Innovative beginnings

Paying cash at the supermarket tills could soon be a thing of the past. Even the days of unloading food and other products onto a conveyor belt could be numbered.

New technology is paving the way for shoppers to simply pass through a sensor which detects the contents of a trolley without the barcodes even needing to be visible, and then consumers can use their mobile phones to pay for the items. Even popping back in for that forgotten item is simple, as the sensors only pick up on items that have not already been paid for. A 10 minute tedious job suddenly becomes a one minute affair.

Technology such as this could transform the way businesses operate. Two new projects at the University’s Telford Campus are helping to demonstrate to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the West Midlands how they could use new technology and then assist them to adapt it to their individual needs.

The New Technologies for Automatic Identification Location and Sensing (NTAILS) project, managed by IT Futures at the School of Technology, promotes awareness and adoption of new technologies such as Quick Response (QR) codes, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) barcodes and sensors.

As part of the project, a Demonstration Centre has been built on campus which includes a walk-through interactive scenario to illustrate to businesses how they could adopt the technology. The scenarios include a shop, warehouse, library and pharmacy. Guests at a special launch event recently were able to take tours through the scenarios, and see for themselves how such technology could increase their productivity.

IT Innovation Consultant, Richard Przeplata, explains: “Our aim is to increase the take-up of new technologies to make businesses more economically competitive and their business sustainable. The technology we are showcasing would usually only be affordable by large blue chip companies, but we are opening up the technology to a wider economic audience. “The Demonstration Centre enables us to show SMEs how they can adopt that technology and improve their business processes.”

Meanwhile, the Innovation 1st project aims to help businesses raise the level of technology they use. Just down the corridor from the Demonstration Centre is a new state-of-the-art Visualisation Centre, which showcases how companies can utilise cutting edge technology such as touch-sensitive 70-inch plasma screens, interactive whiteboards, single or multi-point video conferencing and presentation recording facilities.

This hi-tech presentation and communication suite uses Internet connections to deliver presentations or enable conferences and discussions anywhere in the world. The Visualisation Centre holds the key to a wealth of opportunities for companies to work more innovatively, smartly and effectively.

Steve Smith is Lead Innovation and Technology Advisor at Innovation 1st. He explains: “There are a lot of entrepreneurial and innovative companies in our region but they are not employing very many people. Why? Because they are not growing. They have the ideas and knowledge but don’t know how to develop them. That’s where Innovation 1st comes in. We aim to assist SMEs in using advanced technologies to conceptualise their business problems and formulate new solutions.”

But the projects go further than demonstrating the technology. Both initiatives are part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and provide two days, fully-funded assistance for eligible businesses.

NTAILS provides two days of assistance to SMEs looking to adopt RFID and sensor technologies into their business. The project also offers equipment loan, graduate placements and a range of free to attend technology seminars.

Meanwhile, Innovation 1st provides the two days of business assistance for SMEs to implement innovative solutions to boost the performance of their business. Companies are encouraged to adopt the most appropriate solutions for their business through the creation of a business implementation plan.

It is this support that can really make a difference to a small or medium sized business with aspirations for expansion.

As Professor Ian Oakes, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise at the University, explains: “The University is committed to supporting regional businesses to increase their productivity and be more competitive in the global market.

“These two new projects showcase how technology can transform the way a business operates. The University has a key role in the regional economy and we are delighted to offer advice, consultancy and other support to companies as part of our Innovation and Enterprise strategy.”

Around 100 business people and stakeholders attended the launch event, and many took advantage of the opportunity to tour the impressive facilities.

One such businessperson was Ghislaine Headland-Vanni of Shropshire Therapies Ltd. Ghislaine has benefitted from business assistance through NTAILS.

Shropshire Therapies was interested in learning about the application of Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) techniques through the use of QR codes and Near Field  Communication (NFC) in different business processes such as payment processing, calendar events and dynamic ‘smart posters’. Consultants from the project team advised on the suitability and uses of AIDC, with real-life demonstrations on how adoption of the technologies would help the company to innovate.

Ghislaine says: “Seeing all the new technology was mind-blowingly awesome and has enabled me to think about innovative ways to move my business forward. I think the University of Wolverhampton is a fantastic resource to enable small businesses such as mine to get access to quality business support and advice.

“I would highly recommend the projects to other business owners and look forward to working with the University in the future.”

With businesses across all sectors facing the challenges of maintaining a competitive edge in 2012, these new projects will enable SMEs to see how they can increase productivity and forge a new future.