Improving Productivity and Value-Add through Digital Technologies


Dr Abigail Hird, Executive Team Member at the Strathclyde Institute for Operations Management (SIOM) at the University of Strathclyde discusses the increasing hype around Industry 4.0 and what it means in practice for SMEs and micro-businesses.

A revolution is upon us. Manufacturing is changing. New services are being created. Fresh opportunities, challenges and business models are emerging as a result of the adoption of a range of enabling technologies. How should you embrace these technologies? How will they impact your business and competitive proposition? What does it all mean for SMEs and micro-firms?

The Revolution

Enabling technologies such as sensors, data analytics, Internet of Things and Cyber-Physical Systems have provided a platform for industry to innovate with new processes and business models. Sectors and companies that have embraced these changes have enjoyed productivity increases and generated significant added value. At a national level, the UK faces productivity challenges and fierce competition from global markets. We need innovation that propels us beyond ‘catching up’ with others, and novel applications of digital technology could be one way/route to achieving this.

Digital “Noise”

Digital technologies can impact manufacturing firms beyond the production process: smart products and smart supply chains are other aspects to consider. One thing that gets in the way of having useful conversations about “Digital Manufacturing” is that definitions of ‘Digital Manufacturing’ or Industry 4.0 vary depending upon who you are talking to. People have a tendency to see the world through the lens of their favourite technology or application. How we like to think of it is that it’s not about Amazon drones, smart fridges, or robots taking over, or any single specific technology, but more about  the application of a whole range of technologies for improved decision making – whether that’s at the level of a single manufacturing operation or at a strategic organisational level.

Making Smart Decisions

Digital technologies can enable decision making that has less reliance on human judgement and intervention saving time and money in terms of resource. This could mean automating run-of-the-mill information provision or, developing insights, improving consistency and removing bias in more complex decision making. While managers will still ultimately be the decision maker in a digital context they are empowered by improved information often enabled by sensor-driven data collection, powerful new data analytics and fast communication technologies.

Size Matters

To date, much of the research, policy and uptake in practice has been championed by, and targeted at, large organisations. Operationally, large firms are very different to smaller businesses. Being big has its advantages: resource to invest in new technologies and leverage in well-established markets, for example. There are benefits to being small too: it shouldn’t be as onerous to generate momentum for change and strategy decisions can be rolled out and adapted with better visibility and control. The UK economy is powered by smaller businesses and when it comes to digital strategy it isn’t a case of one size fits all.  Digital strategy must be considered in light of the size, sector, value proposition, and all the wonderful idiosyncrasies of your individual business.

Taking Advantage

New digital technologies enable innovative business models and exciting opportunities to compete in transformative ways. With more natural agility, small firms are best placed to take an opportunistic approach.

For example:

  • Sensor technologies and Internet of Things (IoT) can be used to track the health of livestock in the supply chain providing better visibility and improving decision-making confidence
  • SIOM researchers developed and applied exciting AI methods to improve resource forecasting, enabling quick and confident responses to tender and better product development resource planning decisions
  • The Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) are working with augmented and virtual reality technologies to help the construction industry visualise cables and plumbed systems behind walls

SIOM and You @ Venturefest Scotland 

SIOM provides a forum for industry (businesses of all sizes), academics and policy makers to collaborate with a view to addressing key operations management challenges to deliver real impact, compete nationally and internationally and improve productivity through efficiency gains and increased value-add. We are looking to explore how digital technologies can be applied in a range of contexts with a view to identifying patterns and trends to help your business and passing on the things we’ve learned.

You may still be wondering what digital manufacturing means for your business, or maybe you are well down the road to automation, or perhaps you have processes with minimal technology. Either way you will benefit from coming along to our session at Venturefest Scotland 2017 and getting involved with the SIOM network and University of Strathclyde digital manufacturing activities. We’ll help you reflect on where you are currently, where you need to be and where investment in effort and resources is going to be most beneficial.

To find out more please contact Dr Abi Hird

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