By Tom Still

Inside-WIMADISON, Wis. – One of the more perplexing results from a recent survey conducted for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Report revolved around how manufacturing executives think of artificial intelligence.

The answer was “not much.”

Of the 415 executives polled by the Wisconsin Centers for Manufacturing and Productivity, slightly more than half predicted AI won’t affect businesses like their own and nearly three-quarters said they’ve never used AI – and have no plans to use AI – in their businesses.

Buckley Brinkman, the executive director of WCMP, calls that takeaway “startling” and a “technology blind spot” that could weaken competitiveness, especially among the small- and medium-sized manufacturers who make up the bulk of the network’s manufacturers.

He’s not just wringing his hands, however, but urging more awareness and even creating a video series for manufacturing leaders who might think AI is a fancy plaything for everyone else but them.

Here’s my contribution to Brinkman’s campaign: I asked AI what it “thinks” about itself.

Using ChatGPT4, one of the popular tools that has burst on the market, I asked: “What sectors/industries in Wisconsin manufacturing are best positioned to benefit from artificial intelligence as a tool?”

Bearing in mind that AI rarely answers the same question precisely the same way due in part to an evolving database, the detailed answer returned in a matter of seconds read like a callout of the state’s largest industries. Here’s a summary:

Food and beverage processing: Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland,” but its food and beverage processing industry is much broader, including meat processing, brewing and specialty foods. AI can transform this sector by optimizing supply chains, improving food safety through better tracking and prediction of contamination risks, and enhancing product quality control.

Industrial machinery and equipment: This sector, which includes the production of engines, turbines, and agricultural machinery, stands to benefit significantly from AI through predictive maintenance, which can reduce downtime and extend equipment life. AI algorithms can analyze data from machinery sensors to predict failures before they occur.

Automotive components manufacturing: AI can revolutionize this sector through automation of production lines, quality control using machine vision systems, and supply chain optimization.

Medical devices and equipment: The state is home to a robust medical devices sector. AI can aid in designing more effective medical devices, optimizing manufacturing processes for precision and compliance, and managing supply chains more efficiently.

Chemicals and plastics: AI can optimize chemical production processes, reduce energy consumption, and improve safety by predicting hazardous conditions in real-time. In plastics manufacturing, AI can enhance recycling processes and material selection for better product performance.

Paper products manufacturing: As a leading producer of paper products, Wisconsin’s industry can use AI for optimizing production processes, improving energy efficiency, and enhancing quality control through predictive analytics.

Electronics and electrical equipment: AI can be used to improve product design, automate assembly lines, and ensure quality control through advanced imaging and diagnostic tools.

All this is more easily said by a chatbot than done, of course, but the basic idea is worth investigating by skeptics: AI can help Wisconsin manufacturers be more efficient and productive; better predict maintenance downtime; optimize supply chains; and control quality.

“The technology is easy to use – even for us of a particular age,” said Brinkman, a former manufacturing executive who joined WMCP in 2011. He will lead manufacturers in an AI discussion during the March 18 Wisconsin Technology Summit at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

“Most new applications or tools require significant time and effort to become proficient,” he added. “Generative AI’s interface makes it easy for a new user to master the basics and create output very quickly.”

When it comes to use of AI in manufacturing, it may be a case of old cogs, new tricks.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at