Smart power comes on line

The DTI is campaigning to overcome the reluctance of small companies to use smart software, reports Diane Palframan

The Department of Trade and Industry is stepping up its campaign to increase awareness and application of smart software, especially among small and medium-sized enterprises. It believes the campaign will benefit 30,000 businesses, about a quarter of which are in manufacturing.

One of the main messages the DTI and its programme partners are trying to get across is that smart software need not be complex, expensive or difficult to implement. They say the technology is equally applicable to small and large companies and can be used to solve a wide range of manufacturing problems.

`We’re offering awareness of the technology, how it works and how other companies have made it work,’ says Ray Browne of the DTI’s communications and information directorate. `We hope small and medium-sized firms will realise this is not difficult technology, and that their enthusiasm for doing things better, cheaper, quicker will take over, so they can apply the software.’

Smart software, which includes expert systems, neural computing, fuzzy logic, rule induction and genetic algorithms, is not widely applied in any sector of UK industry: most companies that have adopted it are large. UK industry is not believed to be seriously behind industries in other developed countries in using this technology, but the DTI thinks it could do better.

`UK research on smart software is very healthy and the UK has some of the world’s leading software developers, in neural networks, for example,’ says Chris Kirkham, research associate at Brunel University and director of its Centre for Neural Computing Applications. It offers industry smart software services, including feasibility studies and application development.

But smart software uptake is not so healthy. `Uptake is low and I think this is particularly true in manufacturing,’ Kirkham adds. Finance and retail are believed to be the sector’s leaders in applying this technology.

One of the main reasons for the slow uptake is lack of understanding of the technology, and misconceptions. The DTI accepts that some smart software, such as expert systems, got a bad name in the early 1980s when it failed to deliver promised results, but says the technology has advanced significantly.

Its three-year awareness programme, Smart Software for Decision Makers (SSDM), now in its second year, is intended to demonstrate the value of today’s smart software, mainly through two user clubs which the DTI is part funding.

One of the clubs is run by ERA Technology, a Surrey-based contract research and development and testing organisation, with Brunel University. The other is run by the Centre for Adaptive Systems at Sunderland University. Both are membership organisations with a joining fee of £750 a year for firms with fewer than 50 employees or less than £5m turnover. Large firms pay about £1,450 a year. ERA offers five meetings a year and Sunderland four. The meetings give members access to researchers, technology providers and technology users from industry.

Member companies can take part in demonstration projects by offering the clubs their problems and data for a smart software solution. `Either we’ll develop a solution or we’ll work with software vendors to come up with one,’ says Graham Young, business development manager of Sunderland University’s Industry Centre, of which the SSDM club is a part. `It is a cost-effective way for small and medium-sized firms to gain access to expertise, to be shown how to solve their problem and how to apply that solution in their business.’

The Sunderland club has 16 members, six in manufacturing. It expects this to rise to 30 soon. Three main technologies are targeted by the club – fault diagnosis and prediction, intelligent control systems, and commercial and financial data analysis, which is working on three demonstration projects. One is connected with power generation, one with the water industry and one with market research. The results are expected to be released in about three months.

ERA has 32 members, almost half of which are in manufacturing and utility industries. Many are household names (Alstom Gas Turbines, British Steel Products, GEC Marconi Avionics, Rolls-Royce); few are small companies. `Small and medium-sized firms don’t have much time to spare and the £750 membership fee is a barrier,’ says John Hobday, the ERA club’s project manager. ERA and Sunderland offer small firms a free seminar on appropriate technology.

Demonstrator projects under way at ERA include one for the pulp and paper manufacturer Arjo Wiggins on machine monitoring and another for London Electricity on predicting the influence of weather on electricity demand. `There’s nothing magic about this technology. Some of it is now readily available and relatively cheap,’ says Hobday.

Details are on the DTI’s website at: www.isi.gov.uk/isi/ssdm