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14 June, 2024

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We need to embrace AI responsibly

01 May, 2024

Artificial intelligence has tremendous potential to improve the way that UK manufacturers operate and do business, but it also poses risks. Nikesh Mistry*, Gambica’s sector head for automation, examines the possible attractions and downsides of the technology.

Consumer spending habits and industrial manufacturing in the UK are linked in something of a waltz. Every step taken by one partner inevitably leads the other also taking a step. Today, the music has changed, with the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) promising a whole new rhythm. It's crucial to remember the lessons learned from the past – particularly the cautious, yet ultimately successful, embrace of robotics – before we dive into adopting AI.

Consumer habits are the lifeblood of any manufacturing sector. I’ve written previously about how online shopping has pushed a demand for faster production cycles and more efficient delivery systems. This, in turn, has spurred manufacturers to invest in automation and data-driven logistics – areas where AI excels. 

AI algorithms can optimise production lines, predict demand fluctuations based on consumer trends, and even help to mass-customise products, which is now being increasingly demanded. 

However, the impact goes far beyond mere efficiency. AI has the potential to revolutionise UK manufacturing in several key ways. For example, AI can analyse vast amounts of consumer data to identify emerging trends and unmet needs for product innovation. This will allow manufacturers to develop products that resonate better with the market, fostering a more dynamic and responsive industry. Many factories have been fault-finding this way for several years using machine learning. Now, the newer developments of AI are starting to be implemented alongside this. 

Furthermore, AI will help to streamline every step of the supply chain from acquiring raw materials to delivering finished products. Through its ability to spot potential bottlenecks, we can expect smoother operations, with reduced costs and on-time deliveries – all crucial in today's competitive landscape.

With AI-powered vision systems, quality control is becoming far superior and more reliable, with an accuracy that surpasses even the most vigilant human inspectors. This not only improves product quality but also reduces waste and associated costs, making manufacturing more sustainable and cost-effective.

But just like the over-enthusiastic adoption of robots in the past, a headlong rush into AI could have unintended consequences. Here’s where the cautious optimism displayed by the UK manufacturing sector with regard to robots comes into play. We must learn from past experiences and ensure that AI is implemented responsibly.

While we are still lagging in robot adoption, we have to be careful not to become obsessed with the new technologies and forget where we are on the journey to digitalisation. We need to ensure that businesses are getting the whole picture of their manufacturing problems before investing in solutions, ensuring that the right problems are being solved using the right technologies. 

While AI will undoubtedly displace some jobs, it will also create entirely new ones in the same way that past revolutions have done. The focus should be on retraining and upskilling the workforce to adapt to the changing landscape. The UK government and industry leaders must work together to create comprehensive training programs to equip workers with the skills needed to thrive in an AI-powered future.

Moreover, it is vital to remember that, like machine learning, AI algorithms are only as good as the data they are trained on. Biases in datasets can lead to discriminatory outcomes. As AI becomes more integrated into manufacturing processes, robust ethical frameworks must be established to ensure fairness and transparency.

Adding further to the argument that humans still have a role to play, AI should be seen as a powerful tool, not a replacement for human ingenuity. The final decision-making power, strategic vision and ethical considerations, must remain firmly in human hands. AI should augment human capabilities, not supplant them.

The UK manufacturing sector has a long history of adapting to changing consumer demands. The cautious, yet ultimately successful, embrace of robots serves as a testament to this adaptability. However, we are further behind than expected and must not continue to be slow in our acceptance, but rather embrace it at a steady speed. We must leverage the transformative power of AI while ensuring responsible implementation and a focus on human well-being.

The future of UK manufacturing lies in a well-rehearsed dance between consumers, manufacturers and AI. By understanding consumer spending habits, harnessing the power of AI responsibly, and learning from the past, the UK can ensure that its industrial sector continues to innovate, compete, and thrive in the global market. 

 

* Gambica is the trade association for the automation, control, instrumentation and laboratory technology sectors in the UK. You can get in touch with Nikesh Mistry on 020 7642 8094 or nikesh.mistry@gambica.org.uk, or via the Gambica Web site: www.gambica.org.uk 




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