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Low-cost Technologies to Help SMEs Digitise


An easy way for small- to medium-sized manufacturers to benefit quickly from digitalisation is to start small and start simply with low-cost digital solutions that address their top business priorities without interfering with the company’s core processes.

The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project, led by a team at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge – in partnership with SME manufacturers, regional and sector organisations and technology solution providers – have designed a low-cost, low-risk approach after listening directly to the business needs of more than fifty organisations.

Through proof-of-concept demonstrators and industry pilots, Shoestring has shown how effectively low-cost, commercially available technologies for mobile computing, sensing and analytics can solve key needs, such as job tracking, digital job cards and temperature monitoring on a production line.

At this year’s Smart Factory Expo at Digital Manufacturing Week in Liverpool on 10th and 11th November, the Shoestring team will replicate a live factory production line using three workstations to assemble a product. This will show delegates how simple it is to add low-cost technologies to their existing production line, enabling them to track jobs in production, check that parts are collated correctly for assembly, and monitor equipment utilisation.

Delegates are invited to visit the Shoestring factory exhibition stand (J50) to see how low-cost technologies bring business benefits that range from better production planning to improved customer relations.

Digital Manufacturing on Shoestring

Shoestring is an innovative project which involves a range of small manufacturers, technology partners including the Raspberry Pi Foundation and Siemens, and manufacturing networks such as the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS) and Make UK. The project exploits low-cost, commercially available technologies in mobile computing, sensors and analytics software.

Working closely with individual companies to address their unique needs, the project team has developed a number of proof-of-concept solutions to things like inventory tracking and voice-activated orders, with industry pilot partners testing their adaptability in industrial settings.

The Shoestring approach begins with developing an understanding of priority business areas for digitalisation, using requirements workshops together with on-site visits to companies (as well as online workshops added since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic). Following requirements workshops held with 300 companies, the Shoestring team classified many of the commonly experienced challenges and priorities facing manufacturers and created a list of top priority requirements for proposed low-cost digital solutions.

This has led to the creation of a toolbox of solutions, a number of which have been developed into demonstrators which addresses barriers to the successful development, introduction and exploitation of IoT. The solutions incorporate low-cost industrial and consumer components (such as Raspberry Pis) and low-cost sensors (such as Bluetooth low-energy beacons, off-the-shelf sensors and motion cameras), combined with openly available software, human-machine interaction (low cost AR/VR technologies) and IoT suites.

One example includes a digital job-tracker which has been piloted by a small family-run manufacturer for, initially, a low three-figure sum. Where the company previously used a paper sheet to track orders through the system, low-cost scanners are now being used to digitise the location and status of jobs. This cross-site job tracking pilot enables workers to print tracking labels, record when a job enters and leaves the facility using barcode scanning, and then store all these records centrally on their network or in the cloud, so that live job progress can be viewed at any time.

This simple but effective solution demonstrates the combination of openly available and other low-cost off-the-shelf technologies to collect and record, in real-time, typical manufacturing activities observed on a shopfloor.

To find out how your company can get involved and benefit from a low-cost Shoestring solution, visit or email

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