The Shoestring approach

  • Helping SMEs implement digital solutions to improve productivity
  • Solutions must be accessible, pragmatic, useful, affordable
  • Based on low-cost components
  • Accounting for regulations, safety, security
  • Engaging students and local IT community
  • Solutions are repeatable, reusable, integrable

What's involved?

Phase 1: Digital requirements assessment

As our first priority, we are spending time listening to SME manufacturers, to understand their needs and to identify common requirements between companies.

This is happening through requirements gathering workshops around the UK and in other countries. In the workshops, SMEs are being asked to discuss their priority business areas for digitalisation and provide scores to rank their operational requirements. Additionally, we are conducting onsite visits to partner SME manufacturing companies to evaluate digitalisation ‘readiness’ and needs, using an assessment framework and step-by-step audit.

From these activities, the research team is classifying SME challenges and priorities, and creating a list of top priority requirements for proposed low-cost digital solutions.

Phase 2. Solutions development

Requirements gathered in Stage 1 are being fed into development of low-cost digital options. This stage involves designing, modelling and developing architectures for low-cost component integration and infrastructure options.

The idea is to create a ‘toolbox’ of existing low-cost technologies which form the building blocks of these proposed digital architectures. Solutions incorporate consumer-grade components (such as Raspberry Pis) and low-cost sensors (such as bluetooth low energy beacons, off-the-shelf sensors, OS sensors and motion cameras).

The toolbox components can be combined with existing cloud computing platforms, human-machine interaction (consumer-grade AR/VR technologies), IIoT suites and interfaces such as ipads and Alexa to create standard combinations which can form adaptable solutions.

Watch some demonstrators of early solutions development…

Digital solutions development: Engaging IT SMEs, students and hackathons

Fitting the entire ‘Shoestring’ approach, the project will actively aim to ensure engagement of IT solutions SMEs in the development processes, including workshops and events involving IT developers and start-ups. 

Student participation will also be strongly encouraged, with hackathons for Engineering and Computer Science students, competitions for low-cost digital manufacturing solutions, and potentially sponsorship of relevant student projects.

Phase 3: Digital options development

The Shoestring team will be building proof-of-concept demonstrators both in research labs and in SME partner operations. A comprehensive testing and validation programme will demonstrate evidence of effectiveness of proposed digital solutions. Initial testing and evaluation, using SME industrial scenarios, will be done in labs at Cambridge and Nottingham. This will involve statistical assessments of prototype operations. Following this, there will be pilot studies onsite at partner SMEs, with the creation of case studies of early solutions.


Phase 4: Incremental integration

The team will identify how solutions can be implemented and integrated successfully within manufacturing environments. They will be looking at how solutions can be added one by one – in an incremental manner. This is to minimise infrastructure investment up front, and to maximise the ability for new solutions to make full use of services already provided in existing ones.

Connecting solutions is integral to the project’s approach. While it may seem cost efficient to solve problems one at a time, the challenge is to avoid creating isolated, unconnectable solutions which won’t integrate with future developments.  The Shoestring team is seeking to develop frameworks which allow for future integration.

The project team will be working with BSI and others to account for different types of standards across data, communications, service and architecture. They are also accounting for security and compatibility.

Phase 5: Engagement and dissemination

During the project, there is open engagement with as many SMEs as possible, and firms are actively encouraged to get involved. We will be running regular open workshops including one on 24th September in Cambridge.

A key outcome from the project is to create a ‘library’ of solutions which can be accessed widely by SMEs, as well as sharing lessons learned from exploring low-cost digitalisation. The team plans to develop a demonstration platform, to provide examples and visibility for addressing specific challenges within individual SMEs.