Digital manufacturing: Four practical tips for UK SMEs

Posted on 9 Apr 2020 by The Manufacturer

Manufacturers have inspiring stories to tell of the progress they are making with the help of modern digital technologies – and the lessons they are learning along the way. Many SMEs are benefitting from state-funded programmes to kick-start or accelerate their own investment in digital.

Steven Barr of EDGE Digital Manufacturing reviews the UK picture and highlights four key steps you can take to make the most of the support available in your region.

Do you still need to be convinced that digital technologies are right for your business? Wondering if it will be worth your while to invest your time and cash in some kind of industrial digital upgrade to your manufacturing capability?

You’re not alone. I meet many business leaders who are intrigued by ‘Industry 4.0’ but are still unsure how they can make it work for them. But I’m also seeing and hearing some inspiring examples of manufacturers who are growing in confidence on their digital journeys with well-targeted services funded or part-funded by the state.

For the time being, ‘the state’ includes the UK government, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the European Union.

Regional and sectoral schemes are available in all regions of the UK, filtered through programmes run by a very broad range of providers, including Growth Hubs, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Catapults, Universities and private companies.

At the bottom of this article you’ll find a list of useful websites, and below is a graphic illustrating the distribution of schemes relevant to digital manufacturing in each UK region:

UK Grant Funding & Advice Available (by region)

*Number of manufacturers (left axis) includes all VAT and/or PAYE-based businesses, of any size, with a self-declared SIC in the production industry.

#Number of schemes includes only those for manufacturers with fewer than 250 employees.

WAL: Wales | NI: Northern Ireland | SCO: Scotland; and in England: LON : London | E: East | SE: South East | NE: North East | SW: South West | EM: East Midlands | NW: North West | YH: Yorkshire & Humber | WM: West Midlands

Looking at the distribution of state-funded programmes might raise a few regional eyebrows! As the illustration suggests, the number of schemes available in each UK region varies widely and not always in proportion to the number of manufacturing enterprises there.

The bigger picture is of course the uncertain future of state funding for UK manufacturing, as the UK plots its course out of the EU and questions its domestic funding priorities.

So, what’s the offer to the UK’s 150,000 SME manufacturers from state-backed programmes? In the three case studies below, we hear from a sample of service providers and manufacturers about their experiences.

Case study 1: Bindatex

Tim Iles is working with business advisers and manufacturing customers of Made Smarter in the North West of England. From his extensive experience with SMEs he knows that, “business leaders can help themselves by keeping their eyes open to understand what their peers are doing.”

He adds, “Bindatex in Bolton has that vision for the possible. They were founded on an opportunity the owner saw 15 years ago to cut difficult-to-handle materials for bookbinding. Now, that specialist capability is sold into many high-tech industries.

“With Made Smarter I’ve helped them to identify how digital technologies could open up new opportunities. Digital roadmapping has given them a strong foundation for a progressive strategy, and they’ve secured some grant funding for a new production data capture system that will get them on their way to greater things.

“A Made Smarter Adviser will stay in touch with them as they move into implementation and beyond”.

Top-rated benefits of state support

  • Trusted adviser
  • Long-term coaching
  • Early digital strategy
  • Digital technology expertise
  • Grant funding to leverage own investment

Case study 2: Pym and Wildsmith (Metal Finishers)

Rob Taylor is the former General Manager of Pym and Wildsmith (Metal Finishers) based in Uttoxeter.

“We were already looking at digital systems to improve communications and responsiveness to issues around the site. MTC [the Manufacturing Technology Centre] came in and did a free line walk which really helped us think about the bigger picture.

“Then we worked directly with EDGE Digital to build a roadmap for prioritising and adopting new technologies, and picked up again with MTC to investigate funding options with Horizon 2020 and meet potential technology partners.”

Top-rated benefits of state support

  • Referral to trailblazers
  • Manufacturing process expertise
  • Grant funding to leverage own investment
  • Specialist technology support

Case study 3: Hand-tool manufacturer

Shirley Harrison is company engagement manager at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

She says, “AMRC is committed to working with smaller companies – from start-ups through to established businesses – giving them access to the full suite of advanced facilities and capabilities we have to offer.

“We recently helped a traditional family-run handtool manufacturer embrace robotics to bring a new lease of life to its skilled craftsmen and boost productivity. We helped them to use our equipment to develop their own automated process for line pin manufacture, creating a fully operational physical demonstrator to de-risk investment.

“Then we identified a trusted integrator to establish a robot cell on their own shop floor”.

Top-rated benefits of state support

  • Trusted adviser
  • Access to demonstrator facilities
  • Customised support
  • Digital technology expertise
  • Manufacturing process expertise

Ravi Gidoomal is my colleague leading the EDGE Digital team advising and delivering a number of programmes benefitting from some degree of state funding.

He emphasises that, “All of the factors identified by Tim, Rob and Shirley resonate with our experience of effective SME business support going back to the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) and Growth Accelerator.

“We also see strong demand for leadership and management training in all regions. Leaders want to be equipped to deal among other things with the challenging personal, organisational and technological transformations needed to maximise the benefits of digital”.

Four practical tips

Picking up on the top-rated benefits of state support observed by these practitioners, it’s clear that manufacturers need to be proactive to make the most of the state-funded support on offer. Here are four practical tips to help you.

  1. Collaborate

Don’t go into a programme expecting just to receive. The more you give of your own manufacturing expertise the more you’re likely to gain.

Shared how-to knowledge with the programme advisers, peer manufacturers and partners (including referrals to other schemes) could lead to the biggest opportunities for you, the fastest way forward and the confidence to put it all into action.

And check out The Manufacturer’s new free-to-join Community platform for even wider access to people who would like to see you succeed.

  1. Be strategic

Some programmes provide help for strategic planning, roadmapping and business case development. But if not, do it yourself with help where needed.

If you’re thinking about digital technologies, you should also be clarifying every aspect that will maximise your return on investment. The more clearly you can describe your needs, the easier it will be for the programme to help you.

  1. Plan to co-invest

It’s an obvious point, but don’t go expecting a free handout. The days of the ‘grant junkie’ are long gone, and the state expects a return on its investment. Make sure your business case justifies state support in the context of the investment of time and cash that your business will make.

Most programmes will help you develop your strategic plan for change; for example, Made Smarter’s Digital Roadmapping service which is now an integral part of their Adviser’s portfolio of support.

  1. Plan for change

Carve out some time for your best people from all parts of your business to play a part in leading change and bring them along with you. Make the most of the untapped digital skills and enthusiasm for innovation in your business.

Appoint a senior leader to be responsible for designing and delivering digital transformation with and through these ‘digital champions’.

And finally – don’t hold back. Start or re-start your digital journey soon, by making the most of the state-funded support in your area. Look at the websites below, do your research, and get in touch with one of the many state-funded schemes in your region.

To find out more about funded support delivered with EDGE Digital Manufacturing please visit: or email: [email protected]

Steven Barr chairing The Manufacturer’s Annual Leaders Conference 2016 in Birmingham.

Dr Steven Barr believes that UK manufacturing can thrive in the digital age. He is a founding director of EDGE Digital Manufacturing, a former national director of the Manufacturing Advisory Service, and an inveterate designer, maker and re-maker.

He’s a specialist in enabling purposeful collaboration, well-informed strategy and personal change in a world of opportunity.

Steven is a member of the board of, the not-for-profit cross-industry consortium; the lead technical author of British Standards PAS 1040 on Digital Readiness; a chartered engineer; a member of the IET’s Manufacturing Policy Panel; and a visiting fellow of Cranfield University.