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Emerging technologies used to navigate COVID-19

01 May 2020

SME manufacturers supported by Made Smarter are using emerging technologies to navigate the impact on business from the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses signed up to the North West pilot to support the Industry 4.0 revolution have adapted in a variety of ways, including switching production to make medical scrubs, ventilator parts and PPE to help the front-line fight against the disease.

Others have 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.

While Made Smarter has shut its offices to do its bit to combat COVID-19, its team of expert business and technology advisers have continued to offer support and advice virtually.

Alain Dilworth, Made Smarter Programme Manager, said: “The COVID-19 outbreak has widespread repercussions for the economy, which will have most likely led to uncertainty in terms of the way businesses operate.

“It has been impressive how manufacturers have reacted and adapted to the different circumstances they find their businesses facing.

“Made Smarter has been able to continue offering help and advice over Skype and telephone.

“Our advice is fully funded, meaning you can understand the digital tools available to help boost processes and grow your enterprise without the financial barrier. On top of this, you can apply for up to 50% match-funding for technology implementation and access a digital technology intern to support you with the research, development and implementation of emerging technologies.”

Technology being put to good use

Fabricon Design uses advanced manufacturing methods to produce innovative plastics, aluminium and steel component designs for a range of sectors. It has responded to the UK’s need for vital equipment by making headbands for facial masks used by NHS staff and designed and manufactured a respiratory port for a hospital’s CPAP machine.

The business, based in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, is using a new 3D printer, adopted using Made Smarter support, which made the switch between materials quicker.

Mark Bushdyhan, Director of Fabricon Design (pictured with with staff at Tameside Hospital), said: “We wanted to use our internal expertise and technology to help with the call for vital equipment. We already utilise 3D printers within our operations. They are incredibly effective at prototyping designs quickly. It’s fantastic that we have been able to utilise them to print headbands which will support the protection of NHS staff. We are also looking at other options such as using our injection moulding machines which can produce over 7,000 of these components a week.” 

Textiles manufacturer Tibard, based in Dukinfield, Greater Manchester, was forced to close their operations producing work wear and uniforms but reopened to start making PPE equipment and scrubs for hospitals.

With help from Made Smarter the business replaced its two-decade-old CAM cutting machine with a modern IoT-connected machine. It now has access to advanced features which minimise downtime and guarantee predictive maintenance which helps meet demand.

Ian Mitchell, Managing Director of Tibard, said: “Given the current impact on our customers, we have changed our production to focus on responding to the vital needs of the NHS and carers for protective clothing during these difficult times. It is rewarding to see our business responding to help to support our medical professionals and key workers whilst they are working tirelessly to support people across the UK.”

Beverston Engineering specialise in prototyping and the manufacture of engineering components for aviation, aerospace, oil, gas and pharmaceuticals industries.

As a supplier to Rolls-Royce, part of VentilatorChallengeUK, a consortium of 14 firms including Airbus, Ford and Siemens, Beverston has been making parts for the ventilators for the NHS.

The SME, based in Knowsley, Liverpool City Region, has been working with Made Smarter to create a solid productivity infrastructure and lay down the foundations for the smart factory connectivity that is capable to rapidly scale up in the future.                                                                    

Rod Wah, Managing Director of Beverston Engineering, said: “We have needed to be agile to enable us to respond to the UK’s vital needs. Our employees have worked hard machining parts that they have never made before, very quickly.”

Storth, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery for slurry management, worked with Made Smarter to introduce a robotic welding system into its production line to reduce delivery times and maintain quality. The technology also allowed the Lancashire-based business to continue operating when welding staff were self-isolating.

Julian Lopez, Export Manager at Storth said: “Our adoption of a robot welder, through support from Made Smarter has been a success from day one. We were experiencing bottlenecks within our welding process which was causing delays in schedules. The robot has helped us overcome the delays but also helped us to continue operations at a time when some of our welders have been self-isolating, which has caused staff shortages.”

Storth, based in Carnforth, is now looking at introducing automation to operate unsupervised cutting and feeding machining.

While many businesses have experienced a downturn, Nutree Life, manufacturers of plant-based nutrition products, has seen a substantial surge in orders and has had to hire extra staff to fulfil the demand.

The Lancashire-based business completed the first phase of a project with Made Smarter to boost its capacity using automation technology shortly before the lockdown began. It is now looking to fast-track the second stage due to the benefits it has seen from implementing technology, and how it has supported them with increased demand.

Patrick Mroczak, CEO of Nutree Life, based in Preston, said: “With other food producers cutting ranges to focus on volume, customers are looking for alternatives, which has created an opportunity for us. Orders from all areas of the business have increased, which means we are producing more. There is no doubt that without investing when we did, in the way that we did, with the help from Made Smarter, we would not be able to cope with this unprecedented increase in demand. The technologies we have adopted have enabled us to develop new products quicker and we are now taking pre-orders for the first time, such is the demand.”

Some SMEs are using new technologies to continue manufacturing operations remotely.

Alphabond Technologies Ltd, an adhesives manufacturer based in Northwich, Cheshire, has achieved continuity after Made Smarter supported the business to adopt a new ERP system which enables them to connect systems for increased data visibility and automated reporting, resulting in a boost to their efficiency and allowing for real-time decision-making.

Dylan Shaw, Managing Director of Alphabond Technologies Ltd, said: “Not only has the new technology reduced manual and duplicative processes, it has also increased our response rates to customers. An added benefit we have seen through these challenging times is our ability to adapt and work remotely. Remote working wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

Despite temporary closure or reduced operations due to lockdown other Made Smarter businesses are using the time to plan for the future.

DA Techs, an alloy wheel refurbishment specialist based in Chorley, Lancashire, used support and advice from Made Smarter to invest in digital technologies which proved key in them winning a three-year contract and scaling growth plans. It has now secured support for the second phase of its digital strategy.

Jamie Baxter, Director of DA Techs, said: “During this time, we are building on the technology adoption we have already introduced into the business. The next phase will enhance the systems architecture to enable data-driven decisions and forecast future demand. Now more than ever I think investment in smart working and greater efficiency is going to be vital, and we are delighted to be working once again with Made Smarter.”

While many industries have been forced to pause their activity to play their part in helping the country defeat coronavirus, the government has acknowledged that it is important manufacturers maintain their operations to keep supply chains moving.

ATEC Engineering Solutions, a Salford-based business which designs, manufactures and repairs complex electronic and electro-mechanical equipment, is still running its production as a vital part of the defence supply chain.

Andrea Hough, Managing Director of ATEC and member of the Made Smarter National Commission and North West Pilot steering group, said: “I am so proud of my team at ATEC. They have responded to the current climate with dedication, energy and compassion. In addition to maintaining the smooth running of our existing operations, the team have adopted remote-working tools such as Zoom to enable social distancing. We have also utilised our 3D printers to produce protective visors for local care homes and care home trusts.”

Made Smarter has also produced an essential guide about how a manufacturing SME can try and maintain continuity and future-proof the business. The PDF can be downloaded from here.

A new Made Smarter LinkedIn forum for the manufacturing community to share their challenges and help solve problems with the support of peers, is also due to launch on 4th May.