Manufacturers being Made Smarter and delivering tech transformation

Made Smarter programme director Donna Edwards

A pilot programme that has been embedding digital tools and technology in SME manufacturers across the North West for the last two years provides “a blueprint” that is ready to be rolled out across the country.

The £20m Made Smarter scheme was launched in November 2018 as a result of an industry-led review commissioned by the Government which set out the significant opportunities of Industrial Digital Technology (IDT).

The study provided key recommendations supporting the three strategic pillars of leadership, innovation and adoption, underpinned by skills.

Now Made Smarter can point to a record of success that has seen the programme be widely praised and it is already being emulated before the pilot period is completed.

Made Smarter has supported nearly 500 SMEs with specialised advice and £3m of funding, while 119 of those businesses have secured matched funding, which is forecast to deliver an additional £113m in gross value added (GVA) for the North West economy over the next three years.

The support has included digital transformation workshops to help manufacturers take their first steps to identify practical solutions to overcome business challenges, a leadership programme developed in partnership with Lancaster University, and fully-funded student and graduate placements to help businesses to implement technology projects.

Donna Edwards, programme director for the Made Smarter North West pilot, said: “The success in the shadow of coronavirus has made the Made Smarter team more determined than ever to reach even more businesses and encourage them to take advantage of what we truly believe is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost their growth and create the high value, highly paid jobs of the future.

“My hope is that our success in the North West becomes a blueprint that is rolled out across the country, helping every region accelerate digital transformation in manufacturing.”
Made Smarter connects UK manufacturers to digital tools, leadership and skills to drive growth. They are supported to solve their challenges across a range of manufacturing functions, through the adoption of a range of industrial digital technologies, including Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Additive Manufacturing and Robotics.

By adopting these technologies, these businesses are also enhancing integration with supply chains, opening new markets and products, and reducing their environmental impact.

“With so much noise about digital technology it’s easy to understand why SME owners get quite confused about what technology is right for them,” said Edwards.

“There’s definitely a fear factor out there about taking a financial risk. These are both barriers to adoption.

“For that reason, our approach with the hundreds of businesses we have engaged with has been empathetic and to appreciate each individual business’ circumstances, then help them develop a bespoke solution to move forward.

“We are not there to blind manufacturers with complex science, confuse them with jargon or scare them with talk of disruptive technologies. Instead we have been using our experience and understanding of the manufacturing sector to look at what kind of interventions could make a real difference to their specific bottom line while still retaining their distinctive character.”

This targeted, bespoke approach has delivered results for a range of SMEs, illustrated by three very different companies based across the North West.

Plastic Card Services (PCS) won a £1.5m identity card contract in a new market for the Macclesfield-based manufacturer after investing in digital printing technology.

Cumbrian fire door manufacturer CCS Contactless Check Solutions has used RFID pins, an app and cloud technology to develop an industry-first solution to make safety inspections faster and more accurate that it hopes can transform the fire safety industry.

And Preston-based Nutree Life, which makes plant-based nutrition products, had just completed the first phase of a project to boost its capacity by using automation technology shortly before the lockdown began. It was then able to meet a substantial surge in orders it received and the business has fast-tracked the second stage of its digital transformation.

Nutree Life was not the only business to be able to respond more robustly to the effects of lockdown because of its partnership with Made Smarter.

Edwards said: “Made Smarter-supported manufacturers in the North West reacted to the different circumstances they found their businesses facing with resilience and innovation. Some used emerging technologies to navigate the impact, switching production to make medical scrubs, ventilator parts and PPE to help the front-line fight against the disease. Others harnessed new capabilities to ramp up production to meet increasing demand and continue operating while staff self-isolate to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Digital technologies have allowed other manufacturers the option to run operations virtually, remotely or with minimised human intervention. These tools have helped to not just maintain production and processes during the instability, but also increased the chance of businesses in weathering any future unexpected circumstances as they occur.”

The pilot programme’s success has been achieved by its focus on making a real, everyday difference to people from the boardroom to the factory floor.

Its digital transformation workshops have enabled more SME manufacturers to speed up their digital transformation by identifying digital tools and technologies that can maximise operational processes and enhance business growth.

Edwards said: “The process was designed in a way that requires minimal time investment for manufacturers to turn the actions into results, while still allowing participants to focus on the day-to-day operations of the business.”

Its leadership programme has taken that on another step, equipping business leaders with the vision and the skills to pursue smarter manufacturing.

The programme was initially with Lancaster University and is being rolled out to the University of Liverpool and Manchester Metropolitan University. This will give businesses more opportunity to learn the strategies to support the adoption of hi-tech and digitally-based manufacturing techniques into their own production processes.

“It’s clear that the SMEs need specialist advice and insight to help them select the right approach for their business, how much to invest and which technologies will bring the greatest benefits,” added Edwards.

“Over the two years the Made Smarter team has engaged with hundreds of makers from every corner of the region and we have found a great enthusiasm about the benefits of adopting new digital technology.”