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£50m innovation hub will help UK SMEs to go digital

18 May, 2022

The UK government is providing £20m to help set up a “data innovation hub” at Ulster University that will assist UK manufacturers to accelerate the development of digital technologies. The £50m Smart Manufacturing Data Hub (SMDH) will help small- and medium-size manufacturers to capture their data and use it better, thus boosting their productivity, growth and sustainability.

Nearly 10,000 manufacturers across the UK are expected to benefit from the hub and 13,000 jobs will be supported, helping to boost economic growth and level up regions across the UK. The £20m the Government is providing is coming from its Made Smarter Innovation Programme, with £30m coming from business co-investment.

Announcing the hub, industry minister, Lee Rowley said it “will support companies to implement cutting-edge production and process techniques themselves, helping bring the next generation of products to our shelves in a more efficient and sustainable way.

“As we embrace the digital manufacturing revolution,” he added, “it is vital manufacturers across the UK can capitalise on the productivity and growth gains that come with the adopting the latest data-led digital technologies.”

The hub will host an online Manufacturing Data Exchange Platform that will allow companies to submit their manufacturing data and receive recommendations in return, helping them to improve their products and processes. A £5m fund will offer them grants to make further improvements in areas of critical importance to their businesses.

Virtual manufacturing testbeds will allow companies to create “digital twins” to simulate the implementation of digital technology on their own processes, taking advantage of data from other manufacturers that have already adopted the technologies.

The SMDH will also provide manufacturers with expert analysis of their emission and energy data, helping them to cut waste and energy use, and ultimately to improve sustainability.

For its first few months, the SMDH will be accessible only to SME manufacturers in Northern Ireland, before going live for companies across the rest of the UK. The programme will be supported across the UK by 12 delivery partners, including the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, Industry Wales and Scottish Engineering.

The Hub will consist of three main elements:
• the Manufacturing Data Exchange Platform (MDEP), allowing companies to submit their manufacturing data to an online platform and receive intelligence in return;
• the Virtual Manufacturing Test Beds (VMT), which will de-risk investment in digitalisation technologies for SMEs, using anonymised data from existing manufacturing support facilities and ensuring that best practice is shared; and
• a £10m Digital Innovation Fund, which will help companies who use the MDEP to implement its digitalisation recommendations.

Rowley: the hub will support companies to implement cutting-edge production and process techniques

The Government funding for the hub is part of the £300m Made Smarter Innovation Challenge – a collaboration between UK Government and industry designed to support the development and increased use of new and existing industrial digital technologies, including AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (virtual reality).

The challenge aims to deliver a resilient, flexible, more productive and environmentally sustainable UK manufacturing sector. It will also develop new technologies that can be exploited commercially across by manufacturers worldwide.

“Made Smarter provides the opportunity for innovative collaboration that will be transformative in driving industry competitiveness,” says Professor Liam Maguire, pro vice-chancellor for research at Ulster University. “We have a strong track record of collaboration; using our research and technology to act as a catalyst for change, innovation and positive economic, social and environmental impact.”

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