PrISMS - Photofabrication: Growth Through Prioritisation

Improving SMEs business strategies and capabilities through research dissemination and collaboration with manufacturers
Improving SMEs business strategies and capabilities through research dissemination and collaboration with manufacturers

As part of an ERDF (European Regional Development Fund)-funded programme, PrISMS (Practical & Innovative Solutions for Manufacturing Sustainability) programme, Institute for Manufacturing Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS) worked with 120 smaller manufacturers to disseminate research outputs and help SMEs improve their business strategy and capabilities. The programme also enabled IfM ECS to capture knowledge related to manufacturing, SME strategic and operational issues and to develop business support tools to address these challenges. Photofabrication, a specialist photochemical machining company that produces metal products, was an organisation to benefit from the project. IfM ECS worked with Photofabrication to identify key business priorities and put in a plan of action to address them.

The main key objectives for the project were the following: at the team leader level, the objective was to identify the key priorities for the business; another objective was to improve the day-to-day running of operations; finally, a third objective was to get specialist advice on improving energy usage and efficiency.

Process Main Stages: 


IfM ECS worked closely with Photofabrication to establish a clear understanding of the priorities for the business. A key step was the IfM ECS Prioritisation process, a whole-business diagnostic and action-planning tool, which helped the firm to understand its strengths and weaknesses and draw up an action plan to address them.


One of Photofabrication’s core processes is etching metals using concentrated acids. This process has by-products, which could pollute watercourses and are both costly and difficult to dispose of responsibly. The company benefitted from specialist knowledge from Ecopare under the PrISMS programme. Ecopare provided detailed recommendations about how to improve both its energy usage and its environmental impact.

Touchpoints & Bottlenecks: 


IfM ECS carrying out a Prioritisation engagement with the company, including exposing a lower level of company management to thinking about the business, rather than just working in it.


IfM ECS and Photofabrication met to clarify project priorities. This allowed IfM ECS to meet with the company team and to explain its findings, including those about the company’s understanding of the detail of some of its processes.


Photofabrication and Ecopare sharing expert knowledge. This helped the business to think differently about its processes, the impact they were having on the wider environment and on the operating costs of the business.


IfM ECS helps the company to acquire the expert knowledge to make this approach sustainable. As owners of the business approached retirement, IfM ECS was able to help the business to recruit the right level of expertise to lead the business technically into the future.

Success Factors / Barriers: 

On the one hand, Photofabrication measured success based on key metrics including improvement of operational capabilities and reduction in energy usage and associated savings. On the other hand, IfM ECS measured success based on whether the project delivered on objectives and whether there were any learning points and enhancements to the tools and approach could be applied to support future projects.

Regarding the barriers, the first one to overcome was that of a workforce who thought they understood about the energy usage and costs of their conversion processes. Through the engagement with Ecopare, the company learned about how the process actually worked, in detail and this led to: an improved ability to run the process efficiently and with lower energy usage and cost and in time, a sufficiently advanced understanding of the energy usage that one of the key processes was able to be removed altogether, with an even greater impact on energy consumption and cost.


Through this prioritisation process, the need for improvement in operational capability was identified. The company invested in staff training and in developing the role of middle management to improve the day-to-day running of operations. Supervisors took on more responsibility and monthly reviews of processes were replaced by weekly, daily and hourly checks. These new processes improved the management of operations and enabled the Operations Director to delegate more effectively.

Other outputs resulting from the process include energy consumption reduction (reduced lighting bills by about 60% through the introduction of LEDs, new compressor resulting in annual energy savings of £8,000), reduction in metal consumption and implementation of a formalised energy management policy by adopting ISO14001.

All these changes together, were translated in energy savings of £30,000 per year; these improvements are expected to be sustained and enhanced.

Paul Rea, Operations Director, commented on the project:

“We have worked closely with IfM ECS and have seen the benefits.”

“It allowed us to tap into resources we didn’t have, to see things in a different way and to make decisions on that basis.”

“Systems and processes have been put in place, such as continuous improvement, that allow us to go from strength to strength.”

“We have a different mindset – it’s about getting better all the time.”


For SMEs:

  • Seek external knowledge and advice to improve the business strategy and operations.
  • Tackle difficult problems e.g. sustainability, energy use etc. in small managable steps.
  • Involve many people within the organisation in changes and improvement projects (not just managers).

For RTOs

  • Have a holistic approach in business assessment.
  • Provide a clear process and associated action plan for improvements.
  • Have an effective method to capture feedback, data and knowledge from the SME to improve future tools and engagements.

For SMEs

  • Assume that a “business as usual” mentality can provide a competitive advantage for the long term.
  • Assume that the business or sector is unique and external people cannot assist unless they have worked in this sector.