AI: The future for UK manufacturing

May 1, 2019

Peter Snaith, partner in Womble Bond Dickinson’s Newcastle office and head of the manufacturing sector team at the law firm, reflects on how the emerging technology is set to impact the manufacturing sector

It is impossible to escape from the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly transforming everyday life.

For many of us this started with how we play our music, but Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa (along with other similar virtual assistants) now have a daily interface with us.

We are increasingly becoming daily users of the Internet of Things – connecting up smart fridges, boilers and alarm systems, each controllable from a smartphone. The everyday form of AI is almost unavoidable in the modern home, yet there is also an ongoing, unseen growth in AI in the manufacturing sector. What is still lacking, however, is concrete regulation in place for the use and development of AI in the industry.

The expectation is for the current trend of automation in manufacturing to increase, with technology enabling smart factories. These factories take existing automated assembly line structures and include a cyber element, allowing for the underlying manufacturing machinery

to communicate with one another and with the wider factory system as a whole, increasing efficiency.

The use of AI has resulted in positive improvements across smart factories, reducing maintenance costs – AI can now detect wear on machinery long before it becomes unmanageable.

The UK is generally seen as lagging behind many other developed countries when it comes to implementing AI, but our government has showed determination to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the growing industry; with estimates on global turnover of the smart manufacturing market soaring to a projected $320 billion by 2020 – let’s hope so!

Despite technology advancing at a rapid pace, regulation of AI is yet to emerge. The UK Government believes a sector-specific approach should be taken in developing regulatory policy going forward.

With such an approach, the government believes the UK “is in a strong position to be a world-leader in the development of artificial intelligence”, although the spectre of Brexit naturally looms large and is an area of concern since many of the UK’s AI initiatives are run jointly with EU counterparts.

For the manufacturing sector, regulation is expected to cover a number of key areas.

With AI systems being notoriously expensive, a possible policy is to implement an “Open Banking” style model where some data can be made public in order to make the sector, as a whole, more competitive, allowing SMEs to compete with international corporations.

The current law is also a long way from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, failing to address liability issues if, for example, a worker was to be injured by a machine malfunction. Safety around AI machinery will certainly be a key focus of future policy.

While the regulatory forecast is still uncertain, what is becoming clear is a real sense of opportunity.

With the North East already front-and-centre of UK manufacturing, there is huge potential for our manufacturing and technology businesses:

· Those that embrace the change and move towards a technology-focused approach away from the traditional industrial style can benefit from the efficiencies that come with that change;

· For the smaller SMEs and start-ups out there – dream big! With the AI sector in such an early stage of development and with many larger corporations lacking the technological know-how (for the time being) to trail-blaze the industry, start-ups with a technological background have the opportunity to partner or contract with large industrials and have their say on what the future of our manufacturing sector looks like.

Womble Bond Dickinson

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