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79% of UK manufacturers put their faith in AI

26 March, 2024

Almost four in five (79%) of UK manufacturers are expecting to use generative AI in their operations this year and believe this will help to drive business outcomes, according to a major new survey of manufacturers in 17 countries from Rockwell Automation.

Feedback from the survey’s 1,567 respondents reveals that 94% of UK manufacturers are expecting to use AI and ML (machine learning) in advanced analytics – the highest percentage of any country surveyed. The global average is 91%.

According to Rockwell’s State of Smart Manufacturing Report – the ninth in an annual series – automation and optimisation through AI and ML are the main reasons for investing in smart manufacturing in the UK. Some 88% of UK respondents have already invested in AI and ML, or are planning to do so in the coming 12 months. This is higher than the European figure of 84% and is highest among the European countries surveyed, matching the figure from the US.

The four main applications where the UK manufacturers are using these technologies are: quality control (38%), cybersecurity (37%), logistics (34%) and customer service (32%).

A third (33%) of the UK manufacturers report that a lack of skills is the most significant barrier to them implementing smart manufacturing technologies – the highest percentage of all European countries surveyed. But only a quarter of the UK manufacturers believe that they lack the skilled workforce to outpace the competition – significantly lower than Germany's 41% and France’s 40%.

To address the labour shortage and skills gap, 38% of UK companies say they are using remote working to access a wider talent pool for remote-capable jobs.

Another finding is that 73% of UK companies invest 21–50% of their operating budget in technology – the highest level in Europe.

The survey reveals a difference in priorities between manufacturers in the UK and those elsewhere in Europe. In the UK, quality is the top objective (cited by 42%), followed by improving the company's financial position, and improving decision-making with data (both on 35%). Their European counterparts listed costs, efficiency and quality as their top three priorities.

“The findings of this year's State of Smart Manufacturing Report underscore a pivotal moment for the industry, as UK manufacturers lead the charge in integrating AI and ML technologies,” says Asa Arvidsson, vice-president of sales for Rockwell’s north region. “This strategic embrace is not merely about technological adoption, but signifies a broader transformation towards smarter, more resilient manufacturing ecosystems. By leveraging AI to enhance data-driven decision-making and operational efficiency, UK manufacturers are setting new benchmarks for innovation and competitiveness on the global stage.”

According to the survey, manufacturers around the world are investing in people and technology. Rather than using AI to replace roles, organisations want to harness the technology to tackle roles they are struggling to fill.

Manufacturers are using AI and ML to empower their workforces and build resiliency

In Europe, companies reported a 30% increase in the amount they are spending on technology since last year.

“The world has changed, and manufacturing has changed with it, but there is more to do,” says Arvidsson. “Talent continues to be elusive globally. As manufacturers continue to seek opportunities for profitable growth, they are finding that uncertainty in workforce availability is impacting quality and their ability to meet their customers’ needs and transform at pace.

“The clear message from this report is that manufacturers view technology as an advantage for improving quality, agility, and innovation, and for attracting the next generation of talent,” he adds. “Manufacturers expect to mitigate risk through technology tied to process and people, build resiliency, and drive future success."

This report analyses feedback from 1,567 respondents in 17 top manufacturing countries, with roles from management to the C-suite, and was conducted in association with Sapio Research and Plex Systems. It covered companies with revenues of less than $10m to more than $10bn, in discrete, process and hybrid industries.

The report is available as a free download.

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