Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring [Digital Shoestring]

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Engineering


The digitalisation of manufacturing is a key enabler in the UK Government drive to raise the level of industrial productivity to match and exceed leading competitors. Whilst basic digital technology applications in manufacturing are not new, there are two key trends that predicate the timeliness of the proposed research: (1) manufacturing organisations are increasingly seeing information as a key strategic addition to their product offerings; (2) major innovations in computer science, control and informatics have created new opportunities for major breakthroughs in manufacturing. One of the critical challenges is how to support the digital manufacturing transformation of SMEs and introduce new methods of production that take into account the latest control, communication and AI technologies in a sector characterised by limited capital investment and research potential. Whilst there is significant body of knowledge in this area it is mostly focused on relatively expensive solutions which are often unaffordable to SMEs?

This project will therefore address a common concern that recent developments in digital manufacturing are unlikely to accessible by SMEs owing to the associated capital cost of upgrading industrial computing and communication environments. The project proposes a radically different approach to the digital evolution of a manufacturing operation by focussing predominantly on non industrial solutions to industrial automation and information challenges. It will seek to exploit very low cost commercially available technologies for mobile computing, sensing, AI and tackle the challenges associated with integrating these safely and securely into a small scale manufacturing environment. As well as conventional research activities, the project will more radically involve student hackathons as a means of stimulating low cost software development, will use an in-house technology transfer organisation to access SME organisations, and engage directly with the High Value Manufacturing catapult demonstration network as a means of reaching the maximum number of potential users. Stretch targets for the programme include the introduction of low cost product tracking, exploiting emerging industrial IoT platforms and AI-based flexible control using commercially available AI and voice recognition development environments.

The project will supplement the traditional research and development approaches with some innovative implementation development activities in which (i) undergraduate and graduate students in both engineering and computer science and integrated via a series of hackathons and software and hardware development competitions (ii) a series of workshops will be targeted at local start up and SME IT communities to engage them directly in the development of applications and products (iii) by working directly with technology transfer organisations to ensure that not only the final message but also the starting rationale for the work fully engages the SME manufacturing community.

Planned Impact

The project will deliver significant knowledge impact by developing for the first time a comprehensive yet economically feasible digital manufacturing transformation methodology, models and architecture applicable to a large set of manufacturing SMEs. The research will deliver a prototype tool for digital manufacturing readiness assessment which will industrially validated using a set of company specific tests. A new step-by-step methodology and prototype support tools for digital transformation of manufacturing SMEs will also be developed and using industrial scenarios.

Manufacturing companies are increasingly striving to obtain competitive advantage by offering a range of services associated with their products thereby delivering economic benefits in terms of employment and wealth creation. Direct impact comes through adoption of research outcomes by Industry. The architecture and solutions developed through this research will help IoT and industrial automation solution providers such as Siemens and Atos to offer new innovative and improved services to their customers - in particular tailored to the needs of SMEs. The SMEs and wider manufacturing industry would be able to exploit the opportunities offered by low-cost digitisation to improve productivity, competitiveness and market positioning. Our industrial partners have confirmed their intend to incorporate the research outputs into their manufacturing systems to enable them to digitise their operations. The planned onsite demonstrators will help them understand the challenges involved and also facilitate the transfer of knowledge through their interactions with the researchers while they are on site.

This work aims to enable low cost digital transformation of manufacturing SMEs with specific focus on reducing the total cost of asset ownership as well as contributing to increased reliability and safety of industrial systems. In addition the proposed research will contribute to significant environmental and societal impact in terms of reduced energy consumption due to the introduction of more efficient overall production processes as well as upskilling of labour and increasing the overall productivity level of the sector. This will also result in reduced impact of manufacturing on the planet's resources and improving quality of life.

We will use public events to showcase our lab demonstrators to wide audiences of all age groups, including many international visitors, thereby helping promote the excellent research done in UK and to generate excitement in the minds of young people attracting them pursue studies in STEM disciplines. The project will directly deliver highly trained post-doctoral researchers by providing them with the opportunity to work in the cutting-edge of this research, and interacting with world-leading academics and practitioners through attending conferences. In addition, the project offers ample opportunities for PhD research across multiple disciplines. We will also incorporate the research findings into appropriate teaching modules in our courses, and involve students from our undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the research project through their dissertations, final year projects, competitions and hackathons thus ensuring a pipeline of suitably-qualified engineers. Along with traditional research activities the project will employ innovative methods for distributed software development by supporting student hackathons which will help bring together students from different disciplines to work on multidisciplinary topics.
Description EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account Impact Starter Grant
Amount £12,000 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 03/2020
Description Industry-Academia Consortium for Digitization in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Academy of Engineering 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 04/2021
Description Articles in Industry Magazines/Journals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Articles published in:
Manufacturing & Management (July/August 2019)

Interview for:
Manufacturing & Logistics IT (2019)

The Manufacturer (October 2019)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Industry Digital Requirements Workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Workshops conducted in:
Cambridge (02/19, 06/19, 09/19, 02/20)
Liverpool (11/19)
Edinburgh (02/19, 02/20, 03/20)
Birmingham (10/19)
Cranfield (07/19)

Australia (07/19)
New Zealand (11/19)
India (12/19)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Invited Speaker at Industrial Conferences 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Presentation on Shoestring Project approach and results at industrial conference in:
Internet of Manufacturing (Farnborough - 05/2019)
Cambridge Wireless Conference (Cambridge - 06/2019)
ATI Conference (Birmingham - 11/2019)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019