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New research reveals what’s needed for AI acceleration in manufacturing

While the promise of artificial intelligence transforming the manufacturing industry is not new, long-ongoing experimentation hasn’t yet led to widespread business benefits. Manufacturers remain in “pilot purgatory,” as Gartner reports that only 21% of companies in the industry have active AI initiatives in production

However, new research from Google Cloud reveals that the COVID-19 pandemic may have spurred a significant increase in the use of AI and other digital enablers among manufacturers. According to our data—which polled more than 1,000 senior manufacturing executives across seven countries—76% have turned to digital enablers and disruptive technologies due to the pandemic such as data and analytics, cloud, and artificial intelligence (AI). And 66% of manufacturers who use AI in their day-to-day operations report that their reliance on AI is increasing.

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The top three sub-sectors deploying AI to assist in day-to-day operations are automotive/OEMs (76%), automotive suppliers (68%), and heavy machinery (67%).

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In fact, Bryan Goodman, Director of Artificial Intelligence and Cloud, Ford Global Data & Insight and Analytics shares, “Our new relationship with Google will supercharge our efforts to democratize AI across our business, from the plant floor to vehicles to dealerships. We used to count the number of AI and machine learning projects at Ford. Now it’s so commonplace that it’s like asking how many people are using math. This includes an AI ecosystem that is fueled by data, and that powers a ‘digital network flywheel.’”

Moving from edge cases to mainstream business needs

Why are manufacturers now turning to AI in increasing numbers? Our research shows that companies who currently use AI in day-to-day operations are looking for assistance with business continuity (38%), helping make employees more efficient (38%), and to be helpful for employees overall (34%). It’s clear that AI/ML technology can augment manufacturing employees’ efforts, whether by providing prescriptive analytics like real-time guidance and training, flagging safety hazards, or detecting potential defects on the assembly line.

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In terms of specific AI use cases called out by the research, two main areas emerged: quality control and supply chain optimization. In the quality control category, 39% of surveyed manufacturers who use AI in their day-to-day operations use it for quality inspection and 35% for product and/or production line quality checks. At Google Cloud, we often speak with manufacturers about AI for visual inspection of finished products. Using AI vision, production line workers can spend less time on repetitive product inspections and can instead focus on more complex tasks, such as root cause analysis. 

In the supply chain optimization category, manufacturers said they tapped AI for supply chain management (36%), risk management (36%), and inventory management (34%).

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In our day-to-day work, we’re seeing many manufacturers rethink their supply chains and operating models to better accommodate for the increased volatility that has been brought about by the pandemic and support the secular trend of consumers asking for increasingly individualized products. We’ll share more on deglobalization in the third installment of our manufacturing insights series.

AI use differs by geography, but not for the reasons you may think

The extent to which AI is already being used today varies quite strongly between geographies, according to our research. While 80% and 79% of manufacturers in Italy and Germany respectively report using AI in day-to-day operations, that percentage plummets in the United States (64%), Japan (50%) and Korea (39%).

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It’s tempting to state this disparity is due to an “AI talent gap.” Although the most common barrier, just a quarter (23%) of manufacturers surveyed believe they don’t have the talent to properly leverage AI. Cost, too, does not appear to be a roadblock (21% of those surveyed). Rather, from our observations, the missing link appears to be having the right technology platform and tools to manage a production-grade AI pipeline. This is obviously the focus of our efforts and others in the space, as we believe the cloud can truly help the industry make a step change.

Looking ahead: The Golden Age of AI for manufacturing

The key to widespread adoption of AI lies in its ease of deployment and use. As AI becomes more pervasive in solving real-world problems for manufacturers, we see the industry moving away from “pilot purgatory” to the “golden age of AI.” The manufacturing industry is no stranger to innovation, from the days of mass production, to lean manufacturing, six sigma and, more recently, enterprise resource planning. AI promises to bring even more innovation to the forefront. 

To learn more about these findings and more, download our infographic here and our full report here

Research methodology
The survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Google Cloud, from October 15 – November 4, 2020, among 1,154 senior manufacturing executives in France (n=150), Germany (n=200), Italy (n=154), Japan (n=150), South Korea (n=150), the UK (n=150), and the U.S. (n=200) who are employed full-time at a company with more than 500 employees, and who work in the manufacturing industry with a title of director level or higher. The data in each country were weighted by number of employees to bring them into line with actual company size proportions in the population. A global post-weight was applied to ensure equal weight of each country in the global total.

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