A £20 million fund to help SMEs get ready for Industry 4.0 has been introduced to Cumbrian firms.

The Made Smarter programme, which is also funded by industry, is aimed at manufacturers looking to embrace digital technology to help boost productivity, cut operating costs and develop new processes and products.   

Part of a North West pilot, Made Smarter held its first event in Cumbria at the J36 Rural Auction Centre, in Crooklands, today.

Around 50 representatives of county SMEs attended to find out more about how they could take advantage of the fund.

A panel, chaired by Luke Dicicco, group business editor of Newsquest Cumbria, answered questions from the audience.

Panel members were Jayne Moorby, of the Ulverston-based Oxley Developments; Alain Dilworth, Made Smarter programme manager; Suzanne Caldwell, of Cumbria Business Growth Hub; Steve Wilkinson, of Cumbria Manufacturing Service and Tiffany Solender, of the Department for International Trade.

They discussed how technology could help businesses grow and the concept of Industry 4.0.

Mr Dilworth said: "Everyone has a different definition of it and there's not one I'm happy with. But I think it's about cyber connectivity, inter connectivity of machines, interface of machine technologies, artificial intelligence, Big Data, virtual reality and augmented reality.

"I think the definition will keep shifting."

Questions to the panel ranged from the mechanics of the fund and how to apply to the skills shortage and whether Made Smarter was in danger of focusing on technology too much.

Mr Dilworth said: "Technology is coming our way, whether we want it or like it. The programme is not here to insist you employ all these new technologies, but is asking you to consider where you are and where you want to be."

Mr Wilkinson added: "This is not technology driven, it should be about business needs. Lots of companies did that with 3D printing – bought a 3D printer because they thought they needed it then it just sits there in the corner, gathering dust.

"This should be business driven."

The panel pointed out that they worked in partnership, so if Made Smarter was not suitable, there was other business support that could be.

Ms Solender said: "If I come to see you, I'm not just talking about the Department of Trade and Industry. In Cumbria, my role is to help companies explore options. If I can't help, I can refer you to Suzanne at the growth hub and the projects she runs.

Mrs Caldwell added: "The growth hub sits in the middle and pulls it all together. We have advisors who will work with you and draw up an action plan."

Mrs Moorby, who is also part of Cumbria LEP, said: "It's all about collaboration and using that network for support."

Mr Dilworth said of the initial £750,000 available to businesses via Made Smarter, £100,000 had gone to Cumbrian SMEs.

He urged manufacturing businesses to get in touch, even if they did not have a concrete plan for development.

SMEs can register for an audit of their business from a Made Smarter consultant who will visit their premises from which they will prepare a diagnostic report, including recommendations on where technology could drive improvements. 

Mr Dilworth urged businesses to sign up for the event.

Made Smarter aims to engage with more than 3,000 manufacturing SMEs in the North West, with up to 600 qualifying for more intense support, including potential grant funding.

The programme, which is delivered through the region’s five local enterprise partnerships and the network of growth hubs, aims to increase the North West’s GVA by up to £115m.