UK manufacturing: powering up productivity through innovation

Posted on 10 Jun 2024 by The Manufacturer

The UK manufacturing industry is the backbone of the UK economy, but it’s no secret the sector faces challenges around productivity. While recent reports show positive growth, there’s still work to be done. A sector dominated by SMEs (270,000 at the last count), there are some key challenges that need addressing.

Attracting and retaining skilled workers into the sector and rising costs – particularly energy, materials, transportation and labour costs – make it tough for UK manufacturing to compete internationally. In addition, vulnerability in supply chains, adoption of automation processes and digital technologies all have a huge impact on productivity. 

However, the UK manufacturing sector is demonstrating resilience and a commitment to innovation. Through government initiatives like Made Smarter Innovation, funding and support has been given to organisations to develop advanced digital tools and technologies to drive change, and impacts are being made.

Making robotic reprogramming smarter

Robots have been a key focus of UK technology adoption for the last ten years. However, reprogramming them is time consuming and requires some level of tacit expert knowledge, which takes time and skilled labour.

Transformational software companies HAL Robotics and A3L provide robust and highly flexible solutions to program, simulate, control and monitor processes involving robots in manufacturing systems. Their technology provides an adaptive robot programming solution that enables operators with limited, to no robotics expertise, to influence how a robotic system undertakes a task.

They are using AI and machine-learning to maximise the life of consumable abrasives and minimise waste (e.g. sandpaper). Surface roughness and digital camera data are fed into an AI model to optimise consumable use and make a minimum of 25% reduction in waste. And they have developed an adaptable end-effector capable of dealing with shape change variation, conforming to complex surface geometry. This removes inconsistent levels of processing across a surface and ensures a consistent and even process.

HAL Robotics and A3L received a combined £210,815 in R&D funding through the Made Smarter Innovation programme to develop this software and impacts can be seen across many industries and applications. 

Driving efficiency and improving processes through MRP software solutions

Northern Ireland business FlowLens has created MRP software to tackle the challenge of ordering inefficiencies. From funding and support accessed through the Made Smarter Innovation Smart Manufacturing Data Hub, whose aim is to support small and medium-sized manufacturers in using data to become more competitive, FlowLens has created an all-in-one affordable solution integrating CRM, MRP, MES and service modules for end-to-end process management.

The software enables SME manufacturers of equipment, machinery or devices, to operate more efficiently and improves cashflow through better planning and manufacturing processes.

Virtual simulation improving skills and efficiencies

The steel industry has made significant strides in reducing waste and inefficiency. According to the World Steel Association, around 97% of its solid and liquid byproducts are now utilised for other purposes, however there is still a three per cent waste stream and lots of inefficiencies across the industry.

With an injection of funding of £198,091 from the Made Smarter Innovation programme, TSC Simulation has created an interactive virtual training application that provides an ‘as-real’ simulation for factory operators and allows verification of plant processes. It improves operator skills and efficiency by means of a digital control room. This training tool reduces time and material wastage by providing better training, resulting in better internal efficiencies.

Solutions like these are transforming UK manufacturing, streamlining operations, minimising waste and boosting productivity. Investing in skills and training to utilise these new tools effectively will be paramount. Through innovation and collaboration, UK manufacturing is on a trajectory to reclaim its position as a global leader in efficiency and quality.

The Made Smarter Innovation showcase: a celebration of success 

The Made Smarter Innovation Showcase at Smart Factory Expo 2024 from 5-6 June served as a crucial milestone to mark the successful delivery of the programme to date. The showcase was a dynamic display of cutting-edge companies and academic organisations.

These are the success stories – organisations that have leveraged the challenge’s support to become leaders in areas like carbon abatement, resilience and productivity, with people running through the heart of the showcase. It was a testament to the power of collaboration in driving industrial digital transformation.

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