Keeping SMEs on the rise

18 October 2023

The UK is home to more than 5.5 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that contribute to more than half of the nation’s economy. The AMRC’s SME engagement manager, Shirley Harrison explains the diverse nature of these businesses, why they need bespoke support to grow and how the AMRC has supported SMEs across different sectors.

Article featured in the latest issue of the AMRC Journal.

I love my job, said Shirley. Pretty much every day I speak with entrepreneurs taking the first tentative steps in developing their ideas; young, innovative micro businesses with cool new products and services; established manufacturers reliably plying their trade; and generations-old family firms who have been core to their local communities for decades. Each one is unique, interesting and - for the people who run them - highly personal.

As the SME engagement manager at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), I feel privileged that business owners choose to freely share their hopes and fears, their dreams and nightmares with me. My role then is to help businesses find the right solution for them.

As someone who finds manufacturing endlessly fascinating and loves hearing people’s stories to understand their successes and struggles, factory visits remain one of the most fun parts of my job. It is an absolute highlight to walk out of a factory having shared my technical knowledge, network or personal experience to provide some immediate help to solve a problem or move forward with a plan, as required. 

It’s a common misconception that the only answer to a SME’s problem is undertaking new research or making eye-wateringly expensive investments in the latest kit. However, in reality, many new and brilliant solutions are commercially available and are often offered by other innovation-led SMEs specifically set up to provide specialist low-cost technical solutions. An introduction to the right tech business or access to a specialist who can share expert knowledge on a technology is frequently the most useful action that can be taken.

SMEs play a vital role in the UK economy, despite often being overshadowed by large corporate entities. It seems bizarre that small businesses can possibly be overlooked when 99.9 per cent of all UK businesses are SMEs. These 5.5 million businesses employ more than 60 per cent  of all private sector workers and contribute to more than half of the UK’s turnover.

While there are more than 5.5 million SMEs in the UK, three-quarters of all businesses don’t employ anyone apart from the owners – these 4 million businesses contribute around £280 billion to the economy. This substantial contribution to the national economy makes the significance of SMEs undeniable. 

At the other end of the scale, there are only around 7,600 large businesses – surprising then, that special policies are put in place for SMEs as though they are a minority1. Presumably this is because big businesses are experts at lobbying local and national governments. For me, this really strengthens the case for becoming active within a business organisation or trade association that can amplify the collective voice of SMEs. Currently, the British Chambers of Commerce is probably the first group which Whitehall turns to for opinions and representation from the private sector. However, there are many more heavyweight sector-specific bodies.

SMEs are the business community. So one could make a strong argument that the default position should be that all business policy is appropriate for SMEs and that the special policies for exceptional cases really should be for firms with more than 250 employees. 

When SMEs are considered, they are often treated by policymakers as one homogenous mass – giving the impression that all firms with fewer than 250 people share the same characteristics and experience the same problems. In reality, these businesses are as diverse and individual as the people who own and run them. The culture and decision-making in SMEs is significantly driven by the personalities and values of the owners, in a way that is vastly different from larger, corporate entities.

In practice, this means that firms which look the same from the outside - for example, two machine shops employing 40 people in West Yorkshire - are likely very distinct organisations. The diversity, age and skill profile of the workforce, the level of automation in the operation, the hierarchy within the business, the level of investment in new technology are just a few of the very obvious characteristics that can vary dramatically from business to business. 

In my experience, a key driver of culture is the business owner’s attitude to risk. There is no right or wrong approach to this: an entrepreneur’s attitude to risk is likely at one end of the scale - someone who has eschewed the stability of a salaried job to start their own company - as against the directors of a generations-old family business who may be more risk-averse because they feel duty-bound to protect their staff and maintain the company for future generations. Both groups are ambitious but how they approach investment, innovation and finance will be quite different. These differences need to be recognised and appreciated; unfortunately, it seems local and national policies rarely acknowledge that a variety of approaches might be required across the sector.

These factors also influence a company’s likelihood of successfully innovating, be it something new to the world, new to the sector or new to the firm. Firm-level innovation often addresses internal business processes, and lack of cash, awareness and technical skills are often cited as the main barriers for adoption of new technology

At the AMRC, part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network of research centres, we help businesses to address these issues by sharing our knowledge, finding low-cost solutions and training the next generation. The AMRC, including our 500-plus specialist staff, state-of-the-art facilities and 22 years of acquired knowledge, is accessible to all businesses in the manufacturing sector. Last year, we carried out more than 1,000 engagements with SMEs, and the vast majority of these were at no cost to the business. We did everything from creating concept designs for a camera casing for a bird box to building a low-cost cell to demonstrate the capability of robots to mix cocktails.

The AMRC is often cited as a great resource for big businesses – and that is certainly true - it is also a great resource for small businesses. All our work is custom-fit, based on the specific needs of the business. One size most definitely does not fit all.

Saving costs and enhancing operation for leading precision engineers

A South Yorkshire-based SME, Tyzack Machine Knives, has adopted new ways of manufacture that help reduce production time from two weeks to a matter of days, supported by the AMRC’s machining expertise. 

Tyzack Machine Knives is part of Sheffield’s long heritage of excellence in steel and engineering, with its products used throughout the world by leading manufacturers. When one of its components was in particularly high demand, the company approached the AMRC, part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, to explore new ways of working. 

Russell Crow, group engineering and development director at Tinsley Bridge Group, which includes  Tyzack, said: “Before spending money on new machinery, we wanted to challenge how we were using our existing machines and see if we could increase capacity and reduce energy costs.”

The AMRC team visited Tyzack to see its existing component models and operations. Following this, the AMRC ran a series of simulations to optimise the machining process and show different ways of increasing capacity. This included using different cutting methodologies and switching to pre-hardened material to remove the need for Tyzack to carry out the costly and energy-intensive hardening process in their factory, allowing large energy cost-saving for the company.

Funded by Innovate EDGE, the project developed new ways of working while introducing a potential step change in the process. The AMRC team reduced the machining process from six stages to two - significantly reducing lead times - and also demonstrated the new process to Tyzack staff for better understanding. 

Russell said: “It was great to challenge our conventional wisdom of how we’ve always done things. The AMRC’s ideas have the potential to reduce production time from two weeks to a matter of days, so we could offer reduced lead times when estimating for new business.

“The AMRC isn't tied down to a particular manufacturer or supply base, so we got a completely impartial review of machines, cutting inserts, feed speeds and methods of manufacture. It’s a wonderful resource to be able to draw upon.”

Brian McIntyre, a manufacturing engineer in the AMRC machining team , said: “The AMRC worked with the team at Tyzack to improve their process, leading to more efficient operations among other benefits for the company. 

“Machining the material in a hardened state can be challenging but it enables a real step-change reduction in process time and energy costs. It was great to collaborate with an SME manufacturer like Tyzack and to be able to support them in their process advancement journey.”

Digital technology is the missing ingredient 

AMRC Cymru helped a family-owned bakery to help identify and implement low-cost digital opportunities that could save production time up to 2 hours a day for the Denbighshire-based manufacturer.

Henllan Bakery, which has about 130 staff and a fleet of 24 delivery vans, has been producing bread since it was established in 1908. While there has been significant site development and growth over the past 100 or more years, fundamentally the product remains largely unchanged.

The project with AMRC Cymru aimed to identify opportunities to adapt digital technology while maintaining the craft credentials which are key in terms of Henllan Bakery’s identity and operations. It was delivered through the DIMAS programme which saw the AMRC Cymru team deliver three-month individualised digital transformation support to ten small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs)in Denbighshire county, in partnership with Denbighshire County Council and funded by the UK government through the UK Community Renewal Fund.

The AMRC Cymru team, following a visit to the bakery to undertake a review of its existing manufacturing processes, developed a process flow diagram to identify opportunities and facilitate discussion about modifications to the manufacturing process on the bread lines.

From a number of potential opportunities that were recognised, the project focussed on identifying a suitable method for conveying ordering information from the office to the shop floor. At the time, this information was printed and delivered by hand to the shop floor at various stages of the day, making it a time consuming and human intensive activity.

The identified solution utilised digital screens strategically positioned throughout the production and packing lines, enabling information to be shared directly from the office to the relevant parts of the production line. In order to ensure this could be achieved in a cost effective way, Chromecast - costing approximately £30 - coupled with screens was identified as a suitable technology, which also has the advantage of being flexible and re-deployable.

Ed Moore, director of Henllan Bakery said: “The team at AMRA are highly skilled in many fields. They came to see our process and quickly got to understand us as a business and our needs.

“Once they had identified where we could improve our efficiencies and productivity, a quick trial was set up which worked perfectly. Now screens project production figures to various departments and the needs to go to the office for data has been eliminated. The time saved is, we believe, up to nearly 2 hours a day!”

Mike Booker, head of innovation at AMRC Cymru, said: “This collaboration exemplifies how a perfect balance can be struck between preserving heritage and embracing innovation, through the deployment of strategic and cost-effective digital technologies. Through this, we were able to optimise Henllan Bakery’s operations but also support them to uphold their craft bakery identity.”

Boosting competitiveness and efficiency for world-leading tech SME

AMRC North West helped a Colne-based tech company relocate to bigger facilities, expand the list of specialist services they offer and forge new partnerships with other advanced manufacturers.

ELE Advanced Technologies houses a world-leading set of cooling hole drilling and multi-axis grinding equipment, capable of machining very tough materials, that produces parts for a wide range of sectors, including: aerospace, power generation and military components. 

ELE Advanced Technologies was in the process of moving into a bigger factory when it was introduced to the research team at AMRC North West. The company wanted to make sure its  new factory floor was organised optimally to work as efficiently as possible. With a business that was constantly growing and evolving in response to the rise in demand for their specialist services, the company wanted to increase its competitiveness by broadening their skills, knowledge and contacts to stay up-to-date with the future of digital working and advanced manufacturing methods.

The project by AMRC North West, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), was part of its assist programme to help small-to-medium sized enterprises offering bespoke, high-value manufacturing support to businesses in the North West. 

The team at AMRC North West, which is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult,provided ELE Advanced Technologies with a virtual reality (VR) demonstration simulating its new factory. This massively helped ELE Advanced Technologies to decide what equipment to place where. The project team also advised the tech company to explore additive manufacturing as one way of enhancing its competitive advantage. This led to the AMRC North West team introducing ELE Advanced Technologies to potential additive manufacturing partners; sparking the idea for a National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme project, which has ultimately led to one job being safeguarded.

David Dudley, technical director at ELE Advanced Technologies, said: “The additive manufacturing expertise we received was very valuable because we realised that if we didn't learn more about it and align ourselves to this disruptive technology, it could be a potential threat to our business.”

Iain Martin, senior engagement manager at AMRC North West, said: “It is extremely rewarding working with companies like ELE and to see the impact our support can have. Small and medium size manufacturers are the backbone of UK manufacturing, playing a vital role in the supply chain. It is critical that AMRC continues to help these companies to innovate and de-risk investment in R&D.” 

Design expertise helps bird box camera company fly to new heights

AMRC’s product design expertise helps introduce a step change for Bristol-based tech SME company, Green Feathers, as they move towards commercialisation.

Green Feathers is a tech manufacturer that specialises in bird box cameras - tiny recording devices that can be fitted into bird boxes and nests to allow people to watch garden bird activity from their phone or TV. At the time, the company had been growing as specialist traders for some time but wanted to create a product to move into the mass market. 

Green Feathers approached the AMRC for help with a new camera case design on account of its excellent design and prototyping capabilities. 

“We wanted a case that stood out, so you could tell instantly it was one of ours,” said Chris Barrell,  operations director at Green Feathers.

The AMRC team undertook a ‘design for manufacture’ review of the company’s existing products and came up with several concepts for injection-moulded camera cases — all with striking egg-based designs. The company then chose its favourite design, which was worked up further to make it computer-aided design (CAD)-ready.

The project, funded by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the network of research centres which the AMRC is a member of, allowed Green Feathers to introduce a new product into the market, preparing the company for the next steps in their business journey and accelerating growth opportunities as it expands its market offerings. 

Chris said: “It is a big step for our business to have a mass-market product that we can sell through the big retailers. I’ve been kicking this idea around for two years, and the project with the AMRC has given us a step-change in concept and design. A product like this will be necessary for our business to grow and open up to new, mass consumer markets.”

Craig Roberts, who heads up the AMRC’s design and prototyping team, said: “The AMRC is here to support SMEs in developing new products and bringing them to market. Our team of expert product designers and mechanical engineers worked with Green Feathers to offer practical solutions for their challenges.

“By collaborating with us, SMEs can access our wide range of resources, technical knowledge and experience to realise their potential for advancement and enable business development and growth.”

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