Digital manufacturing on a Shoestring

Professor Duncan McFarlane introduces a new research project into low-cost digital solutions for manufacturing SMEs.


‘Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring’ is a project with a difference. It asks how existing and readily available digital technologies could be implemented on a low-cost basis to support growth and productivity in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Rather than implementing digital at all costs, we address the common concern that recent developments in digital manufacturing are unlikely to be affordable for SMEs.


Our emphasis is on understanding the business challenges that organisations are trying to overcome, then creating appropriate digital solutions that demonstrate significant value and will deliver extensive impact across the SME community.


The problem for SMEs

Manufacturing organisations are increasingly seeing information as a key strategic addition to their product offerings and as a productivity gain for their processes. Major innovations in computer science, control and informatics have created new opportunities for breakthroughs.


But most knowledge in this area has been focused on expensive solutions. This leaves a critical challenge around how to support SMEs with digital manufacturing transformation, particularly given the high costs not only of investing in advanced technology but also of upgrading industrial computing and communication environments to support it.


We are seeking to exploit low-cost commercially available technologies for mobile computing, sensing and artificial intelligence (AI), and to tackle the challenges associated with integrating these safely and securely into a small scale manufacturing environment. We are working with partners such as Raspberry Pi to explore off-the-shelf nonindustrial digital technologies that can be implemented ‘on a shoestring’.


Digital manufacturing on a shoestring 


What will the research involve?

This unique project will see organisations working with the University of Cambridge and the University of Nottingham helping SMEs to develop digital solutions for their unique requirements.


As well as conventional research activities, the project will involve student hackathons as a means of stimulating low cost digital developments. There will be competitions to encourage undergraduate and graduate students in engineering and computer science to contribute software and hardware development. We also intend to run workshops targeted at local start-up and SME IT communities to engage them in the development of applications and products.


Through this co-development, we will advance the research and application of a number of cross cutting technologies, supporting the uptake of digital manufacturing within the SME community.


We hope to introduce into SMEs new methods of production that take into account the latest control, communication and AI technologies in a sector characterised by limited capital investment and research potential. Stretch targets for the programme include the introduction of low-cost product tracking, exploiting emerging industrial Internet of Things platforms and AI-based flexible control using commercially available AI and voice recognition development environments.


Get involved

If you would like to be involved in this project, register your interest by emailing


Stay up-to-date on the progress of this project, including dates and times of workshops and demonstrations by signing up to alerts through the website:

For further information please contact:

Duncan McFarlane

T: +44 (0) 1223 766141