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Manufacturers’ need for speed and efficiency is driving the creation of ‘smart factories’, which utilise artificial intelligence and ‘Internet of Things’ to improve processes.

Manufacturers are coming under increasing pressure to produce products faster and more cost-effectively than ever before. This need for efficiency and speed across manufacturing is driving innovation in the form of ‘smart factories’, which utilise leading-edge technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). As they innovate to improve their own tools and processes, manufacturers are evolving from producers of product to inventors of software-based manufacturing technologies.

From a commercial perspective, software or AI innovation that makes the manufacturing processes more efficient, safer or more reliable, can give manufacturers a competitive edge that should be protected from use by third parties. While patenting software and AI can be more difficult than patenting a physical product, it is certainly possible.

As industry continues to adopt AI and human workers are replaced by machines, we expect there to be an increase in the number of AI patent applications being filed by companies in the manufacturing field.

What’s patentable in the supply chain?

We are seeing AI being used in every stage of the supply chain. Consider the automotive industry as an example.

Mining companies use AI to operate mining systems and to schedule mining operations to extract raw ingredients, such as iron ore, from the ground. Companies may need to extract a certain weight and quality of iron ore each month. AI algorithms can create a schedule to control mining systems based on these targets, and may also be used to analyse geophysical data to identify potential sites for new iron mines.

Once extracted, the iron ore may need to be converted into steel in a blast furnace. A single blast furnace may be used to produce steel for multiple customers who require different types of steel. AI can be used to control the blast furnace operation in a steel manufacturing process based on the required production rate and batch size, a raw material grade, a product grade, and chemical composition of the product.

Steel may arrive at a car manufacturing plant for use in making various components of cars, such as the chassis or body panels. Computer vision, possibly combined with robotic arms, may be used to inspect parts, detect defects or perform quality control at each stage of the car assembly process. AI can also be used to predict bottlenecks, limitations, and mistakes in the factory before they occur.

A single car manufacturing plant may produce different cars, or a single car with variable features and fittings. AI could be used to optimise resources when producing different cars, to schedule the operation of machines based on the type of car being produced.

Many of these uses of AI in industry are patentable. In most countries, it is possible to patent the use of AI models and algorithms for specific purposes, such as analysing images collected by cameras in a factory to identify defects in products, or to determine if machines are working correctly or at the expected speed.

UK AI sector patenting activity has double in the past decade

As both domestic and foreign competition continues to drive innovation in manufacturing, the number of inventions coming out of the manufacturing industry, as well as patents protecting these inventions, will increase.

In a recent report by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) it was found that patents related to industry and manufacturing are mainly owned by IBM and the Chinese state-owned electric utility company, SGCC, (see WIPO (2019). WIPO Technology Trends 2019: Artificial Intelligence. Geneva: World Intellectual Property Organization). A report by the UK Intellectual Property Office states that manufacturing and consumer electronics firms such as Sony, Samsung and Siemens are among the companies filing the most patents for AI inventions (see Artificial Intelligence – a worldwide overview of AI patents). The report highlights that the UK AI sector has seen its patenting activity more than double over the past decade, and that UK-based applicants rank sixth worldwide in terms of the absolute level of AI patenting activity.

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