For several years now the Digital Catapult Centre NETV has worked with manufacturing companies across the region, including some amazing companies like Nissan, AkzoNobel and Shell. However, I was becoming increasingly aware that a lot of the support for digital manufacturing and the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is aimed at large manufacturing companies. This might be because they are seen as the ones with the bigger budgets to do R&D activity (not always true), which means they can explore some of the emerging technology that is relevant for a smart factory environment like the Internet of Things etc.

However, I was becoming reluctant to stand on a stage and say ‘we support manufacturers in embracing the 4IR’ because we only supported a very small proportion of the sector. Working exclusively with corporate clients, especially here in the North East, means we were missing an opportunity: it is surprising how many manufacturing companies have less then 250 employees and therefore fit into the SME bracket. 

My concern was that, if we help the big companies to innovate and apply digital solutions to their process, then at some point they may decide to mandate that approach down their supply chain. This will make it difficult for a lot of smaller companies to comply. 

Procurement processes focused on 4IR could result in the smaller companies not wining business next time because they don’t fit the regulation requirements on transparency and efficiency etc. or just because they are no longer a economically viable option. When this thought crossed my mind - alongside the uncertain landscape the UK currently finds itself in - I wanted to ensure we were doing everything we could to help UK Manufacturing remain competitive in a global supply chain.

The solution we have developed, is the Digital Manufacturing Programme. As those of you I have spoken to about this will know, it has been quite difficult to kick off because emerging technology doesn't always feel like a 'must have' in business. But all businesses, regardless of sector and size, need to understand how technology will impact them so they can future-proof themselves - and manufacturing is no exception.

Anyway we have pulled together a comprehensive plan to run a pilot programme for any size manufacturer (specifically focused on the small to medium sized company) in any sector. It starts with a two day workshop covering: digital 101; how technology such as Artificial Intelligence is relevant to small factories; a hands-on immersive technology experience; an expert-led session to take you through different types of connectivity to cover blackspots etc. 

The programme continues with 1-1 support delivered by experts from your sector, who have skills in your chosen areas of interest. They will help you explore specific technologies for your site. You'll receive 5 days of onsite support, by the end of which you'll have a roadmap to implement new solutions. 

If you are interested in this awesome programme (if I say so myself!) and would like some more information please get in touch with our programme manager Sophie Craggs at who will be leading this initiative.