Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring

Posted on 28 Jan 2022 by The Manufacturer

As manufacturing continues to make strides in digital transformation, are small to medium sized companies (SMEs) likely to fall behind the curve? Not through a lack of will to become digitally dominant, but more through a lack of means – be it financial or skills based, are SMEs going to be able to keep up with the trends?

The answer is yes, they can – according to Dr Greg Harwkridge at the Institute for Manufacturing. (IfM) The key is becoming digitally savvy, by finding easier to implement, more cost-effective digital solutions. This can be made possible through a project called Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring.

A collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the University of Nottingham, the project allows smaller companies try out small-scale digital solutions that won’t disrupt core operations but can provide immediate benefits.

Joe Bush, Editor of The Manufacturer, spoke to Greg at Digital Manufacturing Week 2021 to find out more about the project and whether it can truly help SMEs on their digital journey.

How can SME manufacturers tap into the benefits of digitalisation without the costs and risks inherent in large-scale solutions?

The main thing that we’re trying to convey to SMEs as part of the Shoestring Project is that it doesn’t have to be something big. When you come to shows like this, (Digital Manufacturing Week) you see companies showcasing the amazing things that can be done with Industry 4.0. But for me, the best place to start is on the things that are causing you a headache What are the issues that are driving operators nuts day to day? What are the things that are causing a lot of non-value-added time?

SMEs should be looking for easy digital solutions that they can put in place that reduce that non-value-added time, reduce those headaches and allow you dip your toes in to the pool of digitalisation, rather than having to jump in.

Job tracking in action - image supplied by IfM
Job tracking in action

What are the key business needs for SMEs when it comes to embracing digital manufacturing?

We came up with a catalogue of about 60 solution areas, as we call them, that SMEs can do in a low-cost manner. We’ve put that before over 300 companies at this point through various workshops, and we were able to draw a top ten out of that. In there are things like job tracking, and knowing where work is through the shop floor, as well as things like digital job cards, digital work instructions and some basic process monitoring. There are many others I can go into but those are some of the key things we can we can draw out.

How can their challenges be solved using low-cost commercially available technologies?

There are lots of low-cost technologies available. One of the things that we’ve been trying to focus on in this project is looking at technology that’s not necessarily traditionally considered industrial, but more of what you’d find in the consumer space. I mean, almost all of us have smartphones – that’s gone leaps and bounds beyond a lot of what’s in use in factories today.

We’re looking at more of this – things in the commercial sector that is suitable for use in industry. An excellent example of this would be GoPro cameras – they’re just as robust as anything you’re likely to find in an industrial setting. But also, a lot of products that aren’t quite as robust can still be used in plenty of other places.

A presentation being given at a Shoestring in-company specification workshop
A presentation being given at a Shoestring in-company specification workshop

One of the things that we draw on quite a lot is Raspberry Pis. They may not be the most robust when you compare them to traditional PLCs. However, one of the benefits is that there’s a massive amount of community support around them. And very seldom have we gone into an SME, and not had somebody there that has a Raspberry Pi at home and knows how to use it.

We’re trying to look at ways in which we can make it easier for SMEs to leverage those off the shelf technologies and provide some structure around that to make it easy for them to work out what they need, work on how to put them together and end up with something that really helps them.

Can you explain more about the Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project?

It’s an EPSRC funded project. The name itself, for those that aren’t familiar came from those ‘Europe on a Shoestring’ books you used to get back in the day. Professor Duncan McFarland, who started this project, used one of those books when he was travelling around Europe as a young man. He realised that this is essentially what we’re wanting to do; to look at how we can embark around digital manufacturing with essentially as little money as possible.

The project is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the University of Nottingham. We have over 50 partners the last time I counted, ranging from SMEs and end users of Shoestring to solution and technology providers. We also have a wide variety of industry associations and education providers that help us to reach even more SMEs.

Do you have any case examples of SMEs that have been part of the project?

One of the first ones we got in place was a company up in Scotland called Buchanan Orthotics. They manufacture customised footwear for the NHS. What they were interested in was job tracking –  knowing where things are on the shop floor. The system we’ve got in place is very simple, but their current estimate is that it saves their shop manager about two hours a week. That’s time that you can put into actually managing rather firefighting.

Construction manufacturer David Smith has implemented job tracking on its door production line
Construction manufacturer David Smith has implemented job tracking on its door production line

The issue of sustainability is so huge in manufacturing. How can SMEs tackle an issue as big as this while on a shoestring budget?

One of our emphasises with Shoestring is almost a modular architecture for how you put together these solutions. Because one of the concerns that you can have when you’re looking at something that’s a low-cost solution is that it’s something that’s disposable. And that obviously, is not ideal.

Through having a modular architecture, our intention is that we can develop a way where rather than throwing away a solution, you can incrementally improve and adapt to it. You end up carrying it forward for longer – it has a longer lifespan, it’s easier to replace components, it’s easier to repair it rather than having stuff that goes to waste.

Technologies such as 5g and IoT are playing a bigger role in manufacturing. Are they going to be readily available to SMEs on a large scale.

Probably in the future – we haven’t dealt with them a lot at present. One of the things we emphasise with this project is you need to start where SMEs are comfortable. Our expectation is that as we do more of this, as you expose SMEs to this, they realise that it’s not as scary as it seems.
And there’s a lot that can be done. It opens them up and makes them more confident to try things in the future.

SMEs clearly have grand ambitions, but are there enough skills available to help them meet those ambitions and if not, what can they do about it?

We’ve found SMEs to be surprised by the skills that actually are available within their companies that they didn’t know were there. However, there are still skill shortages around digitalisation. That’s why one of our big pushes as we move into our next phases will be trying to do regional rollouts across to training providers, particularly around the apprentice space.

Using this low cost approach – we want to help apprentices to get hands on with digitalisation, so that you get these apprentices that are going into SMEs having done digitalisation –  they know how easy it can be. When they see problems, they’ll be able to say, ‘well actually, I can probably do something about that.’

Watch the full interview here

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