Column by Christoph HugenschmidtThings are doing it for themselves
Why industry 4.0? And what does a cow have to do with a 3D printer? And what does Schwamendingen have to do with the Rosetta comet sensor?
Soon, the currency shock will accelerate the digitalisation of industry, Bernhard Lenzin, head of Industrial Industries at Swisscom, is convinced. After all, machine data is the key to productivity and new services.
There are certainly companies that underestimate the potential. However, the majority are in step with the times. On the contrary, I know a number of Swiss companies that are actually years ahead of the others in their industry.
That is a question our politicians have to be asked. I can’t answer it, but I think we are simply very pragmatic in Switzerland. Our companies are concentrating on specific projects that generate less attention.
I don’t have a crystal ball. However, the response to the first currency shock four years ago – which the national bank responded to with the currency floor – gives me reason to be optimistic. Back then, companies invested in automation and digitalisation. They reduced costs and positioned themselves more broadly in geographic terms. Most of them are better off now than before. However, the current currency shock has led some companies to examine their investments and reduce their expenditure.
My opinion is very clear: yes! Over the past few years, a whole range of technologies has become market ready. Just look at the Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data analytics or the additive manufacturing processes. However, great progress has also been made in the area of robotics and artificial intelligence. Who could have imagined five years ago that the first driverless cars would be travelling on Swiss roads in 2015? Many companies are now investing with even more determination. And I am sure that the others will also seize their opportunities as soon as they’ve got to grips with the acute problem of cost.
In technologies that allow closer proximity to customers. There are two main reasons for this: for one thing, today differentiation is achieved through solutions that are as customised as possible. Industry also wants to increase its value creation through added-value services. The problem many manufacturers have is that, following a sale, they lose contact with the customers and have no idea what exactly they do with their products.
“It is not clear from the start what will work and what will lead to a dead end. Practical experience is vital.”
Today, almost every machine is fitted with sensors. During operation, these sensors provide extremely valuable data that can be used, for example, for predictive maintenance. The analysis of the operating data shows which parts are no longer working properly. This allows the manufacturer to set up a new service that massively reduces the risk of unplanned machine failures.
Developing the necessary expertise independently takes a lot of time, and the required data specialists are extremely scarce. On the other hand, you cannot simply hand over this task. The secret to success lies in close collaboration. The manufacturer knows his machine best. The data specialists require exactly this knowledge in order to create an informative mathematical model in which the wear patterns are clear. This is an extremely complex task. In the case of a heat pump or plant that processes agricultural commodities, entirely different factors are decisive. However, even with machines that are the same, the influencing factors may fit together in very different ways.
We take a very pragmatic approach. In the area of predictive maintenance, the aim is to link the elements of monitoring, analysis and automation in a control loop. In a proof of concept, we first identify, together with the customer, a machine that experiences malfunctions relatively frequently. We then connect this machine to our analytics cloud platform. This takes one to two weeks. Then we gather data over a period of a few months. After this monitoring phase comes the analysis, during which we look for patterns that indicate wear and faults. These patterns provide the basis for the automation phase, in which the processes are optimised in a targeted manner. As I have said, all of this only works in close collaboration with the customer.
The range of companies with which we are currently conducting projects and feasibility studies is extremely large. It extends from producers of air conditioning, heating and sanitary systems to packaging companies and manufacturers of transportation systems or production machines for food and beverages.
Digitalisation projects always change customers’ processes and, over time, also their business models. At the same time, they break into new areas. It is not clear from the start what will work and what will lead to a dead end. In this environment, practical experience is vital. Swisscom has had to reinvent itself time and again over the past few decades. Core businesses, such as fixed-network telephone communications, text messages or pure Internet access, have been pushed to the fringes within just a few years, or even months because of technological change.
We have learned that it is better to make mistakes than to do nothing at all. It is important to respond quickly and flexibly. Swisscom works with HCD methods (Hear, Create, Deliver) to promote a culture of innovation. We are convinced that a culture of «human-centred innovation» that recognises and integrates customer requirements at an early stage creates the basis for the next innovative success on the market. A multitude of tools and best practices allow us to clarify feasibility quickly and in a targeted manner. Through prototyping, we continually test the acceptance of the end customer. And, last but not least, we also know how to scale a pilot project for production.