Pandemic pushes innovation forward

The pandemic has hit businesses hard, but it may have accelerated the adoption of new technology and given innovation a boost.

New research commissioned by Digital Catapult and the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator reveals that COVID-19 could prove to be a turning point when it comes to UK manufacturers implementing advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, the internet of things or 5G, with 77% saying that the pandemic has made their business more open to change and innovation.

Yet, despite recognising such technologies would benefit their manufacturing operations (71%), design and engineering processes (60%) and procurement and supply chain performance (49%), a third (32%) of senior manufacturers have admitted that the UK is behind its international competitors when it comes to adopting advanced technologies.

The research revealed that the key barriers for accessing these benefits include lack of budget – particularly pertinent in light of the economic impacts of the pandemic – with 40% of respondents saying it is stopping them investing. This was closely followed by cyber security concerns (32%) and a lack of skills within the company (30%).

To help manufacturers overcome these hurdles, as well as fast-forward and shape the UK’s technology innovation directly into industry, the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator empowers established manufacturers to join forces with innovative technology startups and scaleups to develop technology prototypes and minimum viable products in order to drive productivity, digitalisation and innovation and ultimately push forward the fourth industrial revolution for the UK manufacturing sector.

Now, Digital Catapult has announced the seven industry partners – including BAE Systems, Babcock International Group and Sainsbury’s – which have partnered with the match-funded Made Smarter Technology Accelerator programme and have set 14 challenges for the technology companies to respond to. The challenges range from increasing shelf life and sell through of products while reducing waste (Sainsbury’s) to scalable artificial intelligence for visual inspection (BAE Systems).

The seven partners joining the programme are Babcock International Group, BAE Systems, GAF, Northumbrian Water Group (NWG), O’Neills Irish International Sports Company Limited, Safran Landing Systems and Sainsbury’s.

The successful startup and scaleup applicants selected to respond will be provided with up to £20,000 funding each and a platform to grow as they develop prototypes to address these challenges. In return for both match-funded financial and in-kind contributions, partners will gain direct access to the outputs and learnings of the programme as well as have proof of concepts developed for challenges they set.

Dr Jeremy Silver, CEO of Digital Catapult said: “Navigating this years’ extremely challenging conditions has been tough for manufacturers of all sizes, right across the UK. Digital Catapult is dedicated to working hand in hand with industry and the UK’s vibrant tech startup community, and it’s really encouraging to see so many organisations from the sector seize this opportunity to embrace innovation as an important means of building back better. The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator will make visible how a range of disruptive emerging technologies will really work to benefit early industrial adopters. It will also clarify routes to market for digital innovators. The outcomes from this programme are really positive, we will see new and traditional businesses working together – making enormous savings, significantly improving productivity, developing new business models, boosting exports and delivering on challenging net-zero targets.”

Juergen Maier, Chair of Digital Catapult and Co-Chair of Made Smarter added: “Our newly announced partners have set ambitious challenges, and the UK’s vibrant and diverse digital technology innovation community is incredibly well-placed to respond. By creating bonds between technology startups and scaleups and the manufacturing industry we have the opportunity for the UK to lead the way in the fourth industrial revolution – as advanced technology radically alters, and improves, the way we approach manufacturing.”

Andy Schofield, Technology Delivery Director at BAE Systems said, “BAE Systems is on a continuing mis-sion to be a front-line developer and instigator of future manufacturing technology. Our customers’ de-mands for ever more complex and flexible products along with ever shortening timelines and challenging cost targets makes alignment with the Made Smarter Accelerator and Digital Catapult a clear match to achieving our long-term goals, thereby sustaining us as a driving force in both UK and global manufacturing markets.”

Digital Catapult launched the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator in September, calling for medium and large manufacturing industry partners to participate. The programme aims to help manufacturers solve some of their key challenges, as well as fast-forward and shape the UK’s technolo-gy adoption directly into industry.

Following successful onboarding, partners will work together to set the industry challenges which will see companies from the UK’s world-leading digital technology innovation community develop prototypes that ultimately answer and solve these problems.

The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator was seeking partners with challenges in five programme themes:

■ Intelligent factory management and control

■ Intelligent product verification

and validation

■ Transparent and data driven procurement

■ Digitally enabled factory workforce

■ Resource measurement

and analytics

Focusing on these themes and intensifying the market of digital innovators will drive multiple out-comes for the manufacturing sector; to aid economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, im-prove productivity, increase market capitalisation, export growth and accelerating sectors towards industrial net zero.

There are varying levels of involvement for partners depending on the level of investment and - uniquely for a programme of this type – eight Industry Challenge Owners are being invited to shape and set the challenges addressed by the startups and scaleups with their technology innovations.

In return for match-funded financial contributions, partners will gain direct access to the outputs and learnings of the programme as well as have prototypes developed for challenges they set.