The North West’s manufacturing sector is one of the country’s biggest – worth £28.5 billion annually – and the UK has the fourth biggest manufacturing output globally.
And yet, our productivity isn’t as high as it could be. The national Made Smarter initiative was founded following a review of the country’s manufacturing industry which found just how much of an impact digital technology could have on the UK’s producers. It found there was a need for leadership, rapid adoption, and innovation across the board.
The Made Smarter review was released in 2017, and its pilot scheme to provide the support, funding and advice needed for manufacturers of all sizes to adopt the right kinds of tech, was launched in January 2019. The North West, heart of the UK’s manufacturing industry, was chosen as the place to launch it.
Jude Holmes is Made Smarter’s Head of External Relations and Marketing, and a member of the Digital City Festival steering panel. She tells me, “within small and medium-sized businesses across the UK, there was little adoption of digital technology. There was a need there to support them to be able to understand its benefit, and understand what technology is there, how it can help them, and help them obtain that technology.
“We’re connecting and engaging businesses across the North West, with the potential to provide up to 50% match funding to support those businesses with purchases.
“We have a really strong manufacturing base, but one of the reasons the North West was selected for the pilot in the first place is that productivity was not as strong as it should have been within the North West. There was a huge opportunity for us to work with companies, and help them.
“The other fantastic thing you’ve got in the North West is a real diversity. Obviously, we work within the city hubs, but also within more rural spaces such as Cumbria. They’re very different in what they’re doing. It gives you not just a diverse mix of business, but also a diverse mix of needs.”
More than just buying technology
Made Smarter revolves around the idea of Industry 4.0 which involves the advent of high connectivity in manufacturing and industry.
Areas like AI, additive manufacturing, robotics, VR, AR, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) are all being used to make manufacturing more efficient, as well as benefits like saving energy, innovating more quickly, boosting safety for workers, and much more.
Investing in software or hardware with Made Smarter “is more than just purchasing a piece of technology,” says Jude. “We’ve got a team of advisors who are specialists within different technological areas. They’ll go in and work with a business to try and understand their pain points, and help them start thinking about how they create that digital roadmap.”
Made Smarter’s focus is manufacturing, but ultimately the description is insufficient to describe all the companies Made Smarter supports – “looking at the people we’re actually working with, you wouldn’t associate some of them as traditional manufacturers. We say it’s makers – people who make things,” says Holmes. These are the people running the SMEs forming a huge portion of the UK economy.
The fantastic thing you’ve got in the North West is a real diversity. A diverse mix of business, and a diverse mix of needs.
“We have a lot of food and drink companies, and a company that does animation models for Hollywood films, looking at 3D printing for the moulds of their models. The creative and digital sectors also come into that. They just have to make something!”
It would be easy to look at the goals of Made Smarter and see them as interested in modernisation at all costs – in this age of new technologies being dreamt up all the time. But not so – in fact, the hands-on nature of the strategy means “it’s not just about the digital technology, but about looking at a company’s business strategy as a whole, and thinking what are the areas of that business strategy where we could look at technology to enhance? It could be reducing manual processes, distribution and packing, or customer acquisition.
“It’s about looking at where a business wants to go in terms of its growth strategy, and asking ‘what are the technologies that can help’? We’re also working on breaking down the language around digitisation, which causes a lot of confusion. We’re demonstrating what the benefits are to business owners, which is ultimately what they want to know.”
It’s not about a business owner seeing their investment as “a switch-on, switch-off type thing for their business, but as completely integrated with how a business is going to grow.”
It’s clearly important – one report referenced in the original Made Smarter research found that the potential value of digital adoption is massive. Digital technology is transforming industry, and the opportunity for both industry and society is worth more than $100 trillion.
The pilot has only around two years to prove its worth, but has already made a significant impact. “The objectives were to engage 3,000 businesses, for 600 to receive more intensive support, and for approximately 480 to receive match funding for software and hardware. We’re looking at delivering 300 student placements, and 100 places on the Leadership Course,” which is delivered in partnership with the Lancaster University Management School, subsidised by Made Smarter.
Since launching the pilot, Jude says, “We’ve engaged businesses right across the North West, and the level of appetite that there is out there exceeded our expectations. We’ve got just over 650 businesses who we’re interacting with, 45 projects that have been funded, and we’re well on the way to meeting our targets.
There’s so much noise about digital technology. But there’s a fear factor, which is completely understandable.
“But what has been really great – even if you put the figures aside – is the insight that we’ve gleaned from the businesses.”
Part of Jude’s role is to work with companies who have already come through the Made Smarter initiative to get their stories and see what others can learn. “I’m working with the businesses to develop case studies all the time, and it’s just incredibly rewarding.”
Breaking down barriers
Talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution is everywhere, but while people are full of optimism it can feel like an exclusive conversation. “There’s so much noise about digital technology. But what happens is that SME owners get quite confused about what technology is right for them. There’s definitely a fear factor out there, which is completely understandable.”
What Made Smarter is focused on is developing not just a company’s digital adoption, but its attitudes too. And after about a year hard at work, it seems to be doing that. Jude is optimistic at the near-halfway point of their programme. “Digital and technology is one thing that can help business, but that has to be coupled with looking at the business and its culture.”
If Made Smarter succeeds in its pilot, the plan can be rolled out across other British regions. It seems to be well on its way towards enabling widespread Digital Transformation, coupled with the cultural support companies need to meet the needs of a changing world.