AS manufacturing events go, the Smart Factory Expo was about as far removed from the clichéd image of production lines as you can get.
Sure, there was the odd bit of machinery – a mock up-of a bottling line here, a car production demo there – but this event, in the Exhibition Centre Liverpool, was set squarely in the tech space.
Prominent among exhibitors were names like Oracle and Cisco, while slogans urged delegates to “connect your assets and transform data into value”, or “predict the unpredictable” via machine learning.
Organiser The Manufacturer was expecting some 3,500 people to attend the two-day expo and associated Leaders Conference.
And for some this surge in interest was a sign that UK manufacturing is waking up to the need to transform itself, and fast.
“British manufacturers aren’t very far along but it’s going to change rapidly,” said David Little, managing director of Reading-based software provider HSO.
“Over the last year and a half there’s been a growing realisation among manufacturers that they will have to transform themselves into technology businesses.”
HSO was using Microsoft HoloLens to demonstrate to delegates how manufacturers could use augmented reality to aid maintenance, and create virtual reality “digital twins” for training, performance monitoring or to predict faults.
“Almost anybody providing equipment now is also providing a maintenance service,” said Little. “They are providers of information about how efficiently a company’s machines are working and they can think about understanding that data themselves and selling it to their customers.
“A year or so ago, people were just not using the language. Now there’s a real momentum and it’s backed by government on the back of Brexit. There’s a lot of innovation. We are seeing a real chance for the UK to be at the forefront of it.”
As The Manufacture’s digital and events director James Smith noted in his programme introduction: “British manufacturers have a clear advantage over our international peers in at least one respect – or world-class technology sector is going to be key for companies looking to make a success out of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Design and simulation specialist Dr Hannah Edmonds is among those working to help SMEs modernise at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, in Coventry.
Its Thermal Energy Research Accelerator links business with academia and specialist organisations to support supply chains. And she profiled its Factory In A Box projects, which aim to enable smart production in a shipping container, during a session in one of the expo’s igloo-style theatres.
“The factories can be built in the UK and then you ship it to where you want in the world. But you can keep control in the UK,” said Edmonds.
The project, using robots running on rails along the container’s top, is aimed at rapidly growing companies that want to explore new markets but are unsure of the potential market size.
One area of focus is vehicle refrigeration. Croydon-based Dearman is developing liquid nitrogen cooling systems to replace dirty diesel-powered models in trucks that transport food. Edmonds said that building compliance into the process using pressure testing can compensate for a lack of qualified cryogenics engineers to test, allowing lesser qualified plumbers to fit them into the lorries. These processes can be mapped and tested on a digital twin before implementation.
This time next year, she added, a fully functioning Factory In A Box should be a feature of exhibition floors.
Outside the pop-up seminar room, a wander down “Innovation Alley” took in an array of young businesses hoping to snare customers and investors, with little more than a laptop to display.
James Pulver, director of Liverpool-based Spacesweets, is developing an app to help commercial property owners use data from a combination of sensors on equipment and its human tenants to reduce maintenance costs.
“Currently, communications channels between building managers, subcontractors and tenants are complicated,” he said. “If there’s a leak, for example, it means owners are having to pay service providers a high call-out rate, and buildings can degrade quicker than they should.
“But if you get information from tenants via one quick source, such as Twitter, you’ve got a chance to address problems earlier. It’s in tenants’ interests to be proactive because it should lead to lower service charges.”
Another company aiming to help companies save on running costs was Doordeck. It has developed a smartphone based security system to replace key cards.
The London company is fresh from Cisco’s accelerator in Manchester and marketing head Olly Browning said it was hoping to win over manufacturers who need added security by highlighting its use of smartphone facial or fingerprint recognition technology.
“A key card can get copied in a matter of minutes and you won’t know about it but if your phone gets stolen you’ll still need a fingerprint – or at the very least – a PIN to get onto the app.
“Doordeck integrates with existing systems. If phones have the capability to do this anyway, why would you carry a card around?”
Browning claimed one company he spoke to was issuing about 5,000 cards a year at a cost of £2.50 each and that Doordeck’s system could not only reduce the cost by 75% but wipe out the time taken waiting for replacements.
And, he pointed out, companies could gather data from Doordeck’s app to perform virtual rollcalls during fire alarms, or to automatically fill in timesheets.
It was just another example of the “intelligent shop floor data collection” that was being advertised across the exhibition hall. And heartening to many will have been the sight of school students – the generation the UK must rely on to use this data to best effect – soaking up the innovation on display and interrogating exhibitors on their implementation plans.
As the event drew to a close and delegates streamed out, they could be forgiven for thinking that, some day soon, all manufacturing events will look like this.