Small-scale manufacturing the smart way

‘Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring’ is a project with a difference. It asks how existing and readily available digital technologies could be implemented on a low-cost basis to support growth and productivity in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Rather than implementing digital at all costs, we address the common concern that recent developments in digital manufacturing are unlikely to be affordable for SMEs.

Our emphasis is on understanding the business challenges that organisations are trying to overcome, then creating appropriate digital solutions that demonstrate significant value and will deliver extensive impact across the SME community.

The problem for SMEs

Manufacturing organisations are increasingly seeing information as critical to improving the productivity of their operations, as well as a key strategic addition to their product offerings. Major innovations in computer science, control and informatics have created new opportunities for breakthroughs.

Most efforts in this area have been focused on comprehensive digital solutions for large organisations. These typically require significant initial investment and ongoing operating costs, as well as a need for digital skills within the organisation. In addition, these solutions may require upgrades of industrial computing and communication environments to support advanced technological solutions. Cost and disruption are high.

The consequence for many SMEs is that these hurdles can seem insurmountable, and ‘digitalisation’ is perceived as inaccessible. The potential benefits may be appealing, but they seem to remain out of reach.

So are there alternative approaches for SMEs? Is it possible to capitalise on advances in technology without breaking the bank, while minimising the associated high risk and resource of heavy investment in large-scale solutions?

How can SMEs move towards achievable digitalisation?

A new ambitious project ‘Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring’ is seeking to address these challenges. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Nottingham are working with industrial SME partners to investigate two central questions.

First, how can existing and readily available digital technologies be implemented on a low-cost basis to support growth and productivity in SMEs? These might be technologies not necessarily developed for industrial applications. Second, how can the unique business challenges of an individual company be identified, and then appropriate digital solutions be implemented to deliver value for these challenges, whilst accounting for standards and security?

Project leader Professor Duncan McFarlane from the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge explains:

“Rather than trying to come up with a comprehensive digital solution for the company as a whole, we want to focus on the individual challenges that manufacturing SMEs are trying to overcome. SMEs are looking for inexpensive and easy digital manufacturing solutions to specific problems. They typically haven’t got large specialised IT departments so as well as being low-cost, solutions need to be easy to use.

“The aim of the ‘Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring’ project is to understand and demonstrate how low-cost commercially available technologies for mobile computing, sensing and AI can be exploited in SMEs, and to tackle the issues associated with integrating these safely and securely into a small scale manufacturing environment.

“We are working with partners such as Raspberry Pi and Siemens and a cluster of manufacturing SMEs to explore off-the-shelf non-industrial digital technologies that can be implemented ‘on a shoestring’.”

McFarlane and his team are working alongside Professor Svetan Ratchev from the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. The project brings together researchers in industrial information and control systems, machining and automation, asset management and maintenance, and also draws on interdisciplinary expertise from computer science, economics and data analytics. In direct partnership with industry, the project closely involves manufacturing networks including the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS), EEF and the Nottingham Manufacturing Network, and involvement from SME companies from the start.

What difference will this make to SMEs?

Recent industry research consistently highlights a productivity gap between SMEs and large companies in the UK and beyond. But the barriers to addressing this productivity lag are often high.

Alastair Semple from SMAS explains:

“Manufacturers are keen to understand how they can improve and become more productive. For small manufactures (0-49 employees) this is particularly important as often they face the biggest resource challenges in terms of capital and time. In Scotland, where SMAS operates, these small businesses employ 42.3% of private sector employment and represent a vital area of importance across the industry and wider economy.

“Digital and automated solutions can play a key part in improving productivity, so building knowledge around low-cost solutions could be pivotal for helping SMEs implement digitalisation. Having carried out a number ‘Manufacturing 4.0’ reviews (a review offered through Scottish Enterprise), I have seen there is great appetite to employee these solutions. In some cases however, the lack of resource to develop a solution and a lack of clarity on practical next steps slow the implementation.

“One of the exciting elements of the Shoestring project is that the researchers will be working directly within individual companies to apply the ideas to the unique needs of one firm, then sharing the lessons learned. From this we hope and expect that certain case studies will emerge which can be shared with other companies. This open approach should be widely beneficial and go some way to overcoming the resource challenges and provide a clear path for the companies.”

Of course, many of these manufacturing SMEs are forward-thinking and ready to explore innovative approaches to tackling the challenges of digitalisation and improving productivity.

One such company is Warren Services, based in Thetford, Norfolk, a manufacturer of precision components and mechanical and electrical sub-assemblies. Chairman Will Bridgman explains why he has signed his company up as an early project partner:

“We constantly seek out ways to improve our operations, and are keen to understand how we can progress towards digital and automated technologies which deliver business benefits, whilst keeping a sharp eye on reasonable cost control.

“We nurture a learning culture in our business, encouraging continuous improvement in our people, processes and products, so we see engagement with this cross-industry initiative as a valuable exercise both to provide insights into how we can integrate further digitalisation in our own operations at Warren Services, and also in our contribution to industry knowledge across manufacturing.”

What will the project involve?

The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project will begin by identifying the specific digital solution needs of companies, noting that there is frequently commonality between companies. The team will work with a large number of SMEs to prioritise which digital solutions need developing first.

Working hands-on with small manufacturers, the project will comprise a number of stages.

  1. Assessment of digital needs

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 the types of challenges facing SMEs, from which to identify priorities, develop options and create propose low-cost digital solutions. They will also use the data gathered to form a wider set of digital development challenges across SMEs, identifying common issues, needs and potential solutions.

  • Development of low-cost digital options

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 involve accounting for standards, safety, security and compatibility.

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 plan is to develop a demonstration platform, to provide examples and visibility for addressing specific challenges within individual SMEs. A tool box of existing low-cost technologies will form the building blocks of these proposed digital architectures, using 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.

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.

  • Intelligent solutions

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 potential scope of these solutions is broad, not only encompassing digitalisation on the factory floor, but also in office functions and supplier interactions.

Complying with existing industrial and other standards forms a crucial step, and the project team—working with BSI and others—are developing an approach to account for different types of standards across data, communications, service and architecture.

One of the planned outputs of the solutions development stage is to produce demonstrators showing how low-cost solutions can be implemented.

  • Prototyping/testing and pilot studies

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 be put in place to demonstrate evidence of effectiveness of proposed digital solutions. Initial testing and evaluation, using SME industrial scenarios, will be undertaken in labs at Cambridge and Nottingham. This will involve statistical assessments of prototype operations, as a precursor to pilot studies to be deployed onsite at partner SMEs, with the creation of case studies of early solutions.