James Tanner of James Tanner Joinery


Increasing and accelerating the adoption of technology in manufacturing, especially among SMEs, was one of the key recommendations of the Made Smarter Review, a study by the UK government exploring why the UK was falling behind in productivity and international competitiveness.

It became the foundation of the Made Smarter Adoption programme in the North West. Since 2019 it has worked with more than 1200 businesses supporting them to introduce digital tools and technologies to help boost productivity and growth, and navigate the impact of Covid-19.

More than 600 manufacturers have received intensive support including expert, impartial technology advice, digital transformation workshops to help manufacturers take their first steps to transform their business, a leadership programme, and funded digital technology internships.

154 businesses have secured £3.82m matched funding for 192 projects, leveraging £10.2m of private sector investment. 

These projects are forecast to deliver an additional £150m in gross value added (GVA) for the North West economy over the next three years, create over 920 new jobs, and upskill 1764 existing roles.

Some manufacturers are developing projects using technologies which enable them to integrate systems, capture and analyse data, and even create simulations of their plants and processes. Others are using 3D-printing, automation, and robotics to solve business challenges and meet increased demand.

Over 80% of SMEs working with Made Smarter to adopt cutting-edge technologies have seen a boost in productivity, and more than 25% reduced their carbon emissions. Businesses are also benefitting from increased revenue, profits and exports, and lower energy bills.

Manufacturers that have engaged with Made Smarter recognise that digital tools and technology are essential to remain competitive and efficient. But there is uncertainty of where to start, and a struggle to find the time to capitalise on opportunities. 

It is clear that the SMEs need specialist advice and insight to help them select the right approach for their business, how much to invest and which technologies will bring the greatest benefits. 

This is why Made Smarter developed a Digital Transformation Workshop, an innovative, streamlined process which uses a diagnostic of a manufacturer’s products, services, processes and people to find practical solutions to overcome business challenges.

The bespoke process cuts through the jargon to provide an honest and holistic view, and demonstrates the steps required in order to achieve digitalisation. It has been designed in a way that requires minimal time investment for manufacturers to turn the actions into results, while still allowing participants to focus on the day-to-day operations of the business.

The result is an easy-to-use guide for decision-makers with recommended first steps, a technology roadmap, and information about how to get further support from the Made Smarter programme.

Multiwood Products, a distributor and producer of kitchen doors and components based in Bury, has benefited from the process and is now investing in new ERP technology to support its new manufacturing requirements.

Ben Allan, Creative Director, said: “The digital transformation workshop helped identify systems and processes that could be improved to help drive the success of the business. 

“These ranged from continuous improvement methods through to reviewing and introducing new management processes. 

“Made Smarter also helped create a roadmap that will guide the company towards achieving some of its goals, specifically associated with digitalisation.”

Armed with a digital roadmap, manufacturers can grow progressively and sustainably, avoiding the wasted time, effort and money that comes from adopting the wrong technology.

Handrail Creations – L to R: Kenny Macfarlane and Martin Macfarlane

Handrail Creations, a specialist handrail manufacturer based in Bolton, was supported by Made Smarter to invest in 3D scanning and design software to aid its surveying process.

The business, which has created one-off pieces for clients such as the US Embassy and the Houses of Parliament, believes the adoption of the new technology will accelerate its process by 25%.

Kenny Macfarlane, MD, said: “While the new equipment will speed up the scanning process and reduce survey time, the real benefit will be in the processing speed, converting the data into something that is usable for our design team.

Handrail Creations, a specialist handrail manufacturer based in Bolton, was supported by Made Smarter to invest in 3D scanning and design software to aid its surveying process

“With more than 100 live projects being managed at any one time and 75% percent of surveys done using a 3D scanner, we are looking at saving a lot of man hours.

“It will increase our efficiency, but more importantly it will reduce the chance of error, ensuring that our bespoke products are right, first time.”

James Tanner Joinery, a manufacturer of hardwood and softwood products used in the commercial and private sectors including bespoke sash windows, doors and staircases, engaged with Made Smarter to overcome a major challenge which was restricting production capacity.

The Kendal-based business adopted an Industry 4.0-ready, five axis CNC machine and software to  remove labour-intensive processes and link to a new cloud-based design software, which tracks the life journey of the product from customer enquiry, design and prototype using fully rendered 3D imaging, material management, to manufacture and delivery.

James Tanner of James Tanner Joinery

With the new technology, a window that took 60 minutes to machine, now takes four and a half minutes – 13 times quicker – with a higher level of accuracy. If you take into account the new design process and software programming, job time is expected to reduce by 50%.

The solution offers predictive maintenance, live and historical data analysis, downtime analysis and cloud-based data storage with remote access.

James Tanner, MD, said: “Having a complete overview – which can be monitored remotely – is game-changing for us. Having time management for jobs will show gaps in production and enable the most efficient use of the machine and staff. 

By doubling its production capacity, the business can then take on that extra commercial work. 

But beyond the profit, James is as excited by the benefits in accuracy. “Our motto has always been ‘precision-made joinery’,” James said. “Accuracy is really important to me, to the reputation of this company. There’s not a ‘good enough’ with me.  Our work must be an engineering standard, which is very difficult using wood. This new solution takes our ability to achieve that accuracy to the next level.”

“Now we have taken this first step, I can see the possibilities. And that is very exciting.”

Before implementing any game-changing technologies and solutions, manufacturers need to consider whether they have a culture of innovation, the right skill sets, good digital leadership, and the buy-in and support of the team. 

The Made Smarter Leadership Programme was designed to equip SME managers and directors with the strategic view and the skills needed to pursue smarter manufacturing.

Using a hybrid model of classroom learning and site visits, executives are readied to start their business transformation.

The programme allows leaders to take time out of their business to reflect on the bigger picture and share ideas and experiences alongside their peers in manufacturing. This will help them return to their business and develop a digital strategy – which has been identified as something many businesses lack, yet it is essential to create growth and efficiency.

Made Smarter is also supporting manufacturers with organisational and workforce development (OWD), an essential tool to successfully implementing emerging technologies into a business. 

Fully-funded, specialist advice focuses on getting a business ready for industrial digital technologies by analysing the structure, identifying if departments could work better together, and if there are any gaps in knowledge where upskilling could help, before supporting with the practical planning, developing people, engaging with employees, and producing materials that can be used to develop a highly skilled, flexible and productive workforces needed to capitalise on digital transformation.

Made Smarter has also helped SME manufacturers tap into digital talent. These fully funded Digital Technology Internships enable undergraduates, masters and PhD students, and graduates the chance to work on live projects which may involve implementing technology projects, upskilling staff or helping develop the business’s digital road map to support its digital transformation. 

Crystal Doors, a manufacturer of bespoke vinyl wrapped furniture components based in Rochdale, tapped into this element of the programme taking on Lewis Cookson, a graduate in BSc Computer Science & Digital Forensics from Northumbria University.

Lewis has been supporting the implementation of a data and systems integration project which will establish a network of sensors connecting their machines through the cloud onto a dashboard. This will enable Crystal to gain insights into how its machines are performing and identify potential efficiencies. 

Ben Horn, Digital Transformation Programme Manager at Crystal Doors

Ben Horn, digital transformation programme manager, said: “Our digitalisation plans are ambitious and will introduce technologies and concepts that are brand new to the workforce. The cultural change has to be handled properly. We don’t want anyone left behind so the training and transition needs to be as easy and intuitive as possible. Upskilling our staff is key to its success. 

“By bringing on Lewis through Made Smarter we have doubled the pace of the transformation. His input has been incredible and an injection of rocket fuel into our project.”

Lewis, 23, said: “Crystal Doors has some very exciting plans for the future and it is fantastic to be part of that journey, capturing and displaying real time data analysis for the first time, supporting the betterment of the company, and playing a role in reducing carbon emissions.

 It is exciting for me to be able to take my specialism and skills and apply them to a real life situation and see the results. The progress we have made so far ellipses everything that has been achieved in recent years. We are making great strides.”

These examples show just how important emerging technologies like data and systems integration, robotics, and 3D printing, are to the future of furniture manufacturing, and how a holistic approach to digitalisation is helping businesses move forward with confidence.

Such has the been the success of the North West programme, it has been expanded to the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the West Midlands regions, meaning more manufacturers can access support to adopt digital tools which will increase their growth, productivity, efficiency and create high value, well paid jobs of the future.