The Smart Factory: what’s holding us back, and how do we get there?

Posted on 14 Jul 2022 by The Manufacturer
Partner Content

A recent article in The Manufacturer revealed that a lack of digital maturity within UK businesses was having a detrimental effect on productivity. Tim Rutter, Managing Director and Paul Lewis, Operations Director at Universal Wolf , look a little more deeply at what the reasons for this might be and break down the steps businesses can take to move towards their smart factory targets.

Let’s start with an overview – how do you define a smart factory?

PL: A smart factory uses technology to create a streamlined, efficient and flexible manufacturing capability. Systems link processes from order intake through to assembly, inspection and delivery; creating visibility throughout the chain.

It’s clear that businesses of all sizes are struggling to adopt smart factory technology. Why do you think that is?

TR: Every business will have challenges on this kind of journey, though those challenges will be different depending on your size. For larger businesses, there’s the issue of sheer scale, though funding tends to be easier. For SMEs like Universal Wolf, you’re agile enough to move quickly on decisions, but funding does tend to be more of a challenge.

There are two main pillars which need to be addressed – processes, and people. The former relates to the decisions you make around the systems, software and operational requirements. The latter, to how you ensure your people are on board and come on this journey with you. Both processes and people need to work in harmony to successfully build a ‘smart factory’.

PL: Choosing the right systems and software and understanding how they will work together to benefit your business, streamline processes and increase productivity, is an important first step. The functionality has to be right for you because the ultimate goal of a smart factory is to improve your operations, by providing your teams with the data needed to make informed decisions, instantly. These systems are there to facilitate your running a business successfully, not to dictate how you do it. You don’t want to find you have invested time and money into something that actually isn’t fit for purpose. If you can, talk to other businesses in a similar situation and take some learning from the decisions they have made.

TR: For manufacturers in particular, there’s a bridge you have to build between your IT team, who understand the software and systems that you currently have; and the Operations and Manufacturing teams, who understand the operational needs and drivers to successfully grow the business. IT and Operational technology will blend right across the business, from desktop to CNC machines and everything in between, so it is vital that these two teams work together and that there is real, cross-functional collaboration for the entirety of the project.

There is definitely an opportunity here for central and local government to provide more accessible and independent support to businesses who are making this kind of investment. That also extends to digital skills and training. It’s a big decision to make, and worries about going down the wrong route is one of the things that holds people back.


What is the best way to ensure that happens?

TR: Ideally, you’ll put a Project Lead in place who can sit between the two and whose job it is to identify what is needed, the value it will add, cost to implement, and how it will work. Important at this point too is to identify who is responsible for driving the project – will it be the Operations team, or the IT team? That decision might generate some animated discussion, but it’s really important to be clear about that upfront, as whoever is driving the project will be responsible for generating the business case and ensuring you have been through the decision-making stage before you move to adoption and implementation. At Universal Wolf, we decided that our Operations team would own the project, with input and support from IT.

PL: Getting people on board with what will be a significant change to the way you run your business is difficult. You need people at all levels to buy in. The system is only as good as the data that goes into it, you need everyone to be using it for it to be useful. That means full investment from the top down, too – for major smart factory adoption, it can actually be quite difficult to articulate a clear business case outcome. Rather, you are making a strategic, logical investment. The board of directors at Universal Wolf and our sister company Tharsus understand the importance of adopting smart factory tech and can see the future benefits it will bring for our business.

How do you ensure you are bringing people on the journey with you?

TR: Having got to the point of having a business case, understanding what you need and how it will be implemented, and what the impact will be – it’s imperative that you share that future vision with everyone. Be clear and visual in your approach – for example, a lot of people will be very comfortable with advanced technology in their personal lives, but perhaps more uncomfortable with using that technology in the workplace. Smart factory is essentially a version upgrade – presenting it in this way may help to bridge that gap.

PL: People need to understand what’s in it for them, and how it will make their lives easier. At Universal Wolf, we’ve seen great success in supporting apprentices and graduates to lead tech adoption projects across the business. They bring a level of ease and comfort – and indeed, expectation – in using these systems and are always willing to try new things. In a recent example, they have investigated and tested some software in collaboration with our Production team, who are now fully invested in adopting this particular technology and excited about the improvements it will bring.

What advice would you give to businesses who are looking to start this process?

PL: Firstly, start simple, and work up from there. Secondly, these things always take longer than you think they will. There will be curveballs and snags – so keep this in mind when you’re making your project plan!

TR: Make sure you have a realistic timeframe in place and are setting long-term goals rather than making ad-hoc decisions. Keep pushing right through implementation until new systems and software are fully bedded into your business. Finally, start with the end in mind, and keep referring back to your long-term plan whenever you hit those inevitable bumps in the road.

About the authors

Tim Rutter

Tim Rutter is Managing Director at Universal Wolf. Joining Universal Wolf from Hitachi Rail, Tim has worked in manufacturing leadership roles in Rail, Defence, Offshore and General Engineering sectors for over 15 years. A Chartered Mechanical Engineer, he has significant expertise in building & developing teams and digital transformation in manufacturing.

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis is Operations Director at Universal Wolf. A qualified Mechanical Engineer, Paul has a background in lean manufacturing, having worked within Oil & Gas, Automotive and Construction. He leads Universal Wolf’s manufacturing teams in championing systems and processes for operational excellence.