Time for SMEs to think big

Posted on 21 Dec 2023 by The Manufacturer

As a hub of digital manufacturing research, WMG at the University of Warwick has been supporting the manufacturing supply chain (over 350 SMEs) to embed digital technology into their day-to-day activity via tailored projects, internships and low-cost technical solutions.

Traditionally, it is the big players that have been at the forefront of digital technology adoption. However, more and more SMEs are now getting onboard as they realise that solutions do not have to cost the Earth and can be practical to implement. SMEs are often more successful in implementing these changes due to their ability to be flexible.

They are less burdened by huge workforces, multinational presence and complex workplace cultures and can get up and running with digital quickly. Importantly, however, SMEs need to ensure that they are implementing the right technology into their businesses, as it is easy to get bombarded with all the solutions out there. Therefore, before recommending a particular technology or solution, WMG’s approach is to work with manufacturers to understand the unique issues and priorities they have; looking at the current state of a factory and what the future state needs to looks like.

WMG look at how data is currently used and through observing the production process in depth including cycle times, equipment use and downtime, levels of work in progress and inventory, identifies opportunities for growth and increased profitability alongside a roadmap outlining where digital technology can help. Speaking on current trends for SME manufacturers, Onur Eren, Principal Engineer for Made Smarter West Midlands and WMG, added: “Shopfloor data capture systems (SFDC) are becoming more popular as business owners look to convert operational data into intelligent foresight for their operational excellence drive.

These systems enable SMEs to collect real-time data from the shopfloor, allowing them to make data-driven decisions to optimise their operations and improve productivity. Automation has also started to get more interest, especially from businesses that already have a good digital transformation programme and are ready to take the next step to improve productivity even further. Whether it’s through robotic process automation (RPA) on the production line or the integration of smart machines, automation is becoming a key driver of operational efficiency.” Here, we look at several case studies where WMG has assisted SMEs towards digital transformation.

Case Study 1: Alphateq (Business continuation)

It is widely known that introducing digital manufacturing into a business will help drive productivity gains, but there are a range of benefits, and it often contributes to the survival of smaller, more traditional firms, allowing them to compete on a global scale. One such business is Alphateq, a Warwickshire-based pattern making firm. Managing Director, Brian Garforth, recognised that digital technology was going to play an ever more meaningful role in the future development of the company. As a largely paper-based outfit, Alphateq was struggling with visibility of what was happening on the shopfloor.

The company was unaware of how long jobs were taking and what resource was being used to accurately quote for new work. Enter WMG and their internship programme. Shantnu Mehta, a graduate from the University of Warwick, joined the firm to help get an ERP system set up which has allowed managers to track the jobs more efficiently, automatically assign new jobs to the operator, machine and station, and gather all the important analytical data which enables the company to understand its profitability and quote accurately for new jobs in the future. With better costing data, Alphateq now aims to increase its client conversation rate by ten percent this year, which could result in additional turnover of £250,000.

Case Study 2: Samuel Heath (Digital roadmapping)

Birmingham-based bathroom fitting and architecture specialist Samuel Heath went through a digital roadmapping process with WMG. Martin Harrison, Manufacturing Director, picks up the story. “We were unsure where to start with our digital transformation, but the WMG team worked with us and brought in fresh ideas without being ‘preachy’. We discovered that we had the capability to deliver many of the improvements in-house but needed guidance as to how to plan the transformation.”

WMG Samuel Heath

Since working with WMG, Samuel Heath has implemented machine monitoring using computer vision techniques to record the plating process settings and set up a process to automatically dose the chemicals in the plating line, reducing chemical usage and ensuring consistent product quality.

Case study 3: Jaltek Systems (De-risking a new expansion project with digital factory layout software)

Another way to use digital is to visualise and plan for new factory layouts. Jaltek Systems, a contract electronics manufacturer based in Luton, was experiencing growing demand for a particular product and they approached WMG to help with the plans to set up a new facility to realise its ambitious growth targets. After analysing Jaltek’s “current state” of production, the WMG team conducted a laser scan of the current facility production areas and the new facility production area.

Factory Jaltek

This enabled a series of recommendations for improvements and the design of an optimal digital 3D version of the “future state” for the new facility that could be customised going forward. The new design, using digital technology, offered a potential 75% increase in capacity which allowed Jaltek to meet the surges in demand, helped de-risk the move into the new factory and onboard two major new clients worth over £2m to the business.

Affordable digitalisation

Some technology suggestions to take a traditional operation into a new age smart factory

Digitisation of paper-based data

An easy way to start is to transfer paper-based documents and data into digital versions that could allow a company to better predict future events, assist in compliance with statutory requirements and allow for easier access across the business.

Digital representation of assets

It is estimated that around 75% of global industrial data is still in written or 2D formats. Simple laser scanning technology to scan a factory and products will allow for the creation of 3D models to simulate new product development, layout optimisation and other improvement activities.

On-demand cloud storage

Moving away from a traditional, expensive on-site server model, cloud storage offers a much more flexible and cost-effective way to manage data. It can be scaled up or down easily dependent on a company’s growth plans.

Track and trace products and services

From tracking work in progress through to products in a supply chain, there are a number of accessible technology applications to help SMEs gain real time information of business activity. Sharing this data with customers and suppliers can offer a competitive advantage.

Real-time machine monitoring

Using a mobile device to monitor and manage a factory remotely is a game-changer to maximise output. The WMG Manufacturing Information Platform (MIP) is a complete hardware and software solution that can be retrofitted onto existing machinery, eliminating the need to invest in new, more costly systems. Evidence strongly supports that data driven operational practices will improve productivity.

Augment your human workforce with cobots With a shortage of highly skilled labour in the sector, rising complexity of processes, and a quest for higher productivity – automation is on the wish-list for many manufacturing SMEs. Traditionally, robots have been expensive and time consuming to implement. Collaborative robots (cobots), however, can assist with machine tending, inspection, part changeover and assembly. Starting at around £8k to buy, these are much more accessible for SMEs.

Scenario planning with simulation

Taking the guesswork out of planning can be a reality with the powerful ability of digital twin predictive simulation which can be conducted at a product, process, line, factory or supply chain level. With licences starting under £10k these technologies allow for the validation of different product, process and manufacturing configurations in the virtual world without disrupting actual production.

Case Study 4 and 5 JCM Fine Joinery / Billingham Bags (Cobots and an introduction into automation)

WMG helps SMEs keep up to speed with new technology developments and have supported many SMEs to implement cobots/collaborative robots (which can be a first step into the world of automation) for carrying out key manufacturing processes. JCM Fine Joinery, a commercial joinery company based in Halesowen, worked with WMG through the Made Smarter West Midlands scheme to embed a robot to carry out the sanding process in the business. It is already exceeding its targets, saving time and creating efficiencies.

Billingham Bags


Similarly, Billingham Bags (above), a brand of professional bags and vests for carrying cameras, lenses, laptops and photography accessories, worked with WMG to understand the advanced capabilities and limitations of a cobot it had bought. A WMG intern helped the firm generate a control code for the specific task of dispensing and applying superglue adhesive and made use of the robot’s built-in vision system to locate workpieces and detect stitched patterns automatically. He was also able to modify the robot’s behaviour to improve performance for complex stitching patterns and workpieces.

Case Study 6 Ludlow Nut Company (Digital and business growth)

A business will get to a point where it just cannot manage its systems on an ad hoc basis. This was the case with the Ludlow Nut Company in Shropshire, a small artisan producer of healthy food that was seeing big increases in demand for its own products as well as its white labelling service for other brands. Helen Graham, who co-founded the business in 2014, said: “I think we had got to the stage where we had become too big to maintain our efficiency through our previous system and that was the key for us.

The worst thing is when you are about to start making a product and you realise you don’t have a particular ingredient – because that causes lost time and reshuffling other orders.” Through the Made Smarter West Midlands, Denis Pelych of WMG worked with Ludlow to get the go ahead for a grant towards a material requirements planning (MRP) software-based system.

Denis said: “We helped the Ludlow Nut Company to understand the business risks associated with their previous approach to IT systems via a simple architecture diagram and an options and implications session. We coached the project manager, ran weekly meetings and then handed back to the project manager once they were feeling confident.”

The new system allows the company to track stock from the goods-in stage through to recipe production, packaging and finally dispatch to customers. Some of the efficiencies noted because of the system are:

  • 30% reduction in time to process orders and plans
  • 10-20% reduction in management time compiling reports (re-focused on strategy)
  • 10-20% reduction in non-value-added admin, expediting and error correction
  • 15-20% productivity improvement from shopfloor data capture
  • 5-10% reduction in downstream manufacturing waste (fewer errors) This amounts to total savings of 125k per annum and equates to extra capacity to improve the bottom line.

WMG’s approach – de-risking investment through digital roadmapping

1. Define

Digital technology does not exist in isolation from people. WMG talks to key personnel in the business to understand the challenges and priorities.

2. Measure and analyse

What is the current state of a factory and what does the future state look like? How is data currently used? Through observing the production process in depth, cycle times, equipment use and downtime, levels of work in progress and inventory, WMG can identify opportunities for growth and increased profitability.

3. Project proposal

WMG proposes three to five solutions, weighting suggestions for added value, effort level and cost and align with a suggested plan of implementation. Customers are placed at the centre of these proposals.

4. Implement and control

The solutions are scoped into short and long-term strategic projects with measurable returns and the vehicle for delivery e.g. a DI4M project, internship or knowledge transfer partnership.

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