You cofounded the 4th Open Production & Maintenance Community e.V. (4th OPMC) association, the aim of which is to help safeguard Germany’s economic future in the context of digitalization. What exactly do you and the other association members want to achieve?
As a result of digitalization, companies have to contend with an extremely broad range of issues. This also applies to the speed of development. I’m convinced that as an individual company, you can no longer keep up with it all. The quantities of data and data flows are turning processes and systems completely upside down. In such circumstances, in-depth discussions with others are key. And it’s certainly happening already, for example in the sharing economy. It does not apply to one’s core expertise in production, of course. Obviously we want to preserve those skills and must protect them. In the secondary processes, however, we must interact and cooperate with each other more. For example, let’s say I want to use VR glasses. The problem is that there are exactly three use cases that specify how to organize that process. And this is the case in the chemical industry, in the steel industry, everywhere. That raises the question: Why should – and must – everyone redefine the rules of the game, and the standards that such a process requires, in a new and personalized way? This applies to areas such as occupational medicine, occupational health and safety, and labor law. These issues affect all companies, across all industries.
And this is where 4th OPMC comes in?
Exactly, this is what distinguishes our association from traditional trade groups. We don’t limit our activities to just the chemical industry. In the example I just described, it makes no difference whether the glasses are going to be used in the chemical, steel, or paper industry. Of course, the application may differ, i.e. when it comes to individual hardware or software components. But the core process is always the same. And the closer and more intelligent the collaboration, the more all the participants can learn about this process without having to individually invest huge amounts of time and effort. That’s why we said we need a common vision for the digital transformation in Germany as a manufacturing hub. And we must make it clear on the political stage that time is running out. This is what we are trying to achieve with 4th OPMC as a sharing platform.
How is your open approach being received? Traditionally it’s been more common for each company to define its own standards and processes. After all, no one likes to share their data.
But we’re primarily talking about secondary processes. What we reveal is our knowledge of logistics or billing processes with our suppliers. In other words, we’re not talking about trade secrets. Things get complicated with subjects such as condition monitoring data from ongoing production, which is again core knowledge. We’re currently in the process of defining these boundaries. What is a core process, what’s a secondary process? We won’t, can’t, and don’t intend to share sensitive data in the future. The good thing is that transformation at production facilities has nothing to do with production knowledge. So despite close collaboration, no serious conflicts of interest come into play here.
Data and how to handle it is now a major issue, not only among managers but also among employees. This is related to data security, but also to fears about the future. Are employees even ready to handle data so openly?
Interestingly, the principles behind the sharing economy are much more widely accepted in our personal lives than at work. At home, for example, people simply share their Netflix account. By contrast, in a professional environment the focus is usually on fears, protecting the status quo, ownership claims, or security. This naturally leads to heated discussions. I personally consider such discussions to be both valid and important. Digitalization is a change project and conversations are part of such projects. We decide with people, we develop with people. Of course we should also discuss questions like: “will change eliminate jobs?” The good thing is that, although it may be a platitude, I can say: “Of course jobs will be eliminated, but new jobs will also be created.” No one’s grieving over the loss of the stagecoach driver today. You know why? Because society has evolved and created new professions.
You emphasize that it’s important to get people on board and actively involve them in the change process. What are some specific actions that companies can take?
Even though it’s a buzzword, the expression “working out loud” describes it pretty well for me. You need to communicate with your employees as thoroughly and clearly as possible, which even means informing them about small steps. On the one hand, this is how I get them directly involved. And on the other hand, I make it clear that we can’t stop the change even if we want to. We must become more efficient and intelligent, period. This is particularly important because we’re unable to acquire expertise around existing production systems as quickly as we lose it. That’s why we need to catalog our knowledge. Once again, communication is crucial – people are more likely to go along if the advantages and disadvantages of a project are clearly explained.
Let’s switch from an internal to an external perspective. Not all of your partners are likely to have the same enthusiasm for digitalization as you do. How do you deal with the fact that some are fully on board and others less so?
This is one of the reasons why we joined 4th OPMC – we need common definitions and standards at exactly these points. It doesn’t make sense for me just to ask myself how I can structure the interface with our scaffolding subcontractor, or any other area. After all, the subcontractor doesn’t work exclusively with us but also with Thyssen-Krupp or some company, and conditions are different everywhere. This is precisely why we need processes that work as a whole. For example, billing management is what affects our company. Of course, every service provider initially agrees with our ideas about the documentation process because they want to sell something. But that doesn’t mean I’ve optimized anything yet. So we have to look at how process costs can be optimized so that both sides benefit. In the case of a network solution, the savings then naturally multiply.
Despite all the hurdles, numerous processes at Evonik have long since been digitalized. Would you say that the digital transformation process, with respect to data quality for example, is progressing successfully so far?
I’ve essentially been fighting the same battles over data quality for five years. Time and again, people respond to my question with: “We don’t have the right quantity or the right quality of data.” However, to me that’s not a technical problem with the data itself but a challenge that needs to be solved. If the data doesn’t exist in the form that I need it, then I need to make sure that changes. I can’t on the one hand not provide information and then make wild predictions, but on the other hand develop a complete answer. This is another transformation that we are currently addressing. People always expect things immediately – the information is digital, so the result has to be reliable. But that’s not how it works. Experience also shows that we have much more data available than we use. The data is located in numerous silos, just waiting to be used. This is where the ACATECH Maturity Index comes into play, which we have adapted and refined internally. The system helps us identify where we have valuable data and what it is useful for.
In an ideal Industry 4.0, data is analyzed and integrated into processes more or less in real time. In your opinion, how far away from this is Evonik?
This question doesn’t have a clear answer. We have production facilities around the world and the extent to which data is used varies considerably. We have new plants that have only been in operation for one or two years. We can already monitor asset performance there extremely well. The same applies to areas such as predictive maintenance because the data flows into 3D models, among other things, which make it much easier to bring system components into operation and maintain them. When it comes to older brownfield facilities, it varies from case to case. Many large plants have been retrofitted in recent years. So the plants themselves are quite old, but most of the systems are state of the art. But on the whole, the degree of digitalization is very difficult to scale.
What are the next steps for Evonik?
There are a lot of topics on our digital agenda. For example, virtual gamified training environments are something we’re currently working on. The idea here is to break down processes into the smallest possible procedural steps that can be trained in a virtual environment. We want to thereby ensure that young people who would otherwise have to spend a long time looking over someone’s shoulder can learn and perform complex tasks more quickly. Furthermore, these training environments can be used at any location and in several languages. This, as part of the overarching concept of “transferring knowledge,” is what currently keeps me up at night.