Smarter way to get companies in touch with the fourth industrial revolution

As well as reducing the pong associated with slurry — the manure and water mixture used as a natural fertiliser for crops — his company’s additive traps nutrients, meaning that farmers don’t have to use as much inorganic fertiliser. According to Mr Russell: “We know our product works because farmers tell us they get fewer complaints from their neighbours.” The problem for farmers is knowing how much of the “Yakult for farms” to use to get the desired result.

Thanks to a partnership with a new government initiative designed to help small manufacturers modernise and boost their productivity, the Lancashire-based Envirosystems is working on a project that would see internet-connected sensors placed on farms to monitor air quality. The company will interpret the data and use it to tell farmers when to use the additive and how much to apply.

The idea could mean a new service-based revenue stream for Envirosystems, while improving efficiency for customers and reducing emissions that are harmful to the environment. “The inefficiency on farms is incredible,” Mr Russell said. “Farmers waste so much time and money. On-farm monitoring is not something a lot of farms are tapping into. We see this as a chance to be recognised as a service delivery company.”

All of which is music to the ears of Jürgen Maier, chief executive of Siemens UK and a government adviser on boosting productivity in industry. A 2017 review by Professor Maier has resulted in the creation of Made Smarter, a scheme that aims to provide small and medium-sized manufacturers with advice and grant funding so they can adopt technology to improve their efficiency and develop new products and services.

Envirosystems is among a handful of companies taking part in a pilot version of the initiative focused on the northwest of England, but the idea is to roll it out nationwide and to help thousands of companies make the leap from traditional manufacturing to automation and internet-connected monitoring of their machines and processes.

“We’re bringing smart digital technologies to as many manufacturing companies as we can up and down the country so they can find a place in the fourth industrial revolution,” Professor Maier said. Envirosystems was an example of how Made Smarter was intended to reach a broad cross-section of British manufacturers, not just the usual suspects, he said. “People often think of aerospace and automotive, but Henry’s company is a great example of how this applies to other sectors.

The food supply chain is an area where we massively need to improve productivity and resource efficiency and sustainability.” Donna Edwards, programme director of the Made Smarter North West scheme, said that it had engaged with 315 small companies since the launch in January, with 45 individual projects in the works. Ms Edwards, 59, is aiming to “demystify” the notion of adding digital technology to manufacturing. She takes an outmoded lathe with her to events to illustrate her point, connecting internet-enabled sensors to it and explaining how even baby steps towards modernisation can yield quick results.

For most people, she said Made Smarter is about getting more out of the equipment they’ve already got. “People have often got equipment from different manufacturers that all operates independently.” If those machines were connected to each other so manufacturers understood what they were all doing, it would be more efficient. While many smaller manufacturers understand the potential of technology to improve their businesses, they are often reluctant to invest. Crystal Doors, a 25-year-old, Rochdale-based manufacturer, is one of the advocates of Made Smarter.

Faced with a squeeze as larger manufacturers dropped prices thanks to the adoption of technology, a few years ago Richard Hagan, its managing director, found that he needed to invest to have a chance to compete and bring unit costs down. He also had an ageing workforce, with his best painter due to retire.

Now Mr Hagan has robotic arms doing the painting, he can get the work done faster and more consistently,” Ms Edwards said. A dust extractor connected to all his machines monitors air quality and shuts down the production line if there’s an issue. “He’s had to treble his workforce because his order book has gone up.” Workers can be understandably wary of their employers investigating automation, but Ms Edwards said that Mr Hagan’s example demonstrated how Made Smarter should be aiming to create jobs, not destroy them. “The myth is, ‘The robots are coming, people are going to lose their jobs.’ What we’re seeing is jobs are being redefined and actually by improving what they’re doing, they need more people to cope with the work they get.”

Mr Russell, 31, said that Envirosystems, which has annual revenues of about £2 million, had benefited from a £31,000 grant to help it invest in its sensors project, as well as regular guidance and introductions to experts to keep it on track. “The actual funding mechanism is excellent,” he said. “You get a rebate as soon as you spend. For a small business like ours, that’s excellent. But the main thing has been access to expertise. They’ve given us ideas on how to improve the project.”

Unlike other business support and grant schemes that Envirosystems had applied for, Mr Russell said that the application process had been fairly painless. “Some of the processes are horrendous. To go from that to Made Smarter has been chalk and cheese because it was really smooth.”

While the early signs for the scheme may be promising, Made Smarter is likely to need a lot more government support if it is to have an impact nationwide. The scheme has been backed with £20 million from the government so far.

Professor Maier, 55, said that he was doing his best to bend the ear of Greg Clark, the business secretary. “Brexit is sadly taking away too much bandwidth from these sorts of important activities. Having said that . . . when I speak to Greg I speak to him more about this than I do about Brexit, and he’s delighted by that. The same goes when I’m speaking to the Treasury and the No 10 advisory groups. This has got to be a journey for the next two decades and beyond.

“Let’s get this Brexit thing sorted, and then what comes next? It needs to be stuff like this. It is a fourth industrial revolution we are going to create and it will look different to any previous one. This is not about huge mills, huge factories employing thousands. It will be about small and medium-sized companies growing ten people to twenty people. It will be a vibrant, agile ecosystem, that’s what we’re looking for.”