In the mid-2000s some companies explored concepts for factories of the future. They integrated ideas of process equipment, skills and automation based on sensors and data. The promise was far greater control, in the widest sense, of ability to serve the supply chain.

Since then the data revolution has taken hold and the government has grappled with the question of how can the UK exploit the potential from digitalisation? The result is the Made Smarter initiative and a new project in the Northwest aims to assist SMEs in their digitalisation journey.

Where to start?

Many companies perceive digitalisation as too expensive or complex. Nine per cent of companies cite high investment and operating costs as another major obstacle. Three quarters of firms consider missing digital skills as the key hurdle to their digital transformation.

Industrial digital technologies (IDT) relevant to manufacturers include robotics and process control automation, industrial Internet of Things, data and systems integration, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and mobile devices and wearable technologies and of course, skills.

In a new programme being led by The Institute for Manufacturing, Shoestring is specifically designed for SMEs. Working with partners including Raspberry Pi and Siemens and a cluster of manufacturing SMEs it is exploring off-the-shelf non-industrial digital technologies that can be implemented ‘on a shoestring’.

While in its early stages, it seeks to offer the latest insights and engagement methods to help manufacturers adopt the most appropriate industrial digital technologies for their specific needs. The first workshops have already started to produce options for companies to select impactful technologies, but we want more SMEs from the North West to be part of it.

The Shoestring approach is to help SMEs implement digital solutions to improve productivity. Solutions must be accessible, pragmatic, useful and affordable be based on low-cost components and account for regulations, safety and security.

But faced with this menu of choices, what steps should a company take to develop focused and resource-efficient plans?

  1. Assess your priorities for automation and digitalisation.
  2. Rapidly scan which IDTs can deliver against your priorities.
  3. Take the opportunity to step back and consider ways of delivering even more value and services in your supply chains.

The IfM is among leaders in the field for considering ways to make things smarter with its mission to Manufacture a Better World. It understands the challenges of SMEs through supporting SMEs in supply chains such as Sharing in Growth for nuclear and aerospace and Prisms (Practical & Innovative Solutions for Manufacturing Sustainability).

IfM ECS has carried out hundreds of strategy workshops for a wide range of companies, industry sectors and government agencies. Now part of the NW Pilot for Made Smarter, IfM seeks to deliver new results for companies in the process industries.

Rob Munro, Institute for Manufacturing’s industrial associate in the Northwest.

The Institute for Manufacturing Education & Consultancy Services is a Boost & Co member. Please email rjm240@cam.ac.uk or call +44(0)7896 128 878 to discuss your digitalisation approach or to join Shoestring.

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