The UK Government will give manufacturing SMEs a boost to their “productivity and competitiveness” through a new Smart Manufacturing Data Hub (SMDH). Productivity in the sector is currently sluggish, and it is hoped that increased adoption of digital technologies can change this.
The new hub and testbed, announced today, will be led by Ulster University and be backed by £50m of government funds and business co-investment. The funding comes as part of the £300m Made Smarter Innovation Challenge, designed to support the development and increased use of new and existing industrial digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
The government claims that nearly 10,000 UK manufacturers are expected to benefit from the SMDH, with 13,000 jobs supported. This, in turn, will help boost economic growth and “level-up” regions across the UK, it says.
The SMDH will first be accessible by “small and medium size manufacturers in Northern Ireland” in the coming months, before going live for companies across the rest of the UK.
“The Smart Manufacturing Data Hub, backed by £20m of government funds, will support companies to implement cutting edge production and process techniques themselves, helping bring the next generation of products to our shelves in a more efficient and sustainable way,” said industry minister, Lee Rowley.
What is the Smart Manufacturing Data Hub?
The SMDH is host to an online Manufacturing Data Exchange Platform, which will allow companies to submit their manufacturing data and receive recommendations in return. The government says this will help to improve products and processes.
A further £5m fund will then provide companies with grants to make further improvements in the areas of critical important to their business. The programme will also be supported across the rest of the UK by 12 delivery partners, including the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, Industry Wales and Scottish Engineering.
A virtual manufacturing testbed will enable companies to create a digital twin of their company, letting them simulate the implementation of digital technology on their own processes. This will also allow them to harness data from other manufacturers that have already adopted the technologies, encouraging investment.
The SMDH is part of the Made Smarter Innovation programme, which supports makers and technology developers to scale “out of the box” digital technology solutions as well as champion the UK’s manufacturing “revolution.”
“Made Smarter provides the opportunity for innovative collaboration that will be transformative in driving industry competitiveness,” says Professor Liam Maguire, pro vice chancellor for research at Ulster University.
Why has the UK Government focusing on smart manufacturing?
According to McKinsey, the UK manufacturing sector is held back by several challenges. Overall UK productivity persistently ranks below other advanced economics and this is reflected in the manufacturing sector.
Since 2010, productivity in manufacturing has stagnated in the UK. While other countries have seen 2-3% improvements year-on-year, the UK has remained flat. Because of this, labour costs of the UK manufacturing sector are now higher than those of any other major manufacturing nations.
What’s more, the firm say manufacturers are risking falling behind in reskilling their workforce, with two-thirds of the UK workforce potentially lacking “basic digital skills by 2030”.
Separate research by Make UK, the manufacturing sector organisation, says that the UK risks falling behind countries such as Germany and Japan, who have “extensive support systems in place” to help manufacturing small and medium-sized enterprises. Its findings show that 9% of respondents agreed that the UK was in a leadership position compared with other countries when it came to the adoption of industrial digital technologies.
Make UK says that the use of technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and Augmented and Virtual Reality could make a real contribution to business operations. However, the barriers to digital adoption such as technical knowledge and scarcity of finance could hold SMEs back, the organisation says.