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: Requirements gathering

Through a series of workshops, the Shoestring research team will identify common requirements across SME manufacturers – aiming for wide numbers with workshops around the UK and in other countries.

In the workshops, SMEs will be asked to discuss their priority business areas for digitalisation and provide scores to rank their operational requirements. This will enable the researchers to understand and analyse needs and the criteria potential solutions should meet.

Phase 2. Assessment

Through onsite visits to partner SME manufacturing companies, the research team will assess digitalisation ‘readiness’ and needs, using an assessment framework incorporating a number of tried and tested tools, as well as a step-by-step audit which will be refined for this purpose.

From this they will classify SME challenges and priorities, and create a more specific outline of requirements for proposed low-cost digital solutions. 

Phase 3: Digital options development

Requirements from Stage 1 be fed into ongoing development of low-cost digital options. 

In parallel, this stage will involve designing, modelling and developing architectures for low-cost component integration and infrastructure options. 


  • This will include accounting for standards, safety, security and compatibility.

Connecting solutions

  • 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.

Demonstration platform

  • The plan is to develop a demonstration platform, to provide examples and visibility for addressing specific challenges within individual SMEs. 

Building blocks

  • A tool box of existing low-cost technologies will form the building blocks of these proposed digital architectures.
  • These will include 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). 
  • These 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. 


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 4: Low-cost intelligent solutions development

Based on the low-cost components and potential infrastructures identified in Stage 2, the project will then explore options for advanced digital manufacturing solutions in these environments, enabling capabilities such as customisation, customer orientation, distribution and operational flexibility to be applied to small scale production.

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

Phase 5: Testing, pilots and demonstrations

The Shoestring team will be building proof of concept demonstrators both in research labs and in SME partner operations to test the validity of the approaches identified in the first three stages.

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.