Innoboard: Digital transformation is currently affecting all industries and companies. How is digital transformation influencing the Weidmüller Group?
Elke Eckstein: With Industry 4.0 playing an ever-growing role at Weidmüller, we are pursuing a dual strategy by harnessing digitalisation both as a provider and as a user. This means that on the one hand we support customers looking to implement digital transformation in their company with our products and solutions. These include a range of industrial connectivity solutions for the smart factory of tomorrow based on the latest information and communication technologies, which enable our customers to create added value. On the other hand, we also deploy digital technologies in our own production processes to enhance competitiveness, flexibility, process reliability and transparency. Our aim is to increase efficiency and minimise waste through the use of collaborative robotics, augmented reality and automation. This year alone, we have embarked on seven important digitalisation projects that are designed to drive the topic forward within the company and get employees on board. Because without them, digital transformation cannot succeed.
It is not just Weidmüller that is affected by digitalisation. Your products also support other companies in their digital transformation process. How do Weidmüller products shape and enable digitalisation?
We are pursuing a consistent strategy of digitalisation with all our products, from infrastructure through to predictive maintenance solutions. For example, we are working with the Fraunhofer Institute to develop an intelligent plug-in connector, as diagnostic and communication capabilities will in future play an important role in electrical connectivity. Customers not only use plug-in connectors to distribute signals, data and power, but also want to access information about the connector itself. This can, for example, be a monitoring function on the plug-in connector which displays its status at all times. At the same time, with our industrial analytics, cloud services and energy management, we offer innovative solutions for other key fields. Web-based cloud services enable intelligent information processing from virtually anywhere in the world. Current process information can be retrieved via the Internet irrespective of location, and necessary software adjustments can be undertaken quickly and cost-efficiently. Weidmüller energy management solutions help to highlight inefficiencies and potential energy savings within the relevant system. Our industrial analytics solutions collect and process various data from the system in question and analyse it using intelligent processes. On this basis, anomalies and inefficiencies from different applications are reliably identified, failure predictions are created and specific recommendations for maintenance are provided. This area is something very special for us because for the first time, we are not offering a physical product, but instead developing a customised software solution with the customer. With innovative communication-capable signal converters, I/O systems, routers and switches, we also make data available in the network and ensure IT security as a result. In developing from a component manufacturer to a solution provider, Weidmüller is combining established and new solutions into an overall solution which is tailored to the requirements of Industry 4.0.
What are the key features of the factory of the future? Which technologies are key enablers for Industry 4.0?
The factory of the future is faced with many different demands. On the one hand, it must of course be built around genuine machine-to-machine communication, while at the same time having a flexible production system that can be used to quickly manufacture an array of products. The basis for this is provided through communication-capable components. These create the conditions for the rapid provision and handling of process data, since they can exchange information between machines and IT systems in a profitable way. At the same time, the topic of artificial intelligence will become even more important going forward. Whereas in the past it was just a question of networking machines with one other, the issue of data has started to play a noticeable role. Production data is processed in real time, the resulting information about errors or anomalies is fed directly into the production system and potential faults are corrected. In other words, the machine controls and monitors itself. Currently, this development is advancing very rapidly because the opportunities for acquiring and evaluating data are multiplying at breakneck speed. Alongside this, a central role is being played by modern manufacturing execution systems, as these data hubs constitute the real heart of networked production.
How do you foster an innovative and forward-looking mindset among Weidmüller employees?
From an international standpoint, German industry is very much at the forefront when it comes to Industry 4.0 and machine-to-machine communication. But as important as the visions of tomorrow’s factory are, it is vital not to forget the employees along the way. Because as mentioned before, digitalisation can only work together with them. It is critical that they are included in the process at an early stage. Our own digitalisation strategy was developed with various departments at our global locations and takes local requirements and ideas into account. In addition, we interviewed around 70 members of staff and have implemented various pilot projects locally at our factories. It is important for us to work on this topic together with our employees and to demonstrate to them that we are not automating any processes but rather driving forward the transfer of digital information. Transparency has the highest priority. We have held several workshops with production staff where it has become clear to us that they are very open to the topic of digitalisation and the benefits it offers, and that they are looking forward to being part of the cutting-edge work. As a result, we initiated several projects last year. One example is the so-called digitalisation initiatives, where staff are introduced to the benefits of the new technologies and where they can try them out and experience them for themselves. Meanwhile, digitalisation is an international topic in most companies. At the moment, there are many ideas globally that will ultimately result in companies coming into line with each other. Because digitalisation doesn’t stop at national boundaries. Every country and every culture is different and it is therefore enormously important to create a global vision when it comes to digitalisation. To this end, we are incorporating all our global locations into a so-called Advocates Lounge, a pro-digitalisation forum within the company.
What are your goals with respect to the digital transformation of the Weidmüller Group for the next two years?
We are planning several projects for this year and next year that we want to implement jointly across the company. They are not set in stone however, and we will continually adapt them in line with changing circumstances and technological developments. Our goal is to make Weidmüller’s competitiveness sustainable through the use of digitalisation. In this respect, we have identified several pillars within the organisation which we are working closely on. One of these is the culture across the company. We are working very intensively here in order to further expand the levels of acceptance and to remove any anxiety about digitalisation. We refer to this as digital transformation management. At the same time, we are working on many internal projects to include staff, as previously mentioned. This involves many different and cross-functional approaches. We have the long-term vision of establishing digital consistency along the supply chain to the customer, and of completely planning or at least simulating process operation. Today, we can already map the process and some individual process steps digitally in the system. These interfaces are still a challenge we are facing at the moment. Because, even in the age of networked production, there are areas that represent a break in the chain, inasmuch as status information about semi-finished products, for example, has to be scanned in manually or still has to be digitalised for the production process at these points. It is therefore our stated aim to reduce analogue processes to zero as far as possible. On the supplier side, we want to continue to develop in the coming years and expand our product line, together with our data and infrastructure. Increasingly, we want to offer digital information for our components and solutions in order to facilitate efficient communication with and processing for our customers. Of particular relevance in this respect will be the establishment of further know-how in software development in the coming months. Only in this way will we be able to offer our customers a combination of communication, automation and digitalisation solutions. And in the future, the areas of services and of establishing new business models will become significantly more important, including the establishment of digital interfaces to the customer alongside consultancy and service provision. In terms of new business models, examples include machine leasing with billing based on equipment availability and new after-sales service models made possible through our industrial analytics solution. This is all part of what makes us into a partner for our customers’ digital transformation.
About Elke Eckstein:
Elke Eckstein is Chief Digital Officer and Chief Operating Officer at the Weidmueller Group and is responsible for the complete value chain – including purchasing, production, logistics, quality and ongoing improvement processes. Before joining the Weidmueller Group in 2013 Elke Eckstein worked for the leading bulb manufacturer Osram. There she led the re-organization in the course of the transition to LED technology and was responsible for the worldwide bulb- and primary material production at 25 locations with more than 10.000 employees. In total she has more than 30 years of experience in the electrical and electronics industry, including three years as Chief Executive Officer at Altis Semiconductor in France.