Paul edmondson, group lead, electronics at eg technology, discusses How can SMEs adopt digital manufacturing?
Cited as being "The UK's Biggest Manufacturing Show", the Smart Factory Expo in Liverpool in mid-November was the ideal place to investigate the impact of smart, digital and cloud-based technologies on the manufacturing sector. Having technology cross-overs from other markets, we at eg technology were keen to explore areas where our experience could add value.
The exhibition was split into eight zones with each zone hosting a theme such as IoT, digital transformation, industrial automation etc. At the centre of the hall was placed a double row of stands named "Innovation Alley". Surrounded by bigger players in the industry (Dell, Siemens, Omron and the like), Innovation Alley hosted the start-ups. These small companies were offering products and services ranging from cloud hosted software solutions (collaborative tools and web-based parts ordering services), robotic systems for automation, to sensors to be fitted to machines or products for tracking usage and wear over service lifetimes.
Amongst the product offerings were also a number of consultants and advisors who were offering their expertise to companies which are looking to join the digital revolution but aren't sure how. It became clear during my visit to the show that the small and medium sized enterprises that these consultants are targeting represent a significant proportion of the UK manufacturing base. The bigger companies who can invest significant amounts of time and money have been implementing smart factory processes for quite some time.
We have seen from our collaboration with larger organisations that big changes to company wide processes, and the adoption of new technologies, can be disruptive and can take many months or even years to settle in (i.e. to be fully adopted and accepted by the workforce and for process bugs to be ironed out). Smaller companies with well-established processes (albeit based around old technologies) can't afford to have months of disruption whilst they make wholesale changes to their equipment or business practices.
This is where many of the start-ups I saw come into play. By offering tools and services that can be adopted in manageable phases of implementation, an SME need not be put off by the possibility of a long learning curve or by the rejection of big changes by staff. If new tools or services can complement existing processes with an obvious and fast improvement in efficiencies and working practices then "buy-in" from staff and management will be more likely.
These new tools and services might seem partly fragmented but there is a whole ecosystem being developed, working together to meet all of the SME's needs. Lots of these offerings are software/cloud based services but there is also a need for hardware to provide tools and interfaces for automation or to log the data used for analysing efficiencies or effectiveness.
eg technology ltd have developed the electronics, embedded software and caseworks for wireless home automation, medical sensing, and asset tracking devices for logistics companies. These are the edge nodes, the industrial IoT devices which provide the data into the larger "Industry 4.0" framework.
Our Human Factors and Industrial Design engineers can help to design the Human-Machine Interface that factory automation equipment will require and our mechanical engineers have years of experience working in the food and drink manufacturing/dispensing industries and can tailor solutions to your needs.