Trends in digital manufacturing at Smart Factory Expo 2018

By Jovile Bart and Matthew Skelton

Summary: 2019 is the year for manufacturing leaders and engineering managers to begin and accelerate their company’s digital manufacturing journey. The UK manufacturing sector lags behind many similar countries in terms of 4IR and digitalisation, and the world will not wait for the UK to catch up.

We visited the Smart Factory Expo 2018 in Liverpool on 14–15 November 2018 to catch up with exhibitors and see that state of the art in digital manufacturing.

The Smart Factory Expo is part of Digital Manufacturing Week, the UK’s national festival dedicated to bringing together manufacturing executives across dozens of events over four days. The festival is organised by The Manufacturer magazine, the UK’s largest industry title with 158k-strong reader community, and a heritage of over 20 years. As part of the week, four main events were separated into Smart Factory Expo, The Manufacturer MX Awards, Manufacturers Night Summit and Manufacturing Leaders Summit.

Digital Manufacturing in the UK

Mark Hughes, Regional VP of Epicor for UK & Ireland, explored the trends for today and tomorrow and shared some statistics of how UK businesses look in the global context. According to research from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the benefits of digitalisation in manufacturing are huge: industrial production can be 30% faster and 25% more efficient.

We learned that:

  • 1% vs 10% — Only 1% of UK manufacturing companies are “digital champions” compared with 10% globally.
  • 1% of UK firms have attained master Industry 4.0 status, compared with 5% of firms in EMEA, 19% in Asia, 11% in Americas, and 10% globally. The UK is well behind on 4IR adoption.
  • Only 1% of UK manufacturing firms have implemented Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions although 24% see the potential.

Mark also reported significant concerns within UK manufacturing around Brexit and the possible use of 3D printing and on-demand additive manufacturing to alleviate possible supply-chain problems. The Digital Readiness Level (DRL) tool - supported by Digital Catapult - can be a useful starting point for UK manufacturers looking to assess their digital readiness.

Adoption of digital techniques for manufacturing

Over the next 3 years, many UK manufacturers are planning to increase their investments in digital technologies for manufacturing:

  • Advanced robotics: 49 % of firms are currently investing and 40 % of these will increase investment over 2019–2022
  • 3D printing: 46% investing now and 37% will increase investment
  • IoT: 44% investing now and 39% will increase investment
  • AI (Artificial Intelligence): 38% investing now and 41% will increase investment
  • AR (Augmented Reality): 26% investing now and 28% will increase investment

Digital manufacturing is already here

It’s clear that there is a wide spread of digital adoption across the manufacturing sector. Some firms have already adopted digital approaches with significant success. For example, auto giant Ford is using exo-skeleton suits for factory workers to help them lift heavy parts and reduce injury.

EksoVest is the latest example of advanced technology Ford is using to reduce the physical toll on employees during the vehicle assembly process, lessening the chance of worker fatigue, injury or discomfort [source]

On display at the Smart Factory Expo was the Mark system from ProGlove, a simple but radical innovation that helps logistics and factory workers to complete scanning and order picking more effectively whilst reducing mistakes and ensuring correct tracking of inventory.

Digitalisation for Manufacturing from Conflux

At Conflux, we offer a Digitalisation for Manufacturing service that helps manufacturing organisations to adopt effective practices and approaches with digital technology at a sustainable pace.

Conflux now offers a Digitalisation for Manufacturing service. Find out more at https://confluxdigital.net/digitalisation-for-manufacturing/

We have been working recently with a UK-based global manufacturer in the pharmaceuticals space, looking at ways in which both the laboratories and the manufacturing plant could benefit from increased use of digital sensors and data aggregation/display. Through a partner we ran a hands-on workshop for managers demonstrating the practical benefits of digital sensors, and we’re now working on increasing the use of digital tools and sensors in the testing and manufacturing processes.

It is clear that with targeted adoption of digital sensors and enhanced approaches to data collection and display, significant improvements can be made in many manufacturing areas.

Digitalisation for Manufacturing from Conflux

Registration for the 2019 Smart Factory Expo on 13–14 November is already open.

Open Forum and Talks: “Digital in manufacturing and making — what’s coming next?”


Today I went to see “Digital in manufacturing and making — what’s coming next?” open forum which kicked off Leeds Digital Festival - a two week long multi-venue city-wide celebration of all things digital.



Despite it being Monday morning, the open forum did not let the attendees to snooze — the topics for the day ranged from the IIoT/4IR industrial automation, bridging the digital skills gap, industry collaboration opportunities to insights from large-scale software delivery — there was something to suit all the attendees despite the wide variety of backgrounds.

We were fortunate to be able to try our hand at coding: Claire Garside of Foundation for Digital Creativity brought over a few Raspberry Pi computers, already assembled and wired up to digital sensors to show the available capabilities and let the attendees have a go.

The open forum was organised by the team from Assembly Conference: an upcoming conference for people in manufacturing, making, and software (the next Assembly Conference event is on Tues 02 October 2018 in Leeds).

The event consisted of three short talks — with speakers from Conflux, Foundation for Digital Creativity, and Thingtrax — followed by discussions during lunch and a Raspberry Pi demo. The opening slides give a bit of context:

Here are the key points from the talks:

Matthew Skelton (Conflux Digital)— “20 Years of Digital: what lessons can we learn for manufacturing and making?”

Matthew Skelton of Conflux

Matthew Skelton of Conflux

Matthew talked about his experience in how software engineering changed in the past 20 years and how it is applicable to manufacturing industry.

Key points:

  • Design for change and failure

  • Iterative delivery works

  • Design for version control

  • the system is socio-technical

The Yorkshire Post featured an interview with Matthew about digital in manufacturing, covering the open forum and industry trends.

Slides from Matthew’s talk:

Claire Garside (Foundation for Digital Creativity)— “Bridging the Digital Skills Gap”

Claire Garside of Foundation for Digital Creativity

Claire Garside of Foundation for Digital Creativity

Claire introduced us to a few Raspberry Pi projects she is involved in and how they are trying to solve the skills gap problem in UK.

Key Points:

  • Remove barriers

  • Offer open access to cutting edge infrastructure

  • Focus on education

  • Build on partnerships


Imran Shafqat (Thingtrax) — “How Digitalisation Saves Money for Plastic Industry”

Imran Shafqat of Thingtrax

Imran Shafqat of Thingtrax

Imran shared some case studies from his personal experience and gave a few ideas how to use the new technologies in industry that were not previously available due to large cost.

Key Points:

  • Industry 4IR are notjust for the “big guys”.

  • Those who dismiss the 4IR are at risk of competitive advantage.

  • Start with small and simple projects.


Hands-on experience with devices and sensors

Several people said how impressed they were at how simple they found it to write code with the PiTop computers using the block editors:


Overall, it was an informative event that give a lot of food for thought and started a few discussions, we will see in the next few years if the current tendencies prove to be right.

You can see other Leeds Digital Festival (16th — 27th April) events here.

The next Assembly Conference — the event for people in manufacturing, making, and software — will be held in October 2018 in Leeds.


Factories of the Future — Industry 4.0 Summit — IO-Link, Rexroth, and more

What will the factory of the future look like? How will digital approaches like IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and 4IR (4th Industrial Revolution) affect how things are made? With a colleague from Conflux, I recently went to the Industry 4.0 Summit in Manchester to see the Factories of the Future expo. In summary, we can expect IIoT and 4IR to shape manufacturing in some positive ways:

  • IO-Link looks like a good standard for industrial digital sensing and control, with useful auto-configuration capabilities for new sensors.
  • Bosch Rexroth are taking an “as a Service” approach to Industry 4.0 by offering wrap-around services for sensors installation & maintenance, data collection, and decision-making.
  • There is an emerging focus on operator experience and human-robot collaboration, using human intelligence together with digital sensing, rather than a drive to replace humans with technology.

Assembly Conference: Makers + Manufacturers + Software — Leeds, UK — Tuesday 02 October 2018 — assemblyconf.com

IO-Link — an emerging standard for smart sensors and actuators

I spent 30 minutes or so at the IFM Electronic stand chatting to the team there about current and forthcoming digital sensors. For my final year BSc (university) course in 1999 I built an automated weather sensing station using Echelon LonWorks technology (digital, 8-bit, serial), so I was interested to see where industrial sensing is today. IFM has adopted the emerging IO-Link standard for digital comms from sensors, along with most of the major players in the industrial automation space, including Bosch Rexroth, Siemens, Texas Instruments, and over 170 other companies. IO-Link is the first technology for communicating with sensors and actuators to be adopted as an international standard (IEC 611331-9).

A key reason for adopting IO-Link for IFM was that the form factor of sensors and comms cabling can remain the same as with analog sensors; the difference is that instead of analog signals being transmitted, digital signalling is used, which allows a much richer set of data: instead of a single analog range, multiple digital values can be encoded and transmitted back to the IO-Link control devices. A nice feature of IO-Link is that calibration parameters can be pushed to a new sensor automatically based on its sensor type, avoiding lengthy provisioning delays and possible misconfiguration. Coming from recent experience in automated provisioning and configuration management for cloud-based software systems, I found the auto-configuration aspect of IO-Link very compelling.

Balluff was also showcasing its IO-Link sensors and actuators at the Factories of the Future expo:

The latest factory automation solutions from Omron also use IO-Link as the data and control interface to sensors. I liked Omron’s “harmonious” approach of using machines to complement human intelligence, not replace it.

Bosch Rexroth — Industry 4.0 as a Service

Rexroth (from Bosch Group) has a substantial presence at the Factories of the Future expo with their IIoT-enabled, hydraulic-jack driving simulator. Rexroth also had less whizzbang but more useful things on display too, including a demonstration of their IoT Gateway technology that acts as an intelligent bridge between machines and the Cloud (for analytics and control). I was lucky to be given a personal demonstration by Mike Lomax, Electrification Manager at Bosch Rexroth.


The Rexroth IoT Gateway approach is particularly suited to retro-fitting older machines with modern sensors. There are thousands of specialist manufacturing machines installed in sites around the world that have proven to work well and have high reliability and operability. Discarding these machines would be costly and of dubious value; instead, retro-fitting these older machines with sensors to track and then improve manufacturing performance makes a lot of sense for manufacturers.

The browser-based configuration of the Rexroth IoT Gateway feels like a big plus point for machine/plant operators, particularly as Rexroth have provided in-built connectors to multiple public cloud providers for storing and analysing the sensor data. A single view of all sensor devices and their data is provided by the Device Portal software.

It was not surprising to hear that Bosch Rexroth has adopted an “Industry 4.0 as a Service” approach to Industrial IoT. Manufacturers with a significant investment in tooling and machinery want a simple solution to digitisation without the hassle of building their own internal capability, at least not up-front.

Rexroth are providing a wrap-around service using their IoT Gateway (seen here in box with pink lights) combined with installation, data collection, analysis and alerting via cloud-connected software.

The differentiator here is the Rexroth “Industry 4.0 as a Service” model: instead of manufacturers having to learn how to wire up (literally or figuratively) all the different pieces, they can rely on the service from Rexroth. Clearly, this does not prevent the manufacturer from developing IIoT capabilities of their own later; instead, it’s a straightforward way to step up into a digitised space with minimal disruption. This has clear parallels in the cloud software space, where the best approach for many companies is to start with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings as they assess a new capability; over time, they may build out internal capability or simply continue with the as-a-Service solution.

A nice example of good response to the market was the Bosch Connected Industrial Sensors Solution (CISS), a robust sensor for detection of acceleration, vibration, and atmospheric conditions. Originally developed for shipping and transportation, CISS is now being used by machine manufacturers that want to track the environmental condition of their machines around the world in order to detect out-of-range conditions. It turns out that many companies are happy to spend thousands of dollars on a complex machine only to leave it outside in the rain or direct sunlight!

The CISS devices have a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and sensors for temperature, humidity, light, pressure, and noise. Data recording is continuous for up to 2 years, and the data can be read off the device with Bluetooth. This kind of technology represents an early form of SPIME tracking, as defined by visionary Bruce Sterling in his 2005 book Shaping Things — it’s exciting to see this being made real in 2018.

I have spent the last few years focusing on the interaction of technology and teams in a business/cloud software context, so I found the Active Cockpit product from Bosch Rexroth immediately compelling. The idea is that the large smart-screen device enables teams on the factory floor to coordinate and collaborate around a single physical device. It’s kind of “Kanban on steroids”!


My thanks go to Mike Lomax of Bosch Rexroth and Paul Stansfield of IFM Electronic for in-depth demonstrations.

At Conflux, we help organisations in manufacturing, e-commerce, and online services to adopt and expand good software practices like Continuous Delivery and operability, alongside improvements in team design and technology strategy. We offer consultancy and training in the UK and EU — find out more: confluxdigital.net