How are UK manufacturers embracing digital technology?

Considering the huge leaps forward technology has taken in recent years, how have UK manufacturers embraced digital transformation, and what might the future hold?


A £500,000 investment in larger-sized moulding machines has resulted in a “better than ever” order book and the creation of several new jobs – image courtesy of Barkley Plastics.
A £500,000 investment in larger-sized moulding machines has resulted in a “better than ever” order book and the creation of several new jobs – image courtesy of Barkley Plastics.

To say that manufacturers have ‘started’ to adopt technology or ‘began’ to leverage data is a misnomer. Industry has been utilising digital technology for more than three decades thanks to the introduction and continual evolution of CAD, CAM, CNC, ERP, SCADA, PLCs and more.

To remain relevant and competitive, however, every business needs to embrace change and take advantage of advances in technology.

Though many manufacturers have successfully integrated some form of digital technology into their operations, there’s a lot that could still be done in terms of a complete transformation – irrespective of whether a company is an early-adopter or a novice.

To learn more about how UK manufacturers view digital technology and the business benefits it can offer, The Manufacturer recently sat down with members of the Manufacturing Assembly Network (MAN) cluster group.

MAN is one of the UK’s leading manufacturing collectives, comprised of eight sub-contract specialists and an engineering design agency. All are small or medium-sized companies and, for the most part, all are based in and around the Midlands.

Keeping one step ahead

If change is inevitable, how can a business ensure its market share doesn’t become disrupted? The important thing is to work with customers to identify the capability they need, according to Tony Sartorius, chairman and owner of Wednesbury-based aluminium casting producer Alucast.

“You’ve got to look at where the market is heading, not just where it’s been and is currently. You’ve got to keep up with change, or even better, ahead of the curve.

“Forging and casting may sound like traditional industries, but the steps Alucast has already taken in terms of digital transformation include adopting X-ray – something very few other companies were offering at the time, investing in CAD and MAGMASOFT casting simulation facilities, as well as 5-axis CNC, solidification modelling and digital scanning devices.

UK Manufacturers - Aluminium casting producer, Alucast, has seen its order book reach a five-year high - image courtesy of Alucast.
Aluminium casting producer, Alucast, has seen its order book reach a five-year high – image courtesy of Alucast.

Furthermore, if Alucast hadn’t invested in CNC machines, there’s no way it could handle the current volume of work. “The site would have to be five-times larger and cycle times would be four-times longer,” Sartorius added.

Staying objective

Adam Cunningham, managing director of subcontract machine group Muller Holdings, noted: “We explore technology in the same way as every other investment, objectively. It’s more nuanced than some surveys or opinions suggest.

“If we see added-value to our business then we look at investigating it further with a potential introduction. If no value is apparent, short or long term, it’ll be put to one side, if the value is clear we will invest.

“And we’re no strangers to investment. In the last year alone, we have spent more than a £1m in MRP II, CAD/CAM software and four Nakamura CNC Machines, predominantly to increase capacity and speed for the automotive sector.”

Barkley Plastics takes a similar approach, said business development manager Matt Harwood, who discussed the Birmingham-based firm’s strategic investment in manufacturing resource planning (MRP).

“We introduced the system about 10 years ago and one of the most significant benefits for us has been the ability for anyone to remotely access it via any device, so long as they have been granted the requisite access.”

A new dimension

Alongside investments in automation and robotics, Barkley Plastics has also invested in additive manufacturing, acquiring its first machine around six years ago.

Alucast has also embraced, via a partner company, the additional capabilities additive manufacturing offers, producing complex shapes inside castings that were virtually impossible to make traditionally.

Austin Owens, managing director of Grove Design, currently has several 3D printing machines and is surprised by how much they are used, particularly for prototyping.

Brandauer’s cutting-edge high speed presses are key to meeting volume requirements - image courtesy of Brandauer.
Brandauer’s cutting-edge high speed presses are key to meeting volume requirements – image courtesy of Brandauer.

“There are nearly always two running overnight helping us out at the early stage. Having something physically represented in 3D, rather than pixels on a screen, really helps bring manufacturing back into design.

“For clients, it helps them to visualise what the finished product will look like and for one client, we’ve introduced small volume manufacture.”

A helping hand

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing doesn’t only help in the prototyping or final manufacturing stages. The technology can also help make the process of production better, faster and more efficient via jigs, fixtures and grippers.

Precision stamper and toolmaker, Brandauer, has already seen significant benefit from its relatively small investment in a 3D printer.

CEO, Rowan Crozier explained: “We invested in a printer because it was going to cost the same as producing one metallic fixture. Now, we print a fixture in plastic and when we’ve built 10 assemblies and the fixture has worn out, we just print another one. The printer has already paid for itself many times over.”

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