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Manufacturers feeling pressure to stay ahead embrace automation and AI

(Image credit: Image Credit: Cordis Technology)

It’s been quite a year for the B2B manufacturing business. While the ongoing pandemic caused uncertainty in some markets, it also drove many more B2B buyers online. Our recent survey found that 97 percent of B2B manufacturing businesses are feeling increasing pressure to get their products to market faster compared to just a year ago. On top of that, 87 percent of manufacturers indicated that they’re facing more competition now than they did last year. Manufacturers rushing to adopt e-commerce delivery have been challenged by technological limitations and the complexities of gathering and maintaining product information for all of the new channels and marketplaces they’re entering. 

In the past year, manufacturers have adjusted quickly to changing consumer expectations related to regional social and political unrest, unanticipated impacts of Brexit, and growing environmental and sustainability demands. In addition, market demands spiked for some products, such as affordable above ground pools, flour, home office equipment, and microchips, while dropping precipitously in others, such as gas for commuter vehicles, business travel (hotels, airlines, and conference centers), office-sized toilet paper rolls, and much more. It became increasingly challenging to predict where the market would move next and how to ensure that the tech stack was up to delivering the right product information to the right platform, the right away. To help them meet this challenge, most manufacturers are adapting their business models and adopting new technologies, particularly automation and artificial intelligence (AI), to help them get ahead of the competition — and stay ahead of the curve.

Staying competitive 

The pressure to stay ahead is the driving force behind the majority of businesses in the B2B manufacturing industry changing their business model. According to our research, 88 percent have done so to compete in the current market conditions. It’s not surprising that they sought to change, given the massive shifts in supply and demand, because manufacturers as an industry have been hampered by outdated technologies and complex supply chains. The acceleration of digital commerce in 2020 made change critical.

Beyond the change in business model, organizations are also moving fast in embracing innovative technology, rich media, and new channels to bring products to market. None of our survey respondents indicated that they are currently working with the same stack of tools for managing product information as they were three years ago. That alone is astonishing — not one of them are using the same stack of tools — a clear indication that how product information was managed simply wasn’t working before and change was overdue.The most popular choices for this work now include master data management (MDM) software, customer experience software, and product information management (PIM) software, each of which is in use at about half of the respondents’ organizations. The growing complexity of product information, which has driven the uptake of such technology, is another factor leading organizations to turn to automation and artificial intelligence solutions.

B2B adopts B2C techniques, including AI 

The adoption of B2C techniques by B2B manufacturers is far from surprising. Many consumers already expect retailers to use artificial reality and virtual reality in their buying experiences, and many of those same retail consumers are also buyers in the B2B space. If buyers expect unique, differentiated online purchasing experiences when buying shoes, furniture, and luxury goods, why would they now settle for less when it comes to manufacturers? To create the experience their buyers now expect, 94 percent of manufacturers reported using automation and AI to deliver product information that’s tailored for each channel to meet the new needs and expectations of their buyers. 

The larger businesses are ahead in adopting AI and automation - 98 percent of businesses with over $250 million in revenue are already using both, while businesses with less revenue (77 percent) are also adopting AI and automation. It’s no wonder, because AI can help increase operational efficiency and conversion rates, two undeniable business imperatives. It does so by tailoring product information for different channels, which is essential as the marketplaces become more global. AI can also deliver product recommendations automatically based on historical customer data and current activities. Many e-commerce retailers already use artificial intelligence to analyze customer comments, deliver personalized services or experiences, and provide chatbot services. Chatbots may also use AI to automatically offer free shipping and discounts, helping to increase conversion rates and customer satisfaction. B2B manufacturers are now using this same technology to help them stay competitive.

Automating manual tasks  

Automation already has a lot of buzz in the tech industry, bringing agility to testing and software development, but it applies to B2B manufacturers bringing products to market as well. Indeed, 94 percent of manufacturing businesses we surveyed agreed that the automation of product information tasks has increased in their organization. Automation can help these manufacturers deliver better online shopping experiences, increase conversion rates, and grow sales. The increase in competition makes adoption of automation critical to success. 

Technology such as product information tools, as well as those that allow easier comparison with competitors’ offerings, reviews and visual user-generated content, and 3D images and virtual reality are just some of the technologies business manufacturers found most helpful in achieving improved conversion rates.  In fact, adoption of these technologies is surprisingly high for manufacturers who only recently began prioritizing the B2B buyer experience. Newer technologies, including cloud services and Software as a Service (SaaS), also enable B2B manufacturers to scale rapidly and easily across marketplaces. Technology, increasingly, is the backbone manufacturers are relying on to deliver innovative user experiences so they can remain competitive in the global marketplace. 

Automation solutions also aid B2B and B2C organizations seeking to increase agility as they adapt to changing market conditions. Using automation, manufacturers can create product portfolios that provide central management systems so it is possible to deliver single versions of product marketing data. This enables manufacturers to provide consistent and complete product information across channels and marketplaces. This is important, because their customers now demand detailed product information that’s customized for delivery in the correct language and currency, with accompanying images that are accurate and appropriate to the region.

Challenges remain 

Despite the adoption of automation and AI, it’s not all smooth sailing for the manufacturing industry. Launching new products in the market remains a significant struggle, primarily because gathering product information is difficult for over a quarter of our survey respondents (27 percent). Gathering product information can certainly be a struggle, though policies and procedures can help reduce the related stress. Adopting new product information technologies can also lighten the load, especially as manufacturers become more mature in their adoption of solutions that help with these challenges. 

They also struggle with technological limitations (20 percent), which is not unexpected given the rate at which the manufacturing industry is changing. While digital transformation remains a buzzword in this and every other industry, it’s not something that happens overnight. Meanwhile, limitations related to technology can significantly impact a manufacturer’s ability to go to market quickly and deliver product data in the right format, language, and currency. Product information task automation can help multinational companies maintain accurate product information, regardless of the channel or marketplace it is displayed in.

Technology adoption increases the competitive advantage 

Many manufacturers have already adapted their business models, responding to changes in the digital commerce space, and they are now seeing success against the competition. The changes these organizations have made make it far easier for them to react to new changes with flexibility, speed, and intelligence. Technology plays an important role in the industry, helping manufacturers create a streamlined approach to product information management across channels, and enabling them to drive revenue and stay ahead of the global competition. The importance of creating unique experiences for buyers is an essential component of doing business today, both when selling directly to consumers and to other businesses. It all comes down to providing buyers with the information and experience they want and expect, which helps them make informed buying decisions. 

Thomas Zanzinger, Chief Executive Officer, inRiver

Thomas is inRiver’s Chief Executive Officer, and brings more than 20 years of experience in successfully building and driving international business via direct and indirect sales channels.