New low-cost solutions help manufacturers go digital

A new article, originally published in the Manufacturer, shows how the Shoestring programme is using cost-effective, off-the-shelf technologies to help manufacturing SMEs transform into highly efficient, digitally enabled businesses.

In a programme involving more than 200 companies from across the UK and overseas, the EPSRC-funded Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project based at the Institute for Manufacturing, in collaboration with the University of Nottingham, has begun to deliver a toolbox of solutions that can be readily adopted by small and medium-sized manufacturers, using off-the-shelf, affordable technologies.

The innovative project, which involves a range of small manufacturers, technology partners including the Raspberry Pi Foundation and Siemens together with manufacturing networks such as the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS) and Make UK, exploits low-cost, commercially available technologies in mobile computing, sensors and analytics software.

By tackling some of the challenges of implementing digital solutions without big budgets or in-house digital expertise, Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is bringing these solutions into many small-scale manufacturing environments for the first time.

‘We hope this will help small companies put a “toe in the water” in the digital space,’ says project director Professor Duncan McFarlane.

Working closely with individual companies to address their unique needs, the project team has developed a number of proof-of-concept solutions to things like inventory tracking and voice-activated orders, with industry pilot partners including Buchanan OrthoticsWarren Services and PCML testing their adaptability in industrial settings.

Alex Campbell from SMAS described the approach as a ‘perfect fit’ for many of its clients thanks to its easy, low-barrier entry route to digitalisation.

‘Digitalisation can be expensive, confusing and difficult. The Shoestring approach aims to be the complete opposite of that. It’s a breath of fresh air for the manufacturing industry and we believe this is what a lot of businesses want and need as a first step.’

Small-scale manufacturing the smart way

The Shoestring approach begins with developing an understanding of priority business areas for digitalisation, using ‘requirements workshops’ together with on-site visits to companies (as well as online workshops added since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic). This is a critical starting point, explains says McFarlane:

‘It provides the basis for the research team to identify which solutions are the top priorities across the industry and helps us decide which solutions to build first.’

Alex Campbell echoes the value of the workshops to companies, helping them to build a shared vision with employees:

‘To be given a safe space [for employees] to have these kinds of conversations, share thoughts, ideas and, crucially, align themselves and end up facing in the same direction is hugely powerful, the value of which is not to be underestimated.’

Following digital assessments, the Shoestring team classify many of the commonly experienced challenges and priorities facing manufacturers and create a list of top priority requirements for proposed low-cost digital solutions.

This has led to the development of a toolbox of solutions incorporating consumer-grade components (such as Raspberry Pis) and low-cost sensors (such as Bluetooth low-energy beacons, off-the-shelf sensors and motion cameras)combined with existing cloud computing platforms, human-machine interaction (consumer-grade AR/VR technologies), Internet of Things (IoT) suites, and interfaces such as iPads and Alexa.

Research Associate Dr Greg Hawkridge explains that the aim of Shoestring is not to develop a comprehensive business case, but to ‘identify priorities based on clear benefits and determine the minimal set of features that would be required to make a solution functional’.

Top 10 digital requirements as identified by manufacturers

Shoestring in action

One company keen to explore how digitalisation could help improve productivity is family-run manufacturer Buchanan Orthotics, which make modular, bespoke and specialist footwear for clients such as the NHS.

After working alongside the Shoestring team to assess needs and develop a solution unique to their operations, the company is now piloting a job tracking solution.

‘Buchanan has worked with the Shoestring team to outline and identify a project which is now at the pilot stage, and the potential benefit to the company will be significant, without the impact of major capital investment,’ says Ryan Currie, Buchanan’s commercial manager.

Where the company previously used a paper sheet to track orders through the system, low-cost scanners are now being used to digitise the location and status of jobs. This cross-site job tracking pilot enables workers to print tracking labels, record when a job enters and leaves the facility using barcode scanning, and then store all these records centrally in the cloud, so that live job progress can be viewed at any time.

This simple but effective solution demonstrates the combination of open source and other low-cost off-the-shelf software technologies to collect and record typical manufacturing activities observed on a shopfloor. Management is able to see where all the jobs are in the queue and how they are progressing; ensure no orders are lost or misplaced; identify capacity issues for technicians; advise customer status; and see jobs close to completion.

Examples of Shoestring solution development

Solution 1: QR inventory tracking system

This low-cost inventory tracking system was built to simultaneously scan and identify supplier parts arriving either alone or in a tray.

Using a Raspberry Pi camera and image processing libraries for QR code recognition, newly delivered boxes (containing parts) are placed flat on a tote, which the operator then manually scans under a webcam that is connected to a Raspberry Pi and screen.

The QR code recognition then triggers a back-office query to retrieve information related to stock levels and locations. Users can then update associated stock levels.

Solution 2: Legacy panel digitalisation

Trialled at the IfM Shoestring lab in Cambridge and used in a pilot by a photo chemical machining manufacturer, this low-cost vision system enables machines to be controlled via legacy wall-mounted panels that give visual information on the status of the machine in the form of red and green lights, on and off switches, and a panel that displays the machine’s temperature.

It extracts the data from the panels, which can then be viewed digitally, analysed in real-time and stored across a network.

Solution 3: Augmented status viewer

To meet the need for companies to send digital information from the shop floor direct to management, this demonstrator uses augmented reality to overlay status information from machines.

Using the app on their tablet or smartphone and holding it up to the machines allows a work room manager to see different metrics, such as inventory and operational status.

Bridging the digital gap

As well as tackling the perceived costs of digitalisation, the project is addressing the challenge for small manufacturers who may lack in-house digital skills, knowledge or confidence to develop solutions.

By working in partnership with small manufacturers and offering hands-on support, Shoestring is helping company staff become more confident in terms of digital decision-making and investment. Duncan McFarlane explains:

‘Those taking part in the process become more confident in what digital solution can offer in terms of the company’s investment, which will lead to productivity improvements and also the upskilling of those working in industry.’

By providing a bridge between industry and academia, Alex Campbell (SMAS) says the wider implications of the project should not be underestimated.

‘By encouraging project-based learning, Shoestring is not only building up digital skills in the workforce but is also inspiring the next generation into the manufacturing industry,’ he says.

Roddy Scott, sector manager for ESP Scotland, which works to build capacity to deliver skills for the energy, engineering and construction sectors by working with Scotland’s colleges and industry partners, explains the value of the project to the education sector:

‘Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is a great fit for us because it is helping us inspire young people to come into STEM. It helps build skills, knowledge and build capacity.’

The project is also encouraging student involvement via ‘Hackathons’ — online events providing students with the opportunity to build prototypes with cutting edge digital technologies and receive feedback from industry leaders. The project has received additional funding for Hackathons and a number of proof-of-concept demonstrators from Pitch-In, a programme which addresses barriers to the successful development, introduction and further exploitation of IoT.

Looking ahead, the Shoestring team are developing a web-based portal to allow users design their own Shoestring solutions. To help them finalise the framework for the portal and the approach to putting solutions together, the team are developing more demonstrators with industry partners.

There are a number of opportunities to join Shoestring webinars and open workshops. Companies that would like advice on how to adopt Shoestring solutions are encouraged to get in touch with the Digital Shoestring team by emailing

We are conducting a survey on a new digital offer to industry specifically to help manufacturing SMEs get started with digitalisation. If you are involved in or interested in implementing digital manufacturing, take our 2 minute survey. As a thank you for completing the survey, you have the option to be entered into a prize draw to win one year of IfM SME MembershipTake the survey.

The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project is led by the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The Pitch-In project is funded through Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund.

Find out more about Pitch-In.

Find out more about Pitch-In projects based at the IfM.

This article was originally published in The Manufacturer.