The University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre is on a mission to transform the machining sector across Europe with a little help from its partners. Tom Lane finds out more about the STEP-UP project and how it can help SMEs gain a crucial competitive edge.
Making SME manufacturers more productive and competitive seems like a never-ending struggle. It is something that has been written and rewritten about on these pages and bemoaned by OEMs, who continually demand more of their supply chains. How this is achieved is a question that has been bounced around many times over the years and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this problem.
One project aiming to tackle the situation is STEP-UP (Strategies Towards Energy Performance and Urban Planning), the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) and now the UK representative of a Europe-wide project to transform the machining sector across the continent.
Machining 4.0 is a three-year project funded by Interreg which has received €4.25m investment to make this happen. The project has the ambition to boost growth among the SME machining sector. Despite having a reported combined annual turnover of €24bn, it has suffered from a lack of innovation and increased competition from low-wage countries over the last five years.
The AFRC is hoping that the Machining 4.0 project can further stimulate employment and turnover through the uptake of Industry 4.0 technologies.
Manufacturing Engineer and project lead of Machining 4.0 at the AFRC, Kareema Hilton, explained that the project itself is not about handing out money to SMEs, but rather about sharing expertise.
“We have got funding to support SMEs, but it’s not necessarily about giving the SMEs money. It’s about supplying expertise, consulting with them on machining and Industry 4.0 technologies, anything really to help them become more innovative in the sector,” Kareema explained.
“We understand that to SMEs this is not the top of their priority list. We want to make sure that we look at their basic problems first, so before anything happens we will chat to them and see what generic problems they are having, like planning or tracking, issues like that,” she continued.
The AFRC is the only UK partner in the project, with the other nine based in countries across North West Europe including lead partner Sirris in Belgium, and the further eight in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland.
The partner network essentially works together and shares its expertise to solve the SME’s problems. Although the AFRC is the only UK representative, it is able to share resources across the network as a collective.
“We have partners in different parts of Europe so, for example, if we find that there is someone in France who has got a problem but it’s actually the AFRC team who needs to support them, we would ask a French colleague to go to the site and look at it for us, and vice versa. We have formed some really good relationships, they can tell us where we can help and hopefully go from there,” said Kareema.
ARFC in action
The voucher system used is flexible and entitles each SME to €12,000 of ‘airtime’. Airtime is the consultation and knowledge transfer from the AFRC to the SME which consists of identifying and solving the SME’s issues and amounts to two full working weeks of the AFRC’s time. However, this time does not have to be used in a single two-week block, it can be spread out over a period of months.
The first SME to be supported by the AFRC via the voucher scheme will be Ai Engineering Ltd, a Scottish precision engineering company. The machining team at the AFRC will work with Ai to efficiently update its planning and scheduling procedures.
Yvonne Pascoe, Production Services Director at Ai Engineering, said: “We are really excited about this project and the potential it has to improve our procedures and future proof our company. I am confident it will address our fears of being left behind by bigger companies and hopefully our success can serve as an example to other SMEs as to the advantages of engaging with projects such as these.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for the project, resulting in it being extended for an additional two years. “The main thing is we want to visit the SMEs, go to their sites and have a chat with them, have a look round their facilities so that we can identify areas of concern ourselves. But with COVID-19 it’s a bit different. That’s why we’ve extended the programme, we’re hoping maybe next year we can get out to other organisations with our partners in different parts of Europe,” Kareema said.
Adopting Industry 4.0 technologies
The North West Europe machining sector is made up of 6,800 SMEs and 135,000 employees. Its rate of innovation has failed to keep pace with evolving customer needs, which are becoming increasingly complex due to demand for precise products within short delivery times.
As a result, production within the region has shifted to lowwage countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, which have seen a 4% decrease in turnover and 5% reduction in employment. The UK, Germany and Switzerland are highlighted as front running regions that have already taken steps to adopt new Industry 4.0 technologies and practices.
Kareema emphasised; “Industry 4.0 technologies are quite advanced, there are lots of different interpretations of it. But we just want organisations to see that sometimes it can be of use, it just puts the SMEs on more of a level footing with other organisations who are already using industrial machining technologies.
“In many cases, they probably don’t use all the capabilities within their machines. We want to show them that there are addons that could be put onto the machines that are effective and very low cost. For example, they can use some open-source software so that they can see what all their machines are doing at once. They possibly would not know about it but it’s free!”
Kareema concludes: “Things like that can be a huge help to boost SME productivity. My colleagues are developing a dashboard where you can understand what different machines are doing – which machines are switched on or off, what programmes are running, etc. Production managers would find that very useful. That’s just one example of something that we could offer.”
The Machining 4.0 project is up and running and the AFRC is calling for SMEs across the UK to get in contact and take advantage of this unique support.
All images supplied by the AFRC