Simpler than it looks: Discovering the Shoestring approach to digital manufacturing

Four years ago, Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring was started by a team at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) to help smaller manufacturers digitalise by using low-cost, simple digital solutions. Professor Duncan McFarlane, head of the IfM’s Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory and founder of the programme, reflects on how he first realised the potential of this approach, and how they’re spreading the word across Britain and around the world.

Institute for Manufacturing
IfM Insights
8 min readFeb 7, 2022


Digital Manufcturing on a Shoestring

By Duncan McFarlane

On a visit to Australia in 2016, I went to a series of Industry 4.0 workshops exploring digital solutions for manufacturing. I spoke with several small companies who told me that the ideas being proposed were all very well, but that they didn’t address any of their needs: ‘It’s too big, it’s too expensive, and it’s all about new tech. Our needs are much simpler.’ These small companies were bewildered by the potential for digitalisation within their organisations and didn’t know where to start.

They had a point: Why were all the solutions available to industry so expensive and complicated? Consumer technologies such as phones and cameras and other smart devices were becoming cheaper and more readily available. Why couldn’t industry use them? Why couldn’t you build something for industry with a GoPro camera and a Raspberry Pi, for example?

Back at the IfM, I scratched my head, and started talking to a number of companies about their needs. And it seemed like there was some mileage in looking into the notion of doing things cheaply and simply for small manufacturers.

At the same time, I began to look at all the older, obsolete automation equipment we had that was too expensive to update, and I started to wonder about how we could deploy cheap equipment and more regularly update our laboratory facilities which our students use.

Professor Duncan McFarlane

Then in early 2017 a student — Chris Barton — came to see me and said he wanted to build a smart fridge in six weeks. A fridge that could sense the age of the produce it held. I told him it wasn’t possible, but he disagreed. ‘I can get all these cheap components and download some free software on the web and more or less build the whole thing in six weeks,’ he said. And he did. That got me thinking… it has taken us years to develop automation projects and yet this student, despite his limited experience, was able to do it fairly easily.

So the idea of drawing together these different threads around developing very low cost digital solutions for small companies started to take hold.

The potential was huge. For example, in 2018, a Made Smarter report stated that greater digitalisation of industry could add £455 billion to the UK economy, improve productivity by 25% and increase manufacturing sector growth by between 1.5 -3.0% per annum. But cost, risk, complexity and a potential lack of relevant digital skills were all hampering these efforts.

Building a catalogue of digital solution areas

So in 2018, we established Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring in partnership with Svetan Ratchev from the University of Nottingham, a number of industrial supporters, and with thanks to initial funding from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). We set about trying to help companies who were really struggling to understand the whole notion of digitalisation, how it applied to them and where they could best benefit.

Simultaneously, we set out to survey and classify all the very low-cost technologies and organise them into a set of solutions to meet the digital solution needs of small manufacturers. Our idea was to assemble solutions from ‘building blocks’ that could be reused, adapted and combined repeatedly.

Supported by the IfM’s excellent lab facilities and our long history within the digital manufacturing realm, we began building prototype solutions that used affordable components. For example, using consumer grade microcomputers, like the Raspberry Pi and low-cost sensors, all of which could be housed in industrial-proof casing, protected from the factory environment, and combined with user interfaces from open source or other openly available software.

We ran 20 workshops with over 300 companies and talked to them about their business priorities and barriers to growth, and the way in which different digital solutions could help address them. In these workshops, we married priority business needs with potential digital solutions. And from those workshops, we extracted a list of 59 digital solution areas that address the needs of small businesses.

A Shoestring Industry Workshop

We call this the Shoestring solution catalogue and believe it’s the first of its kind. By addressing some of the common operational challenges companies face, the catalogue reduces the need for deep technical understanding and provides a simple, viable route towards digitalisation. And it helps to overcome that understandable initial scepticism — a scepticism not dissimilar to how I felt back when that student first proposed their low-cost smart fridge.

A typical example of a Shoestring solution includes a job tracking system that helps a small company work out where their customer orders are across their shop floor. It sounds very simple, but many companies really struggle to understand when a customer wants to know what state their order is in and where it is at a given time.

Another example is the monitoring of equipment. We’ve done a lot of work around bolt-on vibration and temperature monitoring systems for pieces of machinery that don’t have it embedded.

We also began building a structure that supported real, meaningful engagement with stakeholders — not just industry but national and regional associations, education providers and solution providers. This is to ensure Shoestring has an impact not only within companies but also across the wider manufacturing sector. This encompasses the current and future workforce, as we have found that Shoestring’s tools can be adapted to support Further Education Colleges with their education programme and industry engagement, helping to prepare students and apprentices for the world of work as well as providing invaluable support in industry setting up basic digital solutions during work placements.

Additionally, almost half of solution areas identified in the Shoestring catalogue can contribute to a company’s sustainability goals. For example, by identifying where emissions are generated and by monitoring emission levels, process improvements can be made. Similarly by monitoring energy usage and by capturing data on waste material and energy loss.

Spreading the word

Nationwide support for Shoestring is growing, with industry partners doubling to 56 in the past year.

To date, 14 industry partners have successfully started or completed a pilot with a Shoestring solution and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve found that once one solution has been successfully applied, industry partners are keen to try the next one.

What we’ve learnt is that it’s about organising and involving a small business in the digitalisation process, rather than just providing them with solutions and hoping those solutions meet their needs. It’s about a cultural shift, a changing and opening up of perceptions on how to see digitalisation and its relevance for even the smallest of organisations. Shoestring is not about selling solutions forever. It’s about helping SMEs get their toe in the water of digitalisation.

In the last two years, Shoestring has also started to apply its approach into other domains such as healthcare and construction, where the core of the activity is not specifically about manufacturing.

Whilst Shoestring was conceived as a programme to help small- and medium-sized companies, we’ve also seen that large corporates are also keen to adapt Shoestring to support employee efforts to improve their local digital environment. By adopting the Shoestring approach, teams of employees have a reliable framework in which to develop their own digital solutions, which they can then add to incrementally, and share with colleagues across the company.

In the three hackathons we have run, involving students from the Universities of Nottingham and Cambridge, we have been impressed by the low-cost systems that the future workforce can build in two days using the Shoestring approach.

Shoestring Hackathon, 2019

Our live demonstrations of three different Shoestring solutions at Digital Manufacturing Week in November 2021 attracted an enthusiastic response from both manufacturers and regional business adoption teams who could see how Shoestring inspires reluctant, traditional companies to take the first step and try a low-cost digital solution.

The manufacturing of the future

In the next three years, we want to broaden the programme to support self-sustaining roll-outs in all regions of the UK, and provide local support for smaller companies adopting multiple Shoestring solutions.

Using the outputs of the research programme as a starting point, this will involve a regional development approach to support UK regions developing their own local Shoestring programme; an online portal giving users and developers access to the Shoestring configuration platform, pre-configured solutions, training and how-to guides; a community platform and installer directory; and Shoestring training and education programmes for SME manufacturers, service providers, apprentices, trainees and students.

In the longer term, there is an opportunity for Shoestring to have a significant influence on the industrial digital ecosystem in the UK and elsewhere.

It has already been noted that the standards that Shoestring are assembling may in fact form the basis for broader Industrial Internet of Things standards — for which there is little or no current offering. There are increasing efforts to develop similar programmes in Australia and New Zealand, and we’ve had interest in the Shoestring model from other countries such as the US, India, South Africa and Korea.

Shoestring is really starting to gain momentum. And just like the smart fridge which was quicker and easier to develop than I could have imagined, our manufacturing partners are discovering that piloting a Shoestring solution is a fast and painless way to dip their toe into the “digital water”!

Duncan McFarlane is Principal Investigator and overall Lead for Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring. He is professor of Industrial Information Engineering at the Cambridge University Engineering Department, and head of the Distributed Information & Automation Laboratory within the Institute for Manufacturing. He has been involved in the design and operation of industrial automation and information systems for 30 years.

About Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring

The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project is led by the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge in collaboration with the University of Nottingham and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).