Innovation at Smart Factory Expo 2017

We were determined that Smart Factory Expo should be about much more than vendors demonstrating their latest technology to manufacturers. We wanted to give the innovators and the start-ups a look-in too.

'Innovation Alley' at Smart Factory Expo 2017 - image courtesy of The Manufactuer.
‘Innovation Alley’ at Smart Factory Expo 2017 – image courtesy of The Manufactuer.

This led to ‘Innovation Alley’ and ‘Hack and Pitch’ – two fascinating showcases that demonstrated the vibrancy of the grassroots manufacturing sector in the UK and the willingness of larger companies to engage with it.

Innovation Alley

Smart Factory Expo was one of the busiest of its kind ever attended by some industry veterans. From the moment the doors opened, there was a real buzz generated on the stands and in the breakout areas. Business was being done.

In the four mini-theatres, which looked for all the world like inflated parachutes, it was standing room only as delegates crowded in to learn from a succession of expert speakers.

But right at the intersection of the Expo’s four main areas – Industrial Automation, Digital Transformation, Industrial Internet, Smart Factory – something special was going on, evidenced by a broad streak of yellow carpet running the width of the hall.

This was Innovation Alley, an array of micro stands where start-up companies set out their wares. Like bees to a honeypot, delegates swarmed to the Alley; the level of engagement was a complete vindication for Innovate UK, who sponsored it.

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Lynne McGregor, innovation lead in the Manufacturing and Materials division at Innovate UK, declared herself delighted with the result – and not just because the smaller companies had attracted the attention of larger ones.

“That works quite often, but the other thing that works, and we don’t hear about it so often, is that these companies meet each other and then they start working together,” she said.

“Two companies who are very much synergistic, can produce a service or a product that’s even better than their own. Collaboration is really very important. Innovate UK have always seen themselves as doing two things, fund and connect. The funding is what everyone knows us for obviously. But it’s the connecting that adds the most value.”

Digital Manufacturing Week 2018

Digital Manufacturing Week – including Smart Factory Expo and Leaders Conference – returns next year on 14-15 November, Exhibition Centre Liverpool.

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McGregor identified data security and data capture as being prominent among the offerings from the companies, such as Neuron Soundware, a Czechia-based start-up marketing devices that listen to machines and check for potential defects, and Liverpool-based BrainBoxes, which designs and manufactures industrial IoT devices.

For our part at The Manufacturer, Innovation Alley underscored the message that the future of digital manufacturing is one that can and must belong to companies of all shapes and sizes.

With these small companies using their skill and ingenuity to develop low-cost sensor and data solutions, and bringing them to market, it is obvious that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is no longer something that manufacturers were told about from on high, they had to join. It is underway, it is self-generating and we should all look forward with great anticipation to whatever comes next.

Hack and Pitch

This was a showcase event set up by the Digital Catapult, designed to give small companies the chance to bid for contracts from larger ones.

The challenges were laid down by the larger companies – BOC, RS Components, and Thales – with the small companies having 24 hours to decide which ones to pitch for, and to come up with solutions that would get them a deal.

“It’s open innovation,” explained Steve Wood, head of industry engagement at the Digital Catapult. “It’s bringing ideas together and bringing ideas to life. It’s a little bit of theatre, but it’s got a very serious aspect to it, to promote just how good some of these SMEs are and just how quickly they can think. The solutions they can provide could actually change the balance within industry.”

For the sponsor/challengers, this was not an exercise in feel-good PR. Each company had specific issues they needed resolved, and while they may very well have been able to fix them in-house, or via an established contractor, they were looking for that spark of ingenuity that they believed only a nimble, hungry start-up could provide.

Hack and Pitch Winners 2017 - Smart Factory Expo

What were the challenges? For BOC it was about developing a low-cost digital information flow from the wide array of equipment used to compress gases, some of it legacy kit from the 60s.

Yes, they could apply an OTS solution, but BOC wanted to see if there was an innovative low-cost solution involving low-cost sensors that they could roll out globally. Not only did they offer that opportunity, they also had enough confidence in a runner-up idea to offer a pilot project. (See box out for details).

RS Components were looking for an image recognition tool that would streamline the way their global web site operates. Such a tool would make life very much easier for customers across the world currently searching for products in 80 languages.

And Thales needed a GPS-based tool to enable them to manage new assets such as signals and Wi-Fi hotspots placed in over ground areas of the London Underground.

That all three walked away content with the solutions on offer demonstrates the value of any vehicle by which small companies can make their voices heard in the pitching process.

Hopefully, this will encourage other large companies to look beyond their comfort zone when it comes to seeking solutions, and search out the sparks of ingenuity that clearly exist in start-up land.