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How small manufacturers can implement digital technologies

27 April 2022

DUE TO the large initial cost of creating a smart factory, many small manufacturers cannot keep up with their larger counterparts. Neil Bellinger discusses how small manufacturing companies can digitalise their processes to keep their competitive edge.

Industrial digitalisation offers huge benefits to manufacturers – not only could it increase profits within a company, but also improve productivity by 25 per cent. However, the cost, risk, complexity and lack of applicable digital skills make it hard for smaller manufacturers to implement this revolutionary change. So, how can small manufacturing companies keep up with the competition?

With many businesses feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic instability over the last couple of years, it has become clear that those that can adapt and respond quickly to changes are the ones with tools and processes that are flexible to change, digital tools offer that flexibility.

There are many tips on how small manufacturers can overcome these obstacles, such as starting small and focusing on the small changes the business can make instead of the large, expensive and burdensome projects that can take years to make a profit. For example, companies can buy low-cost cobots like the Automata six-axis cobot arm for £5,000 or they can retrofit sensors on legacy equipment to keep costs lower. Implementing many small digital changes can have the impact of one large change without the added challenges that come with larger projects, such as integration issues, added training and extra maintenance.

Other ways companies can lessen the challenges of digitalisation is by empowering their employees. The old command and control management style is obsolete, instead successful businesses use hybrid top-down and bottom-up approaches. This means that instead of going up the chain of command to solve issues, employers are empowering the individuals closest to the problem at hand to create a solution and think of new ideas that align with an overall mission set by executive leadership. This can help boost morale, productivity and lessen the strain on managers.

The solution on a shoestring

These tips are not the only way manufacturers can implement digitalisation. Professor Duncan McFarlane of the University of Cambridge founded a programme at Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing, aimed at educating small businesses on digital technologies for manufacturing. McFarlane has coined this programme ‘Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring’.

Digital manufacturing on a shoestring is said to be a low risk, low-cost approach to digital solutions. To create this programme, McFarlane's team surveyed and classified low-cost technologies that they then organized into a set of 59 digital solution areas that can be reused, adapted and combined.

Some of the solutions in this programme include consumer-grade microcomputers, like the Raspberry Pi, and low-cost sensors. These low-cost alternatives can be placed in an industrial-proof casing, protecting them from the factory environment in a cheaper way. Using this programme, 14 industry partners have successfully started or completed a pilot with a Shoestring solution, giving overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Although industrial digitalisation may be difficult for small businesses to implement, it is not impossible. With helpful tips and low-cost alternatives available, it is time for all manufacturing companies to move into industry 4.0.

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