Small and medium-sized manufacturers plan to invest in automation and other technology to help them adjust to rising costs and other challenges, according to a new survey.

A third of respondents in north-west England said that their latest business strategy included integrating digital technology or a roadmap towards automation, while 38% planned to invest in or adopt new technology in the next two or three years.

The research was carried out across about 200 SME manufacturers in a range of sectors in the north-west by Made Smarter, the movement connecting UK manufacturing industries to digital tools.

Two-thirds of respondents said they were considering industrial machinery, robotics and automation, while nearly half (44%) expressed an interest in data and systems integration technologies.

It also revealed that 35% of manufacturers, particularly smaller businesses, were now focused on survival after a turbulent few years due to Brexit, the Covid pandemic, rising energy costs and supply-chain issues.

However, the research concluded that achieving growth by improving productivity and adopting digital technologies was a key driver for SMEs.

Almost a third (29%) said that productivity, efficiency and output were key drivers for manufacturers to adopt new technology in 2022 and beyond, despite the current business climate.

Increasing revenue (18%) was the secondary motivator to invest in new digital tools, followed by attracting and winning new customers (17%).

However, Made Smarter’s research discovered that barriers to technology adoption remained despite 80% of manufacturing leaders expressing a clear understanding of what they need to do and the benefits of investing in new technologies.

Two in five (42%) manufacturers said that the lack of capital and investment funding was holding them back from investing, as well as the lack of time (10%).

The survey also revealed a fragmented awareness of the business advice and support available, meaning SMEs are potentially missing out on the funding and support available to them.

Donna Edwards, programme director for the Made Smarter adoption programme in the north-west, said the findings of the research showed that the case for digitalisation had never been stronger.

“SME manufacturers have endured a few unsettling years and continue to face a multitude of recovery challenges.

“They are aware that technology brings significant benefits and they risk being left behind by not capitalising on the opportunities on offer.

“But it is also clear that they need support and advice to create a roadmap to digital transformation to enable them to adopt the right digital tools, progressively and sustainably, to avoid risking wasted time, money and effort.”

Made Smarter was designed to overcome these and other hurdles by helping SME manufacturers navigate through complex technology advice and decisions.

Initial registration, which takes about five minutes, is followed up with a digital transformation workshop to identify core challenges, provide a bespoke digital manufacturing roadmap, and pinpoint other ways that Made Smarter can support a manufacturer’s digitalisation.

Donna added: “We have developed a simple and straightforward process which quickly gets to the heart of a business’s challenges and supports them to take that first step in their digital transformation.

“Hundreds of manufacturers have reaped the benefits of our impartial help, identifying the most effective technologies to boost productivity, efficiency, growth and create high-value jobs.

“Meanwhile, hundreds more have taken advantage of funding opportunities to invest in those ideas, as well as investing in the right skill sets and leadership development to help them achieve their goals.

“Digitalisation is the key to UK manufacturing’s post-Covid survival, recovery and growth. And with new challenges at our door, such as rising energy prices, supply-chain disruption and labour shortages, now is the time for business leaders to reach out and take advantage of the support on offer.”

Manufacturers already supported by Made Smarter include Cumbria Embroidery & Print in Barrow-in-Furness, a manufacturer of corporate and personalised workwear uniforms and leisurewear, and The Uniform Factory, a textile printing and embroidery specialist in Liverpool.