This discussion about the digital transformation journey for the manufacturing industry, it's by now an old tale. Everybody's talking about it, but very little is happening, or looks to be happening. [COVID-19] brings a new sense of urgency to that discussion.”
That’s the view from Daniel Brandt, Director of Engineering at Swedish engineering company, Sandvik. Founded in 1862, Sandvik is a global organization with about 40,000 employees and revenues of 100 billion SEK, operating as three business divisions - Sandvik Machining Solutions, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology and Sandvik Materials Technology.
Brandt told Google’s Solving Together virtual summit that the pandemic had initially been disruptive to Sandvik's business. Not least, this was because the company’s main line of business is solving customers’ engineering problems – and in particular digital transformation issues - rather than making products. This dictates that visiting customers around the world, in order to see the problems first-hand, was a key element – and one suddenly denied to them.
At least part of the solution was apparent, with many of the staff were already well-attuned to the strictures of remote working. although the COVID-19 crisis has pressured the firm to focus on its experience and maturity here and to target itself more consistently.
One result of this is that the firm now spends less time than before on ‘what if’ prospects. If there are doubts as to whether a prospect wishes to engage actively, the tendency now is to walk away and devote the time to those further along. Brandt explains:
We do feel a sense of urgency from the business perspective. There are transformations that need to be happening.
The same imperative is pushing customers to seek out the tools and the technology that will enable remote collaboration between staff within the business and between the business and its customers, suppliers and partners.
Brandt also sees the pandemic as an ideal time for businesses to innovate and be proactive about creating the type of so-called ‘new normal’ they would like to see. This is a `tough ask’ at this point, he acknowledges, when people are thinking more about health, loved ones and their jobs. But, he suggests, it as a classic human trait to innovate out of these types of dilemmas as well as being good for morale:
This type of pressure is the situation that brings about creativity if you let it. I think also it's the way to cope with a situation like this. If you're a passive observer or if you're waiting for something to happen, that's a way worse situation to be in than to actually be able to do something. It doesn't always have to be super-meaningful, but if you can actually do something, then you feel a lot better. Instead of a downward spiral, I think it's an upward spiral.
One of the challenges remains that the manufacturing industry has a history of being fairly slow-moving So while it can be on message to talk about innovation, the big ask for a company like Sandvik is likely to be persuading customers of the need to take action in the first place. They also need to look at what makes a difference down the line, with the key differentiator being how fast they can be at getting up-and-running post-pandemic.
This is where automation can play a role and the assumption is that many companies would relish the idea of a highly automated production facility. However, suggests Brandt, that is a particularly knotty problem to solve,. The challenge right now is to inspire the people with the power to act during this uncertainty.
This is where ever-greater levels of collaboration can play a major role in kick-starting business in this time of crisis. For a role model of what he means Brandt turned to the mix of healthcare, medical research, and pharmaceutical companies that have coalesced around a single objective – develop a COVID-19 vaccine:
If you look a little bit under, under the surface, you will see how, how the scientific community right now is basically tearing down all the walls between different countries, different organizations, different, different disciplines in them to share data. Competition is good, obviously. But this is a higher problem now, we should treat this a little with a little bit more urgency. With the scientific community we drop the barriers, we co-operate. And we go full out to solve this.”
This is something inspiring to Brand, not least because it seems to fulfil the goal of information sharing that was the Internet dream of the 90s. Out of the devastation of the pandemic has emerged a renewed purpose for automation, and what he sees as the prototype of a new way to deeply and extensively collaborate through information sharing.