Data is arguably the most important part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, more so than the headline grabbing technologies such as robotics, simulation, and virtual, augmented and mixed realities. 

From designs and drawings to job sheets and process monitoring, the use of data from inside and outside the factory to gain insights and cost savings, and gain that crucial competitive advantage, is not a new thing.

But for too long the ability to collect, store and use this data has been reserved to the larger manufacturers. It is time for manufacturing SMEs to be given the keys to the kingdom so they can unlock the power of the masses of valuable data already in their organisation.

Data is incredibly important to small and medium sized businesses. Their digital journey and growth plans rely on it. And this actually proves to be an advantage for the whole supply chain ecosystem.

That is why I welcome last week’s announcement that the government, through the Made Smarter Innovation Programme, is investing in a resource which will support small and medium size manufacturers from all over the UK to capture and better utilise their data, helping them increase productivity, growth and sustainability. 

The £50m Smart Manufacturing Data Hub (SMDH) will enable companies to submit their manufacturing data and receive recommendations in return, helping to implement cutting edge production and process techniques themselves, their products and processes, helping bring the next generation of products to our shelves in a more efficient and sustainable way.

Nearly 10,000 manufacturers, spanning food and drink and aerospace, are expected to benefit from the hub which will boost economic growth in all corners of the UK.

It builds on the work of the Made Smarter’s adoption programme which works with SME manufacturers to facilitate technology adoption and improve digital skills.

The North West was the pilot for this much needed intervention, and three and half years on, through a process of getting to know the businesses inside out and working in collaboration to untangle the complexities of Industry 4.0, we have made a significant difference to hundreds of manufacturers.

Nearly 75% of those that we have helped have put data and systems integration at the centre of their digitalisation strategy. They’ve chosen this route because they know that they can use data to identify production and labour trends, rectify maintenance and quality issues, minimise operational downtime, and reduce safety and business risks.

These businesses are using new technologies to capture and collate data so they can uncover opportunities, challenges and solutions. Many are even taking it one step further and successfully analysing their data through artificial intelligence and machine learning.

£50m data innovation hub to boost UK manufacturers

Both Made Smarter’s Innovation Programme and the Adoption Programme – which is now running in the North East, Yorkshire and Humber, and West Midlands – exist to address UK Industry’s productivity puzzle, brought about by an historic failure to embrace advanced technologies and digital skills, coupled with a reliance on human workers to do repetitive, unskilled tasks.

The pandemic has further exposed these frailties and left many manufacturers focussed on survival or recovering to pre-pandemic levels. This is particularly true for SMEs.

Meanwhile, new challenges such as rising energy prices, supply chain disruption and labour shortages are putting manufacturers under more pressure than ever before to achieve more with less. 

Survival, recovery, and future prosperity in manufacturing depend on digitalisation, depend on data, and programmes like Made Smarter s are a great way to explore digitalisation for SMEs.