit the following blogs.

–   “Explaining What  Service-Level Means in Your Inventory Optimization Software”  Stocking recommendations can be puzzling, especially when they clash with real-world needs.  In this post, we’ll break down what that 99% service level means and why it’s crucial for managing inventory effectively and keeping customers satisfied in today’s competitive landscape.

–  “Service-Level-Driven Planning for Service Parts Businesses” Service-Level-Driven Service Parts Planning is a four-step process that extends beyond simplified forecasting and rule-of-thumb safety stocks. It provides service parts planners with data-driven, risk-adjusted decision support.

–   “How to Choose a Target Service Level.” This is a strategic decision about inventory risk management, considering current service levels and fill rates, replenishment lead times, and trade-offs between capital, stocking and opportunity costs.  Learn approaches that can help.

–   “The Right Forecast Accuracy Metric for Inventory Planning.”  Just because you set a service level target doesn’t mean you’ll actually achieve it. If you are interested in optimizing stock levels, focus on the accuracy of the service level projection. Learn how.


Spare Parts Planning Software solutions

Smart IP&O’s service parts forecasting software uses a unique empirical probabilistic forecasting approach that is engineered for intermittent demand. For consumable spare parts, our patented and APICS award winning method rapidly generates tens of thousands of demand scenarios without relying on the assumptions about the nature of demand distributions implicit in traditional forecasting methods. The result is highly accurate estimates of safety stock, reorder points, and service levels, which leads to higher service levels and lower inventory costs. For repairable spare parts, Smart’s Repair and Return Module accurately simulates the processes of part breakdown and repair. It predicts downtime, service levels, and inventory costs associated with the current rotating spare parts pool. Planners will know how many spares to stock to achieve short- and long-term service level requirements and, in operational settings, whether to wait for repairs to be completed and returned to service or to purchase additional service spares from suppliers, avoiding unnecessary buying and equipment downtime.

Contact us to learn more how this functionality has helped our customers in the MRO, Field Service, Utility, Mining, and Public Transportation sectors to optimize their inventory. You can also download the Whitepaper here.



White Paper: What you Need to know about Forecasting and Planning Service Parts


This paper describes Smart Software’s patented methodology for forecasting demand, safety stocks, and reorder points on items such as service parts and components with intermittent demand, and provides several examples of customer success.


    How to Forecast Inventory Requirements

    Forecasting inventory requirements is a specialized variant of forecasting that focuses on the high end of the range of possible future demand.

    For simplicity, consider the problem of forecasting inventory requirements for just one period ahead, say one day ahead. Usually, the forecasting job is to estimate the most likely or average level of product demand. However, if available inventory equals the average demand, there is about a 50% chance that demand will exceed inventory and result in lost sales and/or lost good will. Setting the inventory level at, say, ten times the average demand will probably eliminate the problem of stockouts, but will just as surely result in bloated inventory costs.

    The trick of inventory optimization is to find a satisfactory balance between having enough inventory to meet most demand without tying up too many resources in the process. Usually, the solution is a blend of business judgment and statistics. The judgmental part is to define an acceptable inventory service level, such as meeting 95% of demand immediately from stock. The statistical part is to estimate the 95th percentile of demand.

    When not dealing with intermittent demand, you can often estimate the required inventory level by assuming a bell-shaped (Normal) curve of demand, estimating both the middle and the width of the bell curve, then using a standard statistical formula to estimate the desired percentile. The difference between the desired inventory level and the average level of demand is called the “safety stock” because it protects against the possibility of stockouts.

    When dealing with intermittent demand, the bell-shaped curve is a very poor approximation to the statistical distribution of demand. In this special case, Smart leverages patented technology for intermittent demand that is designed to accurately forecast the ranges and produce a better estimate of the safety stock needed to achieve the required inventory service level.


    Six Demand Planning Best Practices You Should Think Twice About

    Every field, including forecasting, accumulates folk wisdom that eventually starts masquerading as “best practices.”  These best practices are often wise, at least in part, but they often lack context and may not be appropriate for certain customers, industries, or business situations.  There is often a catch, a “Yes, but”. This note is about six usually true forecasting precepts that nevertheless do have their caveats.


    1. Organize your company around a one-number forecast. This sounds sensible: it’s good to have a shared vision. But each part of the company will have its own idea about which number is the number. Finance may want quarterly revenue, Marketing may want web site visits, Sales may want churn, Maintenance may want mean time to failure. For that matter, each unit probably has a handful of key metrics. You don’t need a slogan – you need to get your job done.


    1. Incorporate business knowledge into a collaborative forecasting process. This is a good general rule, but if your collaborative process is flawed, messing with a statistical forecast via management overrides can decrease accuracy. You don’t need a slogan – you need to measure and compare the accuracy of any and all methods and go with the winners.


    1. Forecast using causal modeling. Extrapolative forecasting methods take no account of the underlying forces driving your sales, they just work with the results. Causal modeling takes you deeper into the fundamental drivers and can improve both accuracy and insight. However, causal models (implemented through regression analysis) can be less accurate, especially when they require forecasts of the drivers (“predictions of the predictors”) rather than simply plugging in recorded values of lagged predictor variables. You don’t need a slogan: You need a head-to-head comparison.


    1. Forecast demand instead of shipments. Demand is what you really want, but “composing a demand signal” can be tricky: what do you do with internal transfers? One-off’s?  Lost sales? Furthermore, demand data can be manipulated.  For example, if customers intentionally don’t place orders or try to game their orders by ordering too far in advance, then order history won’t be better than shipment history.  At least with shipment history, it’s accurate:  You know what you shipped. Forecasts of shipments are not forecasts of  “demand”, but they are a solid starting point.


    1. Use Machine Learning methods. First, “Machine learning” is an elastic concept that includes an ever-growing set of alternatives. Under the hood of many ML advertised models is just an auto-pick an extrapolative forecast method (i.e., best fit) which while great at forecasting normal demand, has been around since the 1980’s (Smart Software was the first company to release an auto-pick method for the PC).   ML models are data hogs that require larger data sets than you may have available. Properly choosing then training an ML model requires a level of statistical expertise that is uncommon in many manufacturing and distribution businesses. You might want to find somebody to hold your hand before you start playing this game.


    1. Removing outliers creates better forecasts. While it is true that very unusual spikes or drops in demand will mask underlying demand patterns such as trend or seasonality, it isn’t always true that you should remove the spikes. Often these demand surges reflect the uncertainty that can randomly interfere with your business and thus need to be accounted for.  Removing this type of data from your demand forecast model might make the data more predictable on paper but will leave you surprised when it happens again. So, be careful about removing outliers, especially en masse.





    Explaining What “Service Level” Means in Your Inventory Optimization Software

    Customers often ask us why a stocking recommendation is “so high.” Here is a question we received recently:

    During our last team meeting, we found a few items with abnormal gaps between our current ROP and the Smart-suggested ROP at a 99% service level. The concern is that the system indicates that the reorder point will have to increase substantially to achieve a 99% service level. Would you please help us understand the calculation?

    When we reviewed the data, it was clear to the customer that the Smart-calculated ROP was indeed correct.  We concluded (1) what they really wanted was a much lower service level target and (2) we had not done a good explaining what was really meant by “service level.” 

    So, what does a “99% service level” really mean? 

    When it pertains to the target that you enter in your inventory optimization software, it means that the stocking level for the item in question will have a 99% chance of being able to fill whatever the customer needs right away.  For instance, if you have 50 units in stock, there is a 99% chance that the next demand will fall somewhere in the range of 0 to 50 units.

    What our customer meant was that 99% of the time a customer placed an order, it was delivered in full within whatever lead time the customer was quoted.  In other words, not necessarily right away but when promised.  

    Obviously, the more time you give yourself to deliver to a customer the higher your service level will be. But that distinction is often not explicitly understood when new users of inventory optimization software are conducting what-if scenarios at different service levels.  And that can lead to considerable confusion.  Computing service levels based on immediate stock availability is a higher standard: harder to meet but much more competitive.

    Our manufacturing customers often quote service levels based on lead times to their customers, so it isn’t essential for them to deliver immediately from the shelf. In contrast, our customers in the distribution, Maintenance Repair and Operations (MRO), and spare parts spaces, must normally ship same day or within 24 hours.  For them it is a competitive necessity to ship right away and do so in full.

    When inputting target service levels using your inventory optimization software, keep this distinction in mind.  Choose the service level based on the percentage of the time you want to ship inventory in full, right away from the shelf.