Digital transformation on a shoestring

Posted on 15 Dec 2022 by The Manufacturer

Four years ago, Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring was started by a team at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Kate Price Thomas, the programme’s Marketing and Engagement Lead, tells us how Shoestring solutions have been deployed in 14 companies, helping them to start to digitalise the low-cost way.

In 2018, we established Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring in partnership with the University of Nottingham, a number of industrial supporters, and with initial funding from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Our aim was to try and help small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) to start digitalising; particularly those who didn’t know where or how to start or didn’t think they had enough budget or the right inhouse skills.

We began to survey and classify all the very low-cost technologies and organise them into a set of solution areas to meet the digital solution needs of small manufacturers. Our idea was to assemble solutions from ‘building blocks’ that could be reused, adapted and combined repeatedly.

By running workshops with over 300 companies and talking to them about their business priorities and barriers to growth, we combined priority business needs with potential digital solutions. And from those workshops, we extracted a list of 59 digital solution areas that address the needs of small businesses.

Solution areas included systems like job tracking, so you know where a job is at any one time on a production line, or inventory tracking so you can order products in time. These are all simple, easy-to-implement solutions using low-cost tech, but which can have a massive impact on efficiency and customer satisfaction, as well as a company’s sustainability credentials.

The benefits of using a Shoestring solution

Recently we completed an evaluation of 15 Shoestring industry pilots that have been developed for 14 companies. We found that already, over 60% of the deployed pilots are starting to see benefits such as labour time and cost saving; improved process and production efficiency; increased information availability and accessibility; and increased knowledge and enthusiasm about digitalisation.

What we’ve learned is that Shoestring is about organising and involving a small business in the digitalisation process, rather than just providing it with solutions and hoping those solutions meet its needs.

The selection and specification workshops are crucial – making sure that the solution fits the company’s top business need. Everyone’s language is different, so you need to take time to break down what people really need. Working very closely with, and listening to companies and making sure they are engaged from the outset is key to helping develop and facilitate the solution. It’s about engaging senior and junior level employees too, and building a team that is working together to develop their skills.

Top 7 benefits of a Shoestring solution:

  1. Reduction in product defects or human error
  2. Saved employee time
  3. Increased production efficiencies and improved processes
  4. Increased information availability/accessibility
  5. Increased knowledge/enthusiasm about digitalisation
  6. Reduction in waste and the use of energy/raw material
  7. Increased worker satisfaction

Kemdent shop floor - Kemdent discovered that by starting small and simple, it had the confidence to expand the digitalisation process across more production lines and in different areas

Kemdent discovered that by starting small and simple, it had the confidence to expand the digitalisation process across more production lines and in different areas

Shoestring solutions on the factory floor

In the past year alone, 14 industry partners have used a Shoestring solution on their shop floors, and we’ve found that once one solution has been successfully applied, partners are keen to expand it, try another solution or go beyond Shoestring and purchase a more complex commercial digital system.

This was the case with Kemdent, a small dental manufacturer based in Swindon. The company was a classic example of a company ready to digitalise, but every time it looked at the market, it was left feeling bewildered. So, Kemdent approached us at Digital Manufacturing Week to see if we could help.

We organised an in-company workshop with its production supervisor and operations director to really understand and identify its top business needs. We then suggested solutions which could help.

By installing a low-cost temperature sensor (for less than £10) above one of its production lines, Kemdent was able to check that the dental wax cooled at the right rate to avoid hardening too fast and causing defects in the final product. The sensor, attached to a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, sends data to a dashboard so the company can see and collect data in real-time. It quickly discovered the optimal working temperature at which to control its process to minimise damage to the wax sheets during production.

Since installing that first sensor, the Kemdent team has now implemented sensors onto several production lines, improving the efficiency and quality of operations. It has also installed a large monitor on the shop floor to show employees the real-time temperature of all the production lines, helping them to identify problems quickly and have less wastage. And with a better understanding of how digitalisation can help the company and armed with better confidence, Kemdent has gone on to develop a second Shoestring solution, Overall Equipment Effectiveness.

Another SME, Snug Homes, a Bristolbased company who supply modular homes, came to Shoestring to explore if we could provide a solution which would help trainees identify potential issues so that they could rectify quality issues quickly and avoid repetition of error.

The company implemented a unified change management solution which meant users could upload new quality issues on a database while performing their tasks at the construction site or office, and then could assign these issues to a person to be solved and tracked. The solution, built using open-source database software, allows all quality issues relating to a project or set of tasks to be exported for review at the project review stage.

Lean manufacturing the Shoestring way

One of the biggest roadblocks to creating fast sustainable improvements is the belief that sustainability is expensive. However, in practice, businesses can target quick no-cost, low-cost improvements like Shoestring solutions to improve efficiency, reduce waste and improve profits.

At least half of our solutions have clear sustainability impact. For example, one of the most popular Shoestring solution areas is process monitoring which gives you hotspot visibility of how to improve and use your equipment better. This helps companies to do things more efficiently and quickly, meaning less energy usage and therefore less wastage. Another one which has high impact is product use monitoring – these solutions let you know how much equipment is being used so you can plan maintenance more effectively.

Craig Mayoh (above), Operations Director, Kemdent

Craig Mayoh, Operations Director, Kemdent

Top 5 Shoestring solution areas for sustainability

  1. Process monitoring: To visualise and understand key variables or outputs within production processes.
  2. Supply chain monitoring: To understand and keep track of the status and health of activities conducted in supply chains.
  3. Energy wastage monitoring: To record and report energy usage with the company so that it can be understood and reduced.
  4. Wastage monitoring: To measure, record and report waste within the company so that it can be understood and reduced.
  5. Equipment monitoring: To streamline the process of diagnosing and correcting issues with equipment

Taking Shoestring into the community

The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring approach shows how it is possible for smaller companies with small budgets to capitalise on advances in technology and implement low-risk digital solutions.

Looking ahead, we are now transitioning Shoestring into a community programme. Having proven that this approach works, we are now looking at testing the best ways for companies to build the solutions themselves, including how to facilitate low-cost external support. We will also work with the community to help create a library of Shoestring solutions for other companies to use or adapt.

Our vision is that Shoestring will be a hub with all the tools, resources and expert advice, but is driven by regional experts who understand how to use Shoestring and can really drive uptake. These experts may be working in further education colleges, be representatives in the local manufacturing networks, or regional business development managers who support the work of the local enterprise partnership, district council, innovation centre or growth hub.

Shoestring is still in the development phase, and keen to work with any company or organisation who think it might like to get involved in one or more of a range of Shoestring Digital Manufacturing activities. Visit to find out more.

Key takeaways:

  • The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring approach offers lowrisk digital solutions to smaller companies without big budgets#
  • Solutions are all being developed so that they are simple, easy-toimplement and use low-cost tech
  • At least half of the Shoestring solution areas have clear sustainability impact – improving efficiency, reducing waste and improving profits
  • Shoestring is about organising and involving a small business in the digitalisation process
  • Once one solution has been successfully applied, partners can see the impact and are keen to try the next one, or specify a more complicated commercial digital solution

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