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Manufacturing pros increasingly looking to startups for help innovating

Posted 10 Dec 2021
  • New survey reveals manufacturing leaders are keen to make startup collaboration part of their business strategies, with 82% believing it will accelerate digital transformation
  • Research comes as the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator’s exhilarating showcase unveils four startup-led innovations for industry giants including Babcock International Group and BAE Systems
  • Programme has supported 14 UK startups with share of £700,000

Manufacturers are increasingly looking to partner with startups to stimulate innovation, with nearly three quarters of manufacturing leaders (73%) saying that collaborating with startups is part of their long-term business strategy.

In a Digital Catapult survey carried out amongst 100 UK manufacturing leaders, 82% said that working with startups will help them accelerate digital transformation objectives, admitting that startups can give them access to creativity and skills they do not currently possess in-house.

However, only a quarter said collaborating with startup businesses to experiment with technologies is a priority in the next 12 months, despite 92% of those who have already worked with a startup saying they would do so again. Top barriers to manufacturing leaders working with startups included a fear of failure, and a lack of time.

When it comes to digital transformation more generally, a third listed risk of business disruption as a barrier. With external tremors showing no promise of easing, the research exposes how risk-averse manufacturers could miss out on key opportunities to innovate and absorb learnings from the more agile startup community in the short-term.

These survey results come as Digital Catapult’s 12-month Made Smarter Technology Accelerator concludes, having resulted in four startup-led minimum viable products (MVPs) developed in record time for industry giants BAE Systems, Babcock International Group, Northumbrian Water Group and Safran Landing Systems.

Jeremy Silver, Digital Catapult CEO said:

“As the impact of the pandemic continues to disrupt supply chains around the world, heading into 2022, manufacturing leaders are looking to find new ways to weather the storm and at the same time  keep pace with the speed of digital technology development, which is increasing competition globally.

“Many manufacturing heavyweights are not making collaboration with innovative early stage companies a priority in the next year, despite recognising the potential benefits. Our survey suggests that there is a danger that UK companies will miss out on the opportunity to be early adopters of new technologies, and learn from startups’ creativity, innovation and agility.

“The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator provides hard evidence of what can be achieved by open innovation programmes; successful, real-world solutions delivered against the clock to drive real change for manufacturing giants.”


Part of the Made Smarter programme, the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator sees manufacturing titans pair up with pioneering startups – to develop real-world innovations tackling major challenges. This year’s programme has supported 14 startups in total, who were given a share of nearly £700,000.

In the new research, a third of manufacturers said Brexit has been a barrier to them taking part in open innovation – underscoring the importance of government-backed open innovation programmes like this. At its core, the programme plays a role in revolutionising the industrial operations of manufacturing businesses, boosting productivity and resilience while allowing the UK to retain its leading position on the world stage.

Four MVPs developed through the course of the programme were exhibited yesterday afternoon at a showcase event which brought the programme to a rousing conclusion – attended virtually by the challenge owners, sponsors including Verizon Business and Software AG, and industry representatives.


Nigel Harley, IoT Specialist at Software AG, commented:

“The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator is a really important project for helping the manufacturing industry to transform. Software AG shares many of the same values with the programme, in particular we want to address business needs through technology value, and we feel that the best solutions are delivered with an ecosystem driven approach.

“What all industries really need if they’re to embrace technology and become truly connected is to move beyond basic proofs of concept and create Minimum Viable Products (MVPs). Something that can be used, analysed and improved at the same time positively impacting a business is a win. We’ve seen that approach as a prevalent theme during this programme, which is why it is such a valuable endeavour.”

Mehdi Quraishi, General Manager International, Enterprise Innovation and 5G & MEC Solutions, Verizon Business, said:

“The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator has reinforced the innovative role technologies such as 5G can play in the future success of the manufacturing industry. Digital technology innovation enables industries to disrupt how their businesses work today and reinvent new solutions and operating models that can sustain new levels of speed, agility, efficiency, and precision for tomorrow.

“We have enjoyed supporting the startups on this journey, from initial concept to the development of real-world innovations. The engagement, creativity and agility they have shown through the programme has been tremendous. This type of programme which brings together industry leaders with the energy and ideas of startups and the innovative power of technology is a step towards helping the manufacturing industry tackle the challenges of the future.”


On the cusp of driving real-world change for industry partners, one solution for Safran Landing Systems promises to recoup more than 30 minutes of lost production capacity per shop floor operator per day – representing the recovery of over 10,000 of lost production hours per year for a typical SME, as well as a 10% improvement in productivity and a 15% reduction in downtime.

  • Machine Intelligence Ltd (BAE Systems): the MVP will use machine learning to identify defects in manufacturing, improve the quality of the end product, reduce waste and save money
  • JetSoft(Babcock International Group): this solution both reduces reliance on paper-based reporting to improve shop floor efficiency, and utilises existing equipment to create automatic 3D inspections – improving understanding of faults and operating performance
  • Total Control Pro(Safran Landing Systems): Total Control Pro has developed a data-driven planning, scheduling and resource optimisation solution to tackle the challenges of complex planning and resource management
  • Riscon Solutions and Inventia UK(Northumbrian Water): this project delivers cloud-enabled, remote water quality monitoring solutions

Quotes from the challenge owners:


Iain Minton, Technology Capability Delivery Director, BAE Systems said

“Working with Digital Catapult gives us access to a wider pool of talent and technology from small companies with big ideas. The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator programme is a great enabler and catalyst for tech startups to take their ideas and innovations into industry and apply them.

“Our Factory of the Future programme has been the perfect incubator to have taken some of those ideas and put them to the test. At the same time that we get to explore new ideas and ways of thinking from outside the business, tech startup companies like Machine Intelligence Ltd have been able to experiment and draw from our experience in the process. Schemes like this are critical for innovation in the UK.”

Dr Jon Hall, Babcock’s Chief Innovation and Technology Officer, said:

“Our prototype is helping us better understand measurement information enabling better decision making through improved information management; this enhances our technical authority and supports our growing sustainability agenda.

“Programmes like Made Smarter are providing the gateways for wider industry to invest in and support some of the best technology start-ups and SMES we have in this country do what they do best – innovate.

“We have all been through, and continue to work through a really challenging environment for industry but it is in the most challenging times that encouraging innovation and growth of new technology applications is absolutely fundamental for all of our future success.”

Par Eliasson, Safran Landing Systems Industrial Project Leader, said:

“I speak on behalf of all SAFRAN Landing Systems stakeholders when I say that working with the Digital Catapult in the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator has been a great experience for us this past year. As a prime UK organisation, we have gained access to startups and technology we otherwise would not easily get access to. This programme has helped us to engage quicker thanks to the support in defining our challenges and finding appropriate start-up candidates to help us overcome them.

“Total Control Pro and Zizo have helped us develop our own digital technologies and understanding of them. At the same time we believe we have helped smaller tech startups even further with developing their products and experimenting with their great ideas. It is synergies like this that spur digital transformation, and it is key for the UK innovation climate.

“It has been a pleasure witnessing the engagement and drive from the teams on both ends, as well as Digital Catapult. Going from prototype to minimum viable product, we hope we can build on the ideas and solutions developed and deploy on a wider scale.”

Angela MacOscar, Head of Innovation at Northumbrian Water Group, said:

“Overall we have had a really positive experience with the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator and it has been a brilliant thing for us to be a part of over the past year. The teams working on it have been incredibly driven, and have developed a really good product which will help us to improve water quality monitoring in the network.

“I am really hoping we will be able to use this going forward and deploy on a wider scale to provide better insights on our performance.”

Quotes from the startups:


Tom Martin, Founder and CEO of Jetsoft, said:

“Through this collaborative Made Smarter project, JetSoft and Babcock, in conjunction with the expertise at Digital Catapult, have developed industry leading solutions which drastically improve the way inspection data is captured and inspection operations are managed.

“These applications are already starting to gain industry wide interest due to the commercial benefits they deliver. Without this program these solutions wouldn’t have been developed and the value created. JetSoft is extremely thankful to the excellent Digital Catapult team for enabling this to happen.”

Simon Harding, Director of Machine Intelligence Ltd, said:

“Our participation in The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator programme has given us the opportunity to progress from a consultancy and R&D company to a company with a developing, marketable product.

“Working with BAE Systems, we have leveraged our unique machine learning technologies to rapidly develop a fully functional prototype. In production, this software will assist BAE with regards to improving the quality of their products, reduce time spent on visual inspection and reduce waste. The Made Smarter Technology Accelerator has produced a win-win for both companies.

About the research

  • The Vitreous World research was commissioned by Digital Catapult of 100 manufacturing leaders (director level and above) in November 2021 to understand their views on digital transformation and innovation in the sector.