Thousands of manufacturers across the UK are set to receive a productivity boost thanks to a new data innovation hub and test bed led by Ulster University. Backed by £20 million in funding from the UK government’s Made Smarter Innovation programme along with £30 million from industry and other partners, the smart manufacturing data hub (SMDH) supports small and medium-sized manufacturers to become more competitive by harnessing the power of data.
“This is a massive, massive win for us,” says Peter Devine, head of strategic partnerships at the Ulster University faculty of computing, engineering and the built environment. “We are thrilled and delighted. It doesn’t happen very often that a Northern Ireland institution manages to win a competitive bid to lead a UK programme like this.”
Made Smarter Innovation is a UK initiative to increase the productivity of manufacturing companies across the UK, he explains. “It has overall funding of £185 million,” he says. “Innovation UK was tasked with delivering change with that budget. A number of programmes including a digital supply chain hub and some awareness-raising initiatives have been delivered over the past few years. The SMDH is the biggest of them.”
Innovation UK put out an open call for proposals for the programme, and Ulster University formed a consortium of 11 partners to bid for it. “We put a strong emphasis on getting a good geographic spread and we have partners in Wales, Scotland, and England.”
The main goal is to reach out to SMEs and smaller manufacturing companies around the UK who may feel neglected by government programmes because of geography or their technology level. “These companies are not engaging with or getting support from government initiatives,” Devine adds.
“The government puts hundreds of millions of pound into things like advanced manufacturing hubs in the middle of England. This is great for the big companies but if you are bashing metal in Antrim or making washers in Inverness it isn’t that relevant. The idea of SMDH is to create a community of SMEs across the UK and give them a platform to share their manufacturing data.
“We provide the data analytics and manufacturing expertise. We analyse the data from the companies and give them recommendations, ideas and support to help them move up the digitalisation ladder.”
Those recommendations can be in areas like automation, robotics, energy-saving initiatives and so on. “There is an acknowledgment that large companies have in-house capability in these areas but SMEs do not. That’s where SMDH comes in.”
Another aspect is the programme is the creation of virtual test beds. “If a manufacturing company is thinking about introducing robotics to the production line it’s very risky to go out and buy something and hope that it works,” says Devine. “Virtualising the process eliminates that risk. We can create a virtual replication of the process and run simulations and different models. It’s a form of digital twinning and helps companies make sure that the investment will work.”
There is also the prospect of taking this a step further by giving SMEs access to live test beds.
“Those big government-funded centres in the midlands of England have these facilities. By leveraging our consortium members’ networks we can give them remote access to these facilities. This will also facilitate knowledge-sharing across the community and enable the companies to become more self-sufficient in digitalisation.”
This in turn will help them increase productivity and competitiveness. “The UK lags behind the world in terms of productivity, and Northern Ireland lags behind the UK,” says Devine. “We need to address market failure in relation to that. Companies know that their data has value but don’t have the means to use it. We will help the cohort of SMEs which have been left behind to benefit from their data.”
The programme formally kicked off in April and a pilot programme involving Northern Ireland SMEs has already been run. “We put the proposal for the pilot programme in our initial application. We wanted to run a programme involving a small number of companies so that we could take the learnings and use them to scale out the full programme.
“The pilot was very successful, and we were assisted by consortium members Manufacturing NI and MEGA (Manufacturing & Engineering Growth & Advancement) in recruiting companies for it.”
The programme also includes a £5 million Digital Innovation Challenge Fund under which companies can competitively apply for funding to implement recommendations flowing the data hub.
“It has been a great achievement to win this bid,” says Devine. “We should acknowledge the leading role played by Prof Martin McGinnity in that. We have a lot to do in the next three years. It is a challenge, but I am confident we will achieve our goals.”