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Artificial intelligence for manufacturing: competences and capabilities in Lombardy

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Lombardy is the first region in Italy for manufacturing production, covering the 22% of national GDP (€368 billion GDP and €257 billion revenues) and investing yearly around €5 billion for R&D. Being the second region in Europe in terms of employees (≈900,000 in industry), among which 75,000 working on R&D topics, one of its key features is its strong international openness that put Lombardy at the center of international networks and European platforms for cooperation on industrial policies, research and innovation. It is also characterized by a plurality of comprehensive industries with skills distributed along the different stages of the supply chain, having a role of leadership in manufacturing technology and advanced industrial sustainability culture. The innovation and continuous growth, in fact, is supported by the presence of +1300 research and technologies transfer centers that support the industrial regional ecosystems towards the twin transition. 

In this context, Artificial Intelligence plays a crucial role, both to promote the adoption of digital solutions in manufacturing environments for quality controls, process efficiency and/or predictive maintenance, and to support sustainability practices adoption. This is possible thanks to the presence of a series of regional actors and experts supporting the SME Digital Transformation and the identification of barriers, needs and challenges for AI implementation to be faced in a system and structured way. The Digital Innovation Hub Lombardia, the MADE Competence Center, the academic and research institutes such as Politecnico, Univrsità degli Studi di Bergamo and STIIMA CNR, and the regional Didactic Factories (DFs) and AI Testing and Experimentation Facilities (TEFs) such as Industry4.0Lab, Joiint Lab and SMILE are all key players of this important transition. 

The Digital Innovation Hub Lombardia, for example, supports SMEs in the analysis of needs and opportunities through the assessment of their digital maturities, identifying the AS-IS and TO-BE scenarios and preparing an ad hoc roadmap that identifies the specific business priorities for the enterprises in terms of general approach, developed competences and adopted and newly available tools. All this information is collected in the Digital&AI Report, where the regional areas of insufficient maturity and the technological needs are synthetized to promote a regional collaborative approach to overcome the current barriers. 

From this starting point, the presence of regional Competence Centers, DFs and TEFs allows to have technical and technological support to test the latest AI-based software and hardware in real-world environments, de-risking private investments and training researchers and workers to their use in their daily work life. An example is represented by the Watchman project (Workload-reduction mAchine vision-based TeChnology Hub for MANufacturing), co-funded by Lombardy Region under the “Call Hub Ricerca e Innovazione” (POR FESR 2014-2020) in 2019. It aimed to develop a hub of skills and experimentation on Artificial Intelligence techniques applied to Machine Vision in manufacturing, initially focused on pharma and automotive sectors but with the objective to be made available for replication in other industries. Leveraging on a modular approach, partners developed two use-cases: the creation of a flexible and easily configurable prototyping system able to detect the text and components of pharmaceutical bags containing physiological solutions and a fast and efficient system able to qualitatively control the aesthetic features of automotive components. 

This often crosses the regional borders thanks to the participation of Lombardy stakeholders to different national and European projects and initiatives. At national level, for example, Lombardy is coordinating the Spoke 4 – Adaptive AI of FAIR Foundation (Future Artificial Intelligence Research), a non-profit organization financed under the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) in the field of Artificial Intelligence. At European level, instead, Lombardy region co-coordinate ESM Pilot and actively participate to AI pilot within the Vanguard Initiative and the S3P Industrial Modernization partnerships. Thanks to these two networks, Lombardy launched several actions and is actually coordinating projects based on AI applied to manufacturing in terms of building and enlarging the EU DIH network, allowing the advancement and adoption of innovative solutions for dataspaces and demonstrating the benefits of AI implementation in many different industrial applicative use-cases. 

Of course, AI is recognized as a value to be adopted and implemented not only at a technical and technological point of view, but also by the regional institutions, that integrate AI in the Lombardy S3 and work programmes. In particular, in alignment with the European landscape, Lombardy Region and the Cluster AFIL are finalizing the Lombardy Roadmap for Research and Innovation on Artificial Intelligence, where regional priorities and challenges are identified and could be used to promote dedicated policies, actions and tools able to face them. 

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