Smart Factory Innovation Hubs

Posted on 10 Dec 2020 by The Manufacturer

The High Value Manufacturing Catapult’s Chief Technology Officer, Sam Turner, reflects on a new pilot that will help UK firms harness the potential of new digital technologies.

UK manufacturers have faced unprecedented challenges during 2020. Across many sectors, accurate business forecasting and order books have been ripped up and supply chains disrupted, exposing concerns over national resilience. In response, a number of manufacturers are looking at how to build more resilient supply chains, creating opportunities for domestic businesses.

To remain competitive, productivity and agility are more important than ever. The ability to move quickly, to bring new products to market and rapidly scale or repurpose production facilities and supply chains will give a competitive edge to businesses wishing to exploit new markets, with automation and resource efficiency a key to reducing lead times.

Industrial digitalisation will play an important role in enabling improved agility, productivity and resilience. The Made Smarter Review identified that AI, the Internet of Things, additive manufacturing, advanced robotics and visualisation have the potential to drive manufacturing performance up by 30% across UK industry, while digitalisation can improve factory productivity, accelerate the ability to bring new products to market and develop new business offerings.

Digital tools and technologies can also play an important role in resource efficiency and traceability of embodied carbon emissions.

HVMC - Professor Sam Turner, CTO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult - image courtesy of Ed Shaw/Sandvik Coromant, Metalworking World.
Professor Sam Turner, CTO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – image courtesy of Ed Shaw/Sandvik Coromant, Metalworking World.

A digital dynamic

A recent MakeUK report, Bouncing Back Smarter, found that 80% of UK manufacturers now recognise that Industrial Digital Technologies (IDTs) will be a reality in their business in the next five years, but the UK is still falling behind its international peers with UK investment lagging well behind key competitors.

Many businesses struggle to understand the direct commercial benefits of bringing in new technology and will hesitate in the face of the perceived risks and barriers they could face such as cybersecurity and poor access to skills or trusted partners. Too often firms can feel that the business case just won’t stack up for them.

To accelerate take-up of IDTs in UK businesses we need to change the dynamic. To make progress that means starting with real industry problems and highlighting clear examples of how digital technologies can address them. Shared peer-to-peer use cases can be a powerful tool in shifting the perception of digital technologies but, crucially, firms also need a safe environment to explore and test the solutions that could be right for them.

One of the trends seen in the industrial digitalisation space is how manufacturing expertise is increasingly embedded in the manufacturing systems. As this trend continues, manufacturing businesses may find it challenging to differentiate themselves and the skills of manufacturing engineering in the marketplace, resulting in a greater dependency on the solution providers.

While the UK’s manufacturing technology sector has fallen into relative decline with a small share of the global and domestic market, the UK does have the largest tech community in Europe. There’s real potential to attract that community into the manufacturing sector alongside resilient manufacturing equipment providers, integrators and starts-ups.

The disruption we’re seeing across the engineering world in electrification of transport, clean energy and digitalisation means that new products being brought to market will demand new manufacturing solutions. This provides an opportunity for UK manufacturing technology providers to enter the market, not with ‘me-too’ solutions, but with solutions that build on the strengths of our tech and manufacturing sectors and that address new market opportunities.

smart factory

Innovation hubs to aid implementation

A barrier for some of these domestic manufacturing solution providers, particularly start-ups or those coming from outside of the sector, is the ability to test and iterate their solutions in safe industrial type environments before taking them to market.

The HVM Catapult will host the Made Smarter Digital Innovation Hubs pilot, launching in late 2020. To encourage adoption, it’s clear that we need to make digital technologies easier for businesses to engage with through demonstrators, and provide a sandpit environment where UK manufacturers can explore digital manufacturing solutions and undertake quick fire innovation projects before moving to deploy solutions within their businesses.

The same environment will serve as testbeds for technology providers to test, iterate and demonstrate their solutions. These environments will each have a sector or manufacturing process focus with a broad coverage of geographical locations. The hubs will be ‘plug and play’ environments where a range of technologies can be evaluated by developers and users.

The Made Smarter Smarty Factory Innovation Hubs pilot will offer 16 physical and virtual hubs across the HVM Catapult’s UK-wide network to give firms of all sizes, from all manufacturing subsectors, an opportunity to reduce the risks of implementing new digital technologies within their business.


Each Smart Factory Innovation Hub will offer businesses the following services:

  1. a) Sandpit environment for businesses to innovate, develop and de-risk rapidly configurable projects and industrial digital technologies before deploying into their own facilities:
  2. b) Technology testbed, a ‘plug and play’ space for manufacturing technology providers to test, develop and showcase their solutions on industry use cases. The technology testbed will use the HVM Catapult’s world-class equipment and facilities, and allow providers to test and iterate minimal viable products; and
  3. c) Demonstrators of integrated technology solutions where businesses can get ‘hands-on’ with new technologies. The Innovation Hubs will showcase real industry use cases and facilitate live-learning in an expert environment.

The good news is that during the pilot phase the Made Smarter Digital Innovation Hub HVM Catapult service comes at no-cost for eligible companies thanks to funding from UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. This pilot programme will inform the wider roll-out of Made Smarter Digital Innovation Hubs through the ISCF programme in 2021. For manufacturers or technology providers wishing to learn more or access the hubs please get in touch at [email protected]