Martin Kaufmann, CEO of Walter Meier AG, about IoT

Martin Kaufmann, CEO of Walter Meier AG, about IoT

“Failure is part of the plan”


Walter Meier AG is using IoT technology for a revolutionary business model. CEO Martin Kaufmann about the challenges on the road to digitalisation and why this path requires passion.


Text: Hansjörg Honegger, Images: Luca Zanier




Walter Meier AG is capitalising on the IoT, connecting new heating systems to the internet as a standard practice and utilising artificial intelligence when troubleshooting. Do you feel like a pioneer?


No. Start-ups are pioneers. We’re not even first movers. But what is true: We have already implemented a specific digitalisation project. This is in stark contrast to others who incessantly talk about digitalisation, but aren’t actually doing much. And we’re proud of what we’ve done.



But you are a bit of a pioneer in your industry, aren't you?


Heating apps have been around for a while now. But we don’t want to sell an app to our customers, but rather offer a useful service. Our customers won’t need to put their time and money into their heating system any more, because we’ll have cleared these problems out of the way for them – in the best case, without the user of the heating system even noticing.



Was customer convenience an important driver?


Definitely. It’s not about digitalisation or technology for them. We need to succeed in generating customer benefits.





IoT modules for all requirements

Walter Meier AG uses components of the modular IoT toolkit provided by Swisscom. Our IoT experts, who are not affiliated with a particular industry, will provide you with support through all stages of finding ideas, development and the implementation of new applications. This allows you to improve your processes, products and services, to boost customer satisfaction and to distinguish yourself from the competition.

> To the IoT toolkit


"It’s not about digitalisation or technology for them. We need to succeed in generating customer benefits."



You need a lot of passion to realise projects like this.


Absolutely. In our case, it’s our service manager who stands behind the project with endless passion.



But you also need a healthy dose of passion among the Management Board and even the Board of Directors as well.

Why is that?


Anyone who approaches a project like this with a business plan or a straightforward ROI calculation won’t end up doing anything, because the risk is too great. We ended up knocking our project on the head about three times, because the technical basis had changed altogether.



But the ROI is, at the end of the day, actually right.


No, for this project in particular it was so bad that we wouldn't have been able to pursue it at all. But I am more than convinced that we are betting on the future. Our Smart-Guard project in combination with the Swisscom IoT Cloud offers a trailblazing service.



Martin Kaufmann, CEO Walter Meier AG



Will the project remain a lonely beacon of hope, or will digitalisation send shockwaves through the company?


The Smart-Guard project has unleashed something. We are looking into the topic of digitalisation very intensely at present. Especially at the moment, because a fusion with the Tobler company is pending. We are currently working on a range of different issues: How can products and services be improved, or be accomplished, by means of digitalisation? And: What is the optimal way to digitalise business processes?



Was there a particular event that demonstrated the importance of digitalisation to you?


We were the first company in Switzerland to switch from paper reports to electronic reports back in 2001. That was revolutionary.



So it’s true: A pioneering company.


(Laughs) Yes, it’s true. We were really proud of it at the time. We processed 150,000 reports by hand, with several changes of media format. The pads needed for the reports alone cost us CHF 100,000 per year. Today, however, the challenge we are facing is transforming the technical possibilities into real services for our customers.



Why are you struggling with it?


We love complicated technology! But when it comes to products and services, at the end of the day it’s primarily a matter of straightforward, comprehensible offers. We now address these challenges in interdisciplinary teams that develop solutions, and it doesn’t matter if what they come up with flops every now and then.



So there’s no stigma to failure?


No, not at all! Development proceeds quickly, and you need to be adaptable. It's normal for things to not work out all the time.



That also happened during the Smart-Guard project. Were there moments in which you were tempted to bury the project altogether?


No, you need to show tenacity and make sure you remain flexible. We had a hard time with the idea of “never look back”, because we didn’t learn to work that way. But things are done differently today.



Martin Kaufmann is being interviewed


Engineers are used to working in clear-cut projects with specific milestones. That’s something that has become difficult in this environment.


Yes, it really isn’t that easy. But there are times in which you need to show you’ve got the courage to throw these principles overboard. Like you yourself said: Sometimes you need to be a pioneer.



The question is: Where to invest and where not to invest? How do you find the information that allows you to make the right decisions?


From a technical perspective, I rely heavily on my experts. My head of IT, or the service manager, for example, are extremely well informed. My responsibility is to realise new opportunities in a business case. There are so many terrific technical solutions out there, but only a fraction of them allow you to effectively earn money over the long term.



Your new Smart-Guard solution makes completely new job profiles necessary. Where will you find the corresponding experts?


We need experts in remote diagnosis, whom we train ourselves. They need to be heat pump specialists. Furthermore, we need people who monitor the IT landscape. For this, we’re following what young IT experts are doing. The third vocational group is proving difficult. We offer predictive maintenance and to do this, we need data analysts with expert knowledge of heat pumps. The fight for these specialists will be a fierce one.



"We are a Swiss company and we want to work with Swiss partners, that's simply who we are."




The new solution is being implemented by Swisscom. Of all the companies you could have worked with, what made you think of this service provider?


Swisscom has been our partner for years and years. We implemented the report solution that we talked about beforehand together with Swisscom. We are a Swiss company and we want to work with Swiss partners, that's simply who we are. Of course, the solution also made an impression on us too.



What’s next on the digitalisation trajectory?


We have formulated our ambitions clearly: We want to promote the digitalisation of our industry. The problem today is that no-one has energy efficiency in buildings under control. We will be solving this problem with Smart-Guard. I am convinced: If all heating systems in Switzerland could be optimally set, you could save 20 percent of the energy they use.



Martin Kaufmann is being interviewed


Digitalisation in the home isn’t just an issue for heating companies. Do you work together with other providers?


One of the biggest challenges when it comes to building technology are the lack of standards. There’s an initiative organised by well-known Swiss companies such as V-Zug, ABB, Schindler and Walter Meier, who are also involved in tackling this problem.



You talk about smart homes, which even includes entertainment electronics. Are you toying with the idea of using the heating system for central building automation?


Well, that might be thinking things too far. But yes: Every residential building has a heating system, and it seems obvious to use it for the building automation.







IoT modules for all requirements


Walter Meier AG uses components of the modular IoT toolkit provided by Swisscom. Our IoT experts, who are not affiliated with a particular industry, will provide you with support through all stages of finding ideas, development and the implementation of new applications. This allows you to improve your processes, products and services, to boost customer satisfaction and to distinguish yourself from the competition.

 

> To the IoT toolkit




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