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What is Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring?

Capturing digital information offers manufacturers the opportunity to create a detailed picture of how their production and processes are working. It helps them to improve their decision making, increase their efficiencies, and puts them in a better position to grow. Additionally, digital processes encourage and develop digital skills, enable greater productivity and provides the opportunity for staff to move into higher value jobs.

Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is a collaborative project that brings together a range of people working in the manufacturing industry with university researchers to adapt low-cost accessible technologies for companies to use. 

Partners include manufacturers such as Warren Services, Kemdent and Buchanan Orthotics; organisations including MakeUK, High Value Manufacturing and Digital Catapults, as well as education-focussed initiatives including ESP-Scotland and SERC (South Eastern Regional College) in Northern Ireland; and, technology providers such as Raspberry Pi, Siemens and Microsoft. 

Established in response to the UK Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy, the project seeks to open up the benefits of digitalisation to small-to-medium sized companies who might be overwhelmed by the complexities and cost of commercial digital offerings. 

The thought of creating a digital roadmap and embarking on full scale digital transformation can be scary, so Shoestring helps companies get started on the process of exploring digital options. It does this by taking a low-risk approach through adding digital solutions in an incremental manner whilst also providing the support needed to make sure the solution is implemented correctly and can deliver results. 

In this way, Shoestring is bringing digital solutions into many small-scale manufacturing environments for the first time, helping them put a ‘toe in the water’ in the digital space, and so giving them a proof of concept and confidence to digitalise further. 

This project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with further support from the Foundation of German Business and Impact Accelerator fund, and from Research England’s Pitch-In project. 

Digital Manufacturing on Shoestring aims to help small-to-medium sized manufacturers by:

  • Providing access to affordable digital solutions
  • Developing technical digital skills amongst their workforces
  • Having a lasting impact on business operations and the wider manufacturing sector 
  • Encouraging appreciation of the value in investing in new technology

How can we help your business?

Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring has devised an affordable, non-invasive, easy to implement approach for companies who want to start trying out digital solutions right away. 

The project transforms off-the-shelf technologies such as scanners, cameras, sensors and micro-computers, along with openly available software, into digital solutions – all from as little as £200. 

With input from more than 250 companies in the UK and overseas, Shoestring has built up an accurate picture of the common digital challenges facing small-to-medium sized companies today; many of which can be matched and addressed with a low-cost solution. 

Top 10 digital requirements as identified by manufacturers 

  1. Job tracking (location & status)
  2. Unified change management and issue reporting between design and production operations
  3. Digitised work instructions and assembly procedures
  4. Capacity monitoring (human and machine resources)
  5. Process monitoring
  6. Gathering and analysis of product or customer demand
  7. Machine or process configuration support
  8. Predictive maintenance
  9. Internal lead time monitoring
  10. Job scheduling (human and machine resources)

Find out more about how Shoestring can help manufacturers: 

Partners and collaborators

Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring brings together a range of partners to ensure it has an impact not only within companies but also across the wider manufacturing sector. 

Shoestring partners include:

Manufacturers: Shoestring works closely with small-to-medium sized manufacturing partners. To date, over 250 companies from across the UK have worked with Shoestring to identify common business needs and priorities and to pilot different digital Shoestring solutions.  

Industry networks: Manufacturing network partners, including the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS), Make UK (formerly EEF) and the Nottingham Manufacturing Network, are working with Shoestring to promote the approach to their members and build the Shoestring community of users, developers and trainers. 

Education providers: Shoestring works with Higher Education Institutions and other educational organisations, such as ESP-Scotland, to provide a framework to help develop the digital skills of students, apprentices and the workforce. 

Solution providers and consultants: Technology specialists provide key support in making sure Shoestring solutions can be adapted and adopted by manufacturers, in some cases providing development support for manufacturers implementing a Shoestring pilot. 

Technology providers: Shoestring solutions are developed with a range of providers of technologies, including Raspberry Pi and Siemens. 

Advisory & regulatory: Shoestring’s commitment to provide robust, secure solutions that fit with national compliance, regulations and standards is made possible by support from BSI and industry bodies.

The Shoestring Team: Shoestring is led by a team of researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Nottingham. At the Institute for Manufacturing, Engineering Department, University of Cambridge, Shoestring is led by Professor Duncan McFarlane (Head of the Distributed Information & Automation Laboratory) and from the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, University of Nottingham, the team is led by Professor Svetan Ratchev (Director for Advanced Manufacturing).

If you would like to partner with Shoestring, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch with Rebecca Evans via email contact@digitalshoestring.net

Hear about the benefits of Shoestring from manufacturers

Shoestring partners include:

Affiliated projects

A number of different sectors such as construction and healthcare are interested to see how the Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring approach could benefit them. For example, how using low-cost technology solutions could make life easier for them and their employees and inspire and develop their staff’s digital skills.

Digital construction: The past 10 years have seen a drive for digitalisation in construction with government, industry and industry bodies working together to support change. Led by the Construction Innovation Hub (The Hub), Shoestring brings the opportunity for small to medium sized enterprises and other construction organisations to work with academic experts from the University of Cambridge Institute for ManufacturingCentre for Digital Built Britain and Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, to identify specific digital solution priorities according to organisational objectives. Organisations are helped to identify practical pathways for developing and deploying simple, low-cost digital solutions. Read more about the research project here.

Corporate programmes: Whilst Shoestring was conceived as a programme to help small-to-medium sized companies, large corporates are also keen to adapt the programme to support employee efforts to improve their local digital environment. By adopting the Shoestring approach, teams of employees have a reliable framework in which to develop their own digital solutions, which they can add to incrementally and also share with colleagues across the company. Contact us to find out how Shoestring could benefit your company, email contact@digitalshoestring.net 

Digital healthcare: Since summer 2020, a team of researchers and students from the Institute for Manufacturing have been working with healthcare professionals in Cambridge University Hospitals, in particular Addenbrooke’s. By listening to practitioners needs, they realised that many non-critical support tools from the Shoestring project could be adapted to help collect and digitalise information scattered across the hospital which would make life easier for many hospital staff. If you work in a hospital and would like to find out how the programme could help you and your team, please email contact@digitalshoestring.net  

Digital logistics: The advent of Brexit and impact of the COVID pandemic, as well as increasing consumer demand for ‘next-day’ delivery, has increased pressure on logistics companies. Shoestring’s low-cost, incremental approach to digitalisation is ideal for this sector which is dominated with small to medium sized companies who need affordable solutions they can implement quickly and realise efficiencies immediately. Shoestring is running a series of logistics requirements workshops from June 2021. If you are interested in getting involved, please email: contact@digitalshoestring.net

The future of Shoestring 

Originally established as a research project in 2018, Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is now transitioning to a community programme which will co-ordinate the activity of Shoestring’s community of users and developers. The programme will continue to address the UK’s industrial priorities, as well as the most recent business goals set out by the Government. 

The Shoestring programme brings together a community of users (the manufacturers who implement the Shoestring solutions in their company), developers (the manufacturers and third party companies and consultants who help develop the ready-made solutions using the Shoestring portal), trainers (who help upskill the workforce and the next generation), suppliers (the technology providers whose low-cost, off-the-shelf technologies can be incorporated into a Shoestring solution) and champions (who promote Shoestring for the benefit of the members of their networks). 

From our initial research and collaborative activity with the manufacturing community, we expect a high rate of adoption amongst small-to-medium sized companies. Shoestring removes the normal barriers these companies face when considering digitalisation: the cost barrier is removed by the low-cost approach; the risk barrier is removed by a non-core systems approach; and the complexity barrier is overcome by the requirements development approach, enabling companies to ‘dip their toe in the water’ and adopt one digital solution at a time.

Shoestring will play an important role in upskilling the workforce as the programme presents a framework which helps companies encourage and develop their employees’ digital skills. In addition, the approach can be incorporated as a project-based learning tool in apprenticeship programmes and further education curricula, creating valuable transferrable skills in the next generation. 

The impact of Shoestring spreads beyond the companies that implement the Shoestring solutions, harnessing and developing digital skills and knowledge throughout the country. By training and incentivising technology solution providers, Shoestring has the knock-on effect of creating a market for low-cost digital technologies. Additionally, by upskilling regional college staff on apprenticeship programmes, Shoestring creates regional low-cost digital experts. In this way Shoestring’s scalability promises to support growth and productivity across the UK.

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