Ask The Expert: Roger O’Brien

The first phase of the project, which began in 2018, was a huge success and saw the project award £800,000 in grant funding.

Roger O’Brien is the Research and Technical Lead for the £10.9 million Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project.

The SAM Project was set up to support the implementation of product and process development and the introduction of technology for SME manufacturers in the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NE LEP) area.

In our latest Ask the Expert feature, we caught up with Research and Technical Lead, Roger O’Brien, who answers the question: what funding and support is available to help my manufacturing business invest in new technology and process improvement?

EDB: What is the SAM Project and what are the benefits to manufacturers?
RO: The £10.9 million Sustainable Advanced Manufacturing (SAM) Project is driving innovation across the North East’s SME manufacturing base by helping firms harness new technology and eradicate barriers to growth. Led by the University of Sunderland, with funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Industry; SAM provides SMEs with fully-funded access to unrivalled technical expertise through its team of industry experts, who together boast over 250 years’ working with blue chip companies, global industrial brands and SMEs.

The project also offers matched-funding grants of up to £50,000 and boasts a range of state-of-the-art factories, which have benefited from over £1million of recent investment in cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, based at the University of Sunderland’s The Industry Centre facility. Here, we provide SMEs access to cutting-edge manufacturing equipment including the latest in 3D printers, Industry 4.0 technology, Industrial Robots, Collaborative Robots, VR/AR technology, specialist design and manufacturing software, and much more to encourage SME engagement with advanced technology. And the best part? It’s all fully funded, so no cost to SMEs.

EDB: How do you qualify for grant funding and how much do you have to distribute?
RO: The project is open to SMEs across the North East LEP area (comprising County Durham, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear) that manufacture or are looking to start manufacturing in the North East of England. The first phase of the project, which began in 2018, was a huge success and saw the project award £800,000 in grant funding – as well as practical and research support – to over 200 SMEs across the region. A recent impact report commissioned by the University of Sunderland also revealed that the programme added a total of £41.7 million in GVA to the regional economy during the period, as well as creating 290 direct jobs and an average Technology Readiness Level increase of 3.9.

This success led to the project being extended to June 2023 and a further £1 million in grant funding being set aside to support the region’s SME manufacturing base. However, in the last eight months, we’ve already received scores of applications, therefore we can’t recommend enough that you engage with the project as early as possible to avoid missing out.

As for criteria, the grants – which can be as high as £50,000 – are only accessible to SMEs engaged in a technical project, with up to 35% in project matched-funding available for companies in County Durham and 25% for companies in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

EDB: What does the technical support include?
RO: Over the past few years, SAM has engaged with hundreds of SMEs across a wide range of areas, from food and drink producers to industrial fabricators and pharmaceutical firms, helping scores of businesses embrace new technology, reduce overheads, increase efficiency and drive innovation. From automation assessments to exploring the business benefits of additive manufacturing and digital engineering, through to application and use of virtual or augmented reality (VR/ AR), SAM’s technical support is helping companies break down the barriers of access to industry leading technology by providing SME manufacturers – just like you – with an opportunity to tap into the R&D expertise of leading experienced industrial practitioners grounded in real world manufacturing, at absolutely no cost to your business.

EDB: What’s the catch?
RO: There isn’t one. All of our support is fully funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the University of Sunderland, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Northern Powerhouse Initiative. Often within SME Businesses, larger strategic projects stall due to a lack of resources and/ or capability. Our technical experts help plug the gap by helping open up opportunities in new markets, improving capacity and capability, and giving you the cutting edge in a competitive sector.
All we need is your time and willingness to get involved.

EDB: What would you say to a company thinking of tapping into the support? RO: Don’t hesitate, just do it. We have a limited funding pot and once that funding is gone, it’s gone. During the first phase of the project, we had £5.9 million to fund the programme and half of the grants were issued within 12 months, so early registration is highly recommended.