1. About this guide

This guide will tell you:

  • Why online tools are changing the way manufacturers work
  • How manufacturers are using the new technology
  • Important future developments in digital technology
  • Tips for exploiting digital technology in the manufacturing sector

UK manufacturing remains a huge sector

UK manufacturing currently employs 2.7 million people and accounts for 44% of our total exports. The UK is the eighth largest manufacturer in the world and SMEs play a vital role in the sector, accounting for 57% of UK output.

A recent Government report stated that the main strengths of the UK manufacturing sector are its highly skilled workforce, the shift taking place in the industry from low quality to high quality goods, its increasing investment in R&D, and the way that the industry is improving its use of automation and new technologies.

Superfast Broadband is a game-changer

Businesses working in this sector need to be able to transfer large amounts of data quickly, often to multiple locations. They also need to be able to back up their data quickly and to make use of the latest communication methods, such as online collaboration tools. They therefore need the high bandwith, quality of service and reliability that Superfast Broadband can bring to their operations. Superfast Broadband also enables manufacturers to take advantage of the latest advances in Cloud computing.

“It’s hard to remember how we coped before moving to digital.”

Celtest generated 2,000 hours in efficiency savings thanks to Superfast Business Wales support. Learn how.

2. The impact of digital

The advent of Superfast Broadband and Cloud computing mean that small manufacturers can now get access to the latest process management software with minimal outlay. As well as reducing in-house overheads for IT, modern Cloud computing means that:

  • Computing resources can easily be scaled up or down according to demand
  • Computing resources can be bought in as services, rather than having to be installed within a manufacturer’s business
  • Manufacturers only pay for the resources that they actually use.

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3. The benefits to manufacturers

Faster to market: traditional IT systems could take a long time to implement. Cloud-based systems can be deployed very quickly.

Access to more powerful applications: it used to be only the big players that could afford these. Now SMEs can afford to access some of the most sophisticated applications, which has levelled the playing field.

More agility: SMEs can react more quickly to changing trends without having to invest in new IT infrastructure.

Greater innovation: access to the latest digital technology can help support the development of new products and new processes.

Better portability and collaboration: company staff can get access to data and tools anywhere there is an internet connection, and can use multiple devices – even smartphones. This helps with productivity and cross-team collaboration.

Constant updates: SMEs can have systems that are regularly updated, saving on the need for purchasing new software and keeping their systems state of the art.

Better security: the leading Cloud providers have a strong security infrastructure which is continuously updated to deal with the latest threats.

4. How can you use digital?

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): modern ERP systems are vital for manufacturers to control their costs and increase efficiencies. The newest Cloud ERP applications are helping manufacturers to closely coordinate sale, purchasing, production and inventory. Access to the latest, most powerful ERP systems is giving manufacturers tighter control of their manufacturing costs. These systems can also help improve Material Requirements Planning (MRP) and project planning and control.


Inventory management and stock control: smaller manufacturers can now employ some of the very best tools for tracking supply levels and matching these to customer demand. These kinds of systems are vital in the competitive world of ‘just in time’ production. There are sophisticated programmes available for scanning vast amounts of historical data in order to identify underlying trends and help forecast demand.


CAD (computer-aided design): many modern manufacturing projects require collaboration across different teams of engineers and product specialists, often based at different locations. Having CAD systems on the Cloud is enabling better coordination and teamwork on these kinds of projects. There is also the scope to upgrade to more powerful computing as the complexity and scale of the project demands.


Mobile technology: the integration of Cloud-based systems with modern mobile communications means that staff can get access to all their company’s key data anywhere in the world. This allows managers to stay in close contact with the manufacturing base and collaborate more closely with other team members.

Tracking of inventory becomes much easier and tighter management of the supply chain becomes possible. Staff who are away from the business can still help monitor the operation, so that potential problems in production can be averted. And for sales staff the ability to check, update and share real-time information on the go could make the difference between winning or losing a new business opportunity.


Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems: Cloud-based CRM solutions manage the entire customer journey on a single platform, providing a single repository of information where all customer details and contacts are recorded. For smaller manufacturers, where time is at a premium, they can be invaluable in helping to pinpoint their most profitable customers – as individuals or as groups – both today, and in terms of their lifetime value. This enables them to focus attention and resources in the most profitable way, and to make a better assessment of the likely impacts of new strategies or products.


Big Data in manufacturing: Superfast Broadband in combination with the Cloud means that more manufacturers can use supercomputers to analyse Big Data and apply this learning back to their processes. These techniques are already being used to help customise product design, to fine tune production processes, improve quality control and manage supply chain risk. Taking supply chain management as an example,

Big Data analytics allows companies in the USA to predict how their supply chain might be disrupted by external weather events such as blizzards and hurricanes. They can then calculate the probability of delays and get the appropriate back-up suppliers in place so that production isn’t interrupted.


RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) tracking: RFID technology has been around for some time, but has only gained wider usage in the past ten years, mainly driven by the demands of the big retailers. As the trend to eCommerce continues, with Amazon now offering same day delivery in most parts of the country, the demand for this kind of sophisticated tracking will continue to grow. Already, over 3 billion RFID tags per year are used in the USA, with the biggest usage being in apparel tagging. RFID is now penetrating the manufacturing process, with companies using tagging to track various components within the process. For example, car manufacturers can use RFID to track the location of returnable containers used in production, which can eliminate some of the errors caused by human auditing. Some companies now have their own RFID network which shows real-time information on process flow, work in progress, raw materials and inventory – and then feeds all this back into their ERP and shipping systems.


More sophisticated collaboration: the power of the latest digital technology is revolutionising the way that manufacturers and their suppliers and consultants collaborate on complex projects. The Cloud allows manufacturers, engineers, designers and customers to input into projects on the web, creating a virtual factory. This is helping to speed up the rate at which important new developments are brought to market, cut costs, and reduce the risk of design errors.  And effective collaboration is particularly important for small manufacturers who often find themselves in the middle of supply chains, with a real need to communicate effectively up and down the supply chain, as well as with customers and other business partners.


Greater productivity: as well as the efficiencies delivered by better work scheduling and wider data access, the Cloud helps with improving productivity in day to day office tasks. The foundation for many Cloud-based systems will be an online platform such as Microsoft Office 365. This gives the business the essential office tools such as word processing, spreadsheets and email but it also links together all the other, industry specific pieces of software. Again, with the Cloud, these systems can be continually updated and their capacity can be expanded to meet the requirements of the business, without the need to invest in new hardware.


Streamlined processes: Research from Raconteur Custom Publishing indicates that the main reason manufacturing companies invest in new IT systems is to improve the efficiency of their internal processes (followed closely by accelerating innovation).  Integration can really help in process improvement by getting all of your software systems and business applications working together. For instance, sales could be generated through e-commerce software, with the order details captured and automatically passed to a CRM system that records all customer interactions. These details could also form the input for the scheduling of production activities, as well as being used for inventory management and production of the shipping documentation. In addition, they would automatically generate the appropriate invoices for customers, with the accounting system also monitoring as and when payment is made to your bank account. 


Traceability: This is an increasingly important requirement within the supply chain of any manufacturer, particularly so in industries such as food and pharmaceuticals. It helps to determine when a problem has occurred and provides the ability to quickly recall products if required. However, if your business does not have joined-up systems then providing traceability and ensuring the associated audit trails are in place can be extremely time consuming and problematic. Integrating the digital systems involved at various stages of the supply chain can be invaluable in tracking when raw materials are purchased and received, following products through the supply chain as they move between organisations and ultimately tracking the delivery of goods to customers.  Integrated systems can also help in tracing the origins of particular batches of products that may have problems and investigating complaints. 


Enterprise Apps: the arrival of Cloud computing has speeded the rate at which companies are using apps designed to improve their processes. As well as commercial apps being created by the leading software providers, some manufacturers are commissioning their own bespoke apps designed to meet the specific needs of their business. This has become one of the fastest growing areas of new app development.

5. Real-life example: buddy®cover

A Swansea-based company selling non-invasive medical devices is planning to expand into the veterinary sector after using digital technology to help increase online sales opportunities.

QOL’s buddy®cover products - reusable, waterproof protective covers for wound dressings on legs - are available on NHS prescription. But the firm has also been able to make the complete range available to purchase online, including on Amazon and eBay.

The company, which was founded by managing director Joanna Winslade in 2011, relies on digital technology to deliver its expanding product range to customers in the UK, Europe and even Australia.

Ms Winslade said: “The digital support we have received from Superfast Business Wales has given me the confidence, and the right tools, to do my job. It has helped my firm become more professional quicker.”

Read the full case study here.

6. What does the future hold?

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR): this has particularly powerful applications in production engineering. Instead of an operative reporting a fault to an engineer and describing the machine, the capability exists to create a realistic virtual image – as if the engineer were inspecting the machine in ‘real life’. This can significantly improve the speed and accuracy with which faults are repaired.

Similarly, VR training videos can give staff the opportunity to learn how to assemble and repair a range of equipment in the ‘virtual world’, speeding up skills development while reducing training costs.


Wearable tech: the potential for staff to have wearable devices that link to a central system via the Cloud will have implications for many areas of manufacturing.

For example, wearable devices could automatically collect data from the shop floor and transmit it to the Cloud, saving time on manual data entry. This data could then

be interpreted into actions by the ERP system and transmitted back to the team member’s device, speeding up efficiency and productivity. It could also have applications for staff safety, with wearable devices that automatically alert staff to hazards in the workplace.


The Internet of Things (IoT): this technology is transforming the manufacturing process into a complex, interconnected system, where the machines are able to communicate directly to each other. For example, at the Siemens electronics plant in Amberg, Germany, machines and computers handle 75% of the production process autonomously.

Parts being produced communicate with the machines via a product code, which gives their production requirements and the next steps to be taken. The role of the employees is primarily to monitor the equipment as it does its work and deal with any unexpected incidents.

At the moment, this level of IoT technology is mainly the preserve of the large global players, but in time it could permeate all parts of the manufacturing industry.


3D printing: the application of 3D printing in manufacturing is evolving very quickly. The accuracy of 3D scanning and the increasing capability of 3D printing technology mean that it is already being used in industries such as aerospace, automotive and healthcare – creating such items as light airplane parts, aerodynamic car bodies and custom prosthetic devices.

Some observers believe that the advent of 3D printing will lead to a new era of ‘mass customisation’ of products. This could prove to be another important future opportunity for smaller, niche manufacturers.

7. Top tips for using digital

  1. Ensure it fits with your business strategy: any technology you adopt should fit with the bigger picture of your total business.
  2. Develop your plan: create a digital strategy for your business detailing how the new technology will impact the different areas of your business, the specific requirements it must meet, and the improvements you expect to achieve.
  3. Involve your people: get input and feedback from your teams to shape the plan and make sure that they are trained and prepared for the change.
  4. Assess all the costs: make sure that the costs are matched to your specific needs and that you know how increased usage might affect your charges.
  5. Start small and grow: don’t over-specify your needs or create more complexity than your teams can deal with. Begin at a manageable level and grow as your team’s skills and capabilities increase.
  6. Talk to resellers: see what they can offer you. Resellers, system integrators and business partners may be valuable in helping you get set up and arranging the training you need.
  7. Consider Cloud brokers: some resellers can offer a useful service by acting as brokers and bringing together the Cloud services you need from a number of providers.
  8. Distance matters: long distance internet connections can sometimes cause delays in system response times, so check if a supplier has systems that are hosted in the UK, or at least in Europe. Also make sure that they are GDPR compliant if you’re processing personal data.
  9. Data portability: make sure that you can take all your data with you, if you should decide to change suppliers. This is particularly important if your data includes proprietary designs or other valuable intellectual property.
  10. Test the service: thoroughly evaluate how well it performs, including over different types of connection, such as PC versus smartphone. Check how good the service is when multiple users are connected. Get references from other users of the service and ask them about their experience.

8. Get expert help

Further information