Preston-based computer company MRA Consultants has been awarded £380,000 in funding from the Department of Trade and Industry to head a three-year e-commerce project that could dramatically reduce the price of clothes and provide a lifeline to British manufacturers.

The international research programme, called the SUM Project, was submitted under the Europe-wide, government-funded Eureka initiative and involves UK and Romanian companies.

Its objective is to develop an e-commerce 'Supermarket System' which uses the potential of the global marketplace to convert small customer orders into large manufacturing orders necessary for make-to-order products.

This will enable manufacturers to sell their products direct to the end consumer resulting in reduced costs and increased profitability. If successful it represents a fundamental shift in the application of e-commerce which is currently being applied to strengthen the traditional manufacturer-retailer-supplier chain.

The new software has to be capable of generating high volume orders from single or low volume orders, and one of the first activities of the SUM project is to set up manufacturer groups to test the new software.

The systems design will be trialled in the UK and Romania, and after a three-year trial the plan is to set up a joint venture company to exploit the software.