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For years, the film industry has portrayed the concept of Artificial Intelligence as a futuristic, often dystopian technology that we should be fearful of. Cinematic greats from Metropolis, to The Terminator, The Matrix, and even the Avengers (cue Ultron, the AI based nemesis of the Marvel superheroes) portray AI in a way that, although entertaining, depicts the technology in a manner that bares little relation to reality.


While the UK’s AI scene has yet to use the technology to create an alternative reality, the country is a global leader in Artificial Intelligence, with a respected landscape across academia, research centres and industry. Moreover, investment in the UK’s AI sector reached £998m in 2018, which is almost the sum of the rest of Europe’s investments combined. The vast amount of research and knowledge on the subject is good for UK manufacturers, as they incorporate AI and machine learning methods to improve business performance and increase productivity.

With expectations that 15.4 billion AI enabled devices will have been installed in industrial manufacturing within the next 5 years, it is clear that AI is a phenomenon that will take manufacturing by storm, with usage in several applications.

It should be noted that the term Artificial Intelligence is often used to describe a wide range of offerings, including programmes and intelligent machines that can process information and adapt or respond in a manner that humans do. AI can include the ability to learn from experience, react to stimuli, or analyse possible outcomes and make autonomous decisions, often in tasks associated with thinking, multitasking and fine motor skills. It also incorporates methods such as machine learning and natural language processing.  Examples of AI in manufacturing include programmes that can predict failures in equipment before any issues arise, allowing for predictive maintenance and reducing downtime, as well as programming that can allow collaborative robots (cobots) to detect and evade collisions, adjust pressure, and to recognize particular parts on an assembly line.


Industry is working with government to fully harness the power of the AI sector

The 2018 Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal made clear the Government’s intention to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of AI development and realise AI’s full potential. As well as setting out a plan for improving the supply of AI skills in the UK and ensuring that the UK remains a world class hotbed of R&D and tech entrepreneurship, the sector deal discusses the part that manufacturing could play in progressing the sector and harnessing AI to improve the manufacturing of goods.
Future actions in the deal include an agreement between semiconductor specialist manufacturer IQE and the University of Cardiff to invest around £40m to develop a facility to manufacture high performance components used in AI applications.

Government support for AI is also included in elements of the 2017 Industrial Strategy as well as in funding programmes. As well as the usual R&D tax credits that can be applied to companies participating in innovative activity, challenges within the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund can be used by manufacturers hoping to use AI in particular instances.

How quickly are manufacturers embracing AI?

Although 58.2% of survey respondents are aware of the benefits that AI can bring to their business (Make UK Manufacturing Outlook Survey 2018 Q2), only 23% of manufacturers are currently using it. (Make UK Business Trends Survey 2019 Q1).

So why are manufacturers not flocking to use AI despite many believing that it could help their business? There could be several reasons for this, including awareness of the products on the market, skills gaps within the business, and not having the capacity to begin engaging with the technology, in terms of time and/or money.

We have already noted that the term AI is often used to describe a multitude of products, meaning that searching for a relevant AI product to help their business may seem daunting to some manufacturers. To combat this, manufacturers who have successfully incorporated AI into their business and have seen positive effects should share best practice, whether in online forums, events or publications. The sharing of best practice among manufacturers is important because whilst those receiving information on good practice clearly benefit, manufacturers who share the information also benefit, in that the spillover and agglomeration effects of a two-way sharing stream also allows the information giver to boost their productivity.

Skills gaps are also a major barrier to AI adoption, with a recent piece of research suggesting that a shortage of talent in their workforce for handling automation processes was the primary reason for businesses not adopting AI. With the AI sector deal attempting to make headway in approving the AI skillset within the workforce and academia, it is also important for manufacturers to ensure that the relevant people within the company are up to date with relevant progressions in the market and take relevant courses when possible.

Though a majority of companies still have time to do horizon scanning for new digitally enabled technologies (56%), this figure has dropped since 2016 (66%). It is possible that with companies having to keep up with the ongoing political developments over the past three years (*cough* Brexit *cough*) and what this means for their business, they have been redirecting their priorities elsewhere. As we said previously, it is important that companies do not get so distracted by the UK’s departure from the EU that they miss out on key methods of improving productivity.

Of course, it is not likely that AI will be relevant to every manufacturing business. As with any technology, it is only sensible to implement it when it makes business sense and is applicable to the individual company. However, for those companies that it is relevant to, it is important that they take full advantage of the UK’s expertise in AI and live up to the expectation that the industry is more likely than other sectors to fully harness and capitalise upon this expertise. After all, isn’t that what Tony Stark would do?

Blog / 4th Industrial revolution