It’s not for nothing that the Star Trek starship was named the Enterprise. Most plainly, the word means a “project” or “undertaking,” but it also conjures up adventure-seeking and the intrepid curiosity that guides us to and through unknown territories. And it’s not for nothing that we’ve long referred to many of our commercial customers as “enterprises.” Looking back on the past couple of years, we find that label, with all its cosmic Trekkie connotations, especially fitting: our manufacturing customers have been tasked to boldly go where no one has gone before.
In 2021, manufacturers the world over were still dealing with COVID’s effects on supply chain disruptions, on-location working, and hospitality and retail closures that dented consumer and B2B demands. Globally, we all slogged through a second pandemic year, dealt with a host of cyberattacks or threats thereof, and had to process tremendous geopolitical turmoil, all of which exacerbated public health, social violence, and the climate crisis. Locally, the Netherlands lived through a collapsed government, flooding, and persisting housing shortages. Indeed, these have been unprecedented times, with unprecedented effects on business.
But again and again, our customers have shown remarkable resilience. In the face of crises, the manufacturers we partner with have harnessed their actual entrepreneurialism as well as their entrepreneurial spirit. While we’ve seen how some organizations focus on simply keeping up and running or, by contrast, to just keep on innovating in hopes of getting ahead of the competition, our customers are in fact simultaneously committed to doing both. Upkeep and innovation are not diametrically opposed. In fact, the IT solutions that we co-create enable the passionate pursuit of both.
Optimizing production, prioritizing operators
While the shutdowns of 2020 spurred austerity cuts and shrunk budgets for production and development, by 2021, many of our customers could return to steady production thanks in part to our mission-critical IT. This was clear as day for one manufacturer using a data solution that we created together and implemented pre-pandemic. Incorporated in their factory line, our self-service dashboard was already yielding analytics for predicting and, ultimately, preventing stoppages. What’s more, this solution could be scaled up and executed at other factories around the world within a couple of hours and without an engineer ever having to board a plane or get on a train. By the end of 2021, 27 sites were using this solution to successfully increase operational efficiency – thanks to an loT kit that we could send to the various locations and close, even if remote, cooperation within our teams.
Last year, moreover, this same technology helped the company cope with the pandemic’s effects on business. The same data solution provided insights into the effects of shutting down entire factories – a scenario never rehearsed in an emergency preparedness drill. This was particularly relevant for a company with markets in different regions of the world, each with its own pandemic timeline and consequences for shutdowns. So, while our customers have long known that having the best, fit-for-purpose IT generates value, 2021 proved that a sound solution during business-as-usual can also serve to blunt the blows from business-as-never-before.
“In manufacturing, true transformation works from the bottom up.”
Throughout it all, our customer teams have emphasized that in manufacturing, true transformation works from the bottom up. Or in less hierarchical terms, change proves effective when the shop floor’s priorities are taken as the starting point for a solution. If the actual operators of the technology show enthusiasm, the chance for success is high. In-person visits to the shop floor are thus extremely informative. Walking along actual production lines and watching their processes lets us understand links between the mission-critical activities at work, the data being gathered, the insights processed therefrom, and how those insights can be fed back into real-world processes to make life easier for operators.
Data is power
Large-scale data analyses also proved helpful as pandemic-related restrictions and geopolitical rockiness have complicated travel to shop floors, notably across international borders. In this context, customers all the more relied on the lighthouse model. This model entails implementing an innovative, potentially disruptive solution at a single site and then assessing its results. If successful, implementation can follow at another location, then another, and so on. When – rather than if – the next crisis hits and impacts production, lighthouse data factory can be pulled up and compared with non-lighthouse data for sound decision-making.
Indeed, in all our optimization cases, we witnessed the power of data. Each case exploits the agility, scalability, and interconnectivity of industry 4.0 in one way or another, but all feed on data. Such solutions permit decisions to be made according to facts and figures, rather than best guesses, speculations, or aspirations �’ many of which float around during times of social unrest and economic instability. Data generates practical, productive discussions about performance because, as one of our customers recently put it, the data itself serves as a performance report.
Data is also the lynchpin to a new method that gained a lot of momentum in 2021 at Schuberg Philis. The 16-week approach, as we call it, responds to our customers’ urgent desire to verify the value of their digital transformation strategies. In applying this approach, we enable our customers to test an innovative digital solution without having to disturb or dismantle their entire IT landscape. This allows the company to continue on its merry way maintaining the status quo, while simultaneously working with our team to create proof of value for a new potentially disruptive – and profitable – solution. Starting with a small experiment instead of committing to a long-term program is as pragmatic as it is elegant. Four months allows plenty of time for issues to surface, failures to occur, and stakeholders to assess. If deemed successful and worthwhile, we scale up. If not, we apply what we’ve learned during this veritable crash course on value to improve ongoing work and innovations down the line.
Going against the grain
Proving the 100% functionality of a new solution requires effort. However, leading a digital transformation, whether big or small, often comes with an even greater challenge: going against the grain of otherwise deeply engrained habits and attitudes in corporate cultures. For many employees, newbies and veterans alike, we’ve observed how uncomfortable a process this can be, particularly when it involves considerable convincing within the company. For innovation-eager individuals – the (early) believers, as we sometimes call them – this type of project caretaking and campaigning is personally energizing. But still, spearheading innovation can be met with some resistance, budget constraints, and/or skepticism from more tradition-abiding colleagues.
We empathize a lot with these individuals and, at the same time, we’ll know the cultural context in which they may feel they’re swimming against the current. But as we’ve found, the Schuberg Philis way of working – specifically on multidisciplinary teams that integrate experts from our company and experts from our customers – tends to have a halo effect. It shines a light on our customer’s own internal organization and often illuminates a way forward. This path is one on which keeping things up and running and innovation go hand in hand. It’s one that honors the time-tested values, practices, and traditions of an organization while still ensuring it is operating not just in the 21st century, but also in an era of non-stop change and motion in general.
All our customers belong to the world’s most crucial industries, thus requiring mission-critical IT. But with the responsibility to service the world’s most vital processes, there is also, rightly so, cautiousness. Even organizations open to experimentation and with a high tolerance for risk need time and trust to transform. That tension has long existed, though has felt thicker in these crisis-ridden years. But as one young, strikingly bright digitization manager recently said: “This is why companies should accept vulnerability. Its acceptance provides a way to navigate the endless possibilities of all that IT can achieve while recognizing that everyone’s needs cannot always be met.”
The times we’re living in have deep valleys and high peaks, but by tracking those ups and downs and thus being better prepared for them, business is likely to keep getting better. The wisdom resounded of far more decades of experience than she has yet lived, but we couldn’t agree more. And we’re excited to continue enabling our manufacturing customers to keep boldly going and empowering the next generation in all their enterprises.
We thank all our customers for the inspiration to write this article and especially, for his valuable input, Michiel Maagd, manager of the Connected Brewery Global Portfolio at HEINEKEN.
By Roeland Kuipers, Chief Technology Officer at Schuberg Philis