An interview with Professor Dr.-Ing. Tim A. Jansen, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Industrial Digitization at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University in Horb
Why do some companies struggle with digital transformation and fail to exploit the opportunities it offers? What can businesses do to prepare themselves and their employees for change? These and other questions were discussed with Professor Dr.-Ing. Tim A. Jansen.
Hello Professor Jansen, digital solutions offer opportunities to business as well as threats. What should companies do to make good use of the potential they offer?
The developments that shaped previous industrial revolutions always had their critics, although there were also those who welcomed them. Ultimately however, the future was always shaped by new technology. Companies that spot and pick up on trends early became the pioneers in markets. They were the ones who were in a position to cash in on developments and bolster their standing in the market. Things are basically the same today. What’s essential is that people are prepared to accept new developments. It’s the same with current trends and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is heavily influenced by digital technology. The thing that’s special about this revolution is that smartphones are developing at breakneck speed and because of this, people have continual access to the internet. Internet use is changing everything, especially with respect to social media. Knowledge, opinions, and other information get distributed extremely quickly. This is already part and parcel of our private lives, but lots of companies are still struggling to keep up with these changes and they are finding it hard to exploit the potential these trends offer to their business. This is an underlying aspect of Industry 4.0. With production, it’s machines and products that are communicating with one another through the Internet of Things, acting independently as cyberphysical systems. This is opening the door to completely new business models. But when companies feel insecure, like many do at the moment, this is often the result of cost uncertainty, the lack of time, and information deficits in management. That’s why the first step is to ascertain the facts and explain things carefully.
Growing digitalization is forcing companies to question their current product and business processes and do things differently. What do you think are the biggest challenges here?
Things are becoming increasingly short-lived, so companies have to react flexibly to trends and short product life cycles. That’s easier if they can plan with the long term in mind and look at things from the perspective of the entire production and service value chain. The priority has to be to achieve complete transparency for in-house processes. But this is precisely what companies are often lacking, so they haven’t reached the right starting point for questioning things and making changes. They don’t dig down deep enough into their own processes so even if they do succeed in automating important parts of the production process, they’re not really in a position to exploit the full potential offered by Industry 4.0 solutions. It’s about more than connecting up human beings with a network so they can carry out remote maintenance. It’s about more than making production agile so you can make single-product batches. The production scenarios of the future will be networked beyond the four walls of the company and offer clients and the business itself the kind of value-added that’s not been available until now. The problem we keep encountering is that people don’t understand things properly and they can’t offer the selling arguments or the reliable data they need, so customers aren’t prepared to pay for the added value of a product. Companies lack the transparency with respect to possible cost alternatives, so as a result, they try to hand on all of the costs to the customer. Things go full circle, so moving forward is no longer an option.
But even the best processes at a company are worthless without the right people to make things happen. What can companies do to prepare their workforces for these new challenges?
Making a success of something means first of all understanding what’s happening, and then doing something. Decision-making and tasks are increasingly being automated and captured in smart networks. The employees of the future will therefore be knowledge workers – people who have to understand whole processes so they know when to intervene and decide something themselves. Task environments will become interdisciplinary. Nobody says that there has to be consensus these days regarding the differences between mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechatronics. IT now acts as an overarching interface. But the people don’t exist with an understanding of the overall picture. Nobody knows all areas. So the challenge for workers is to show they have detailed technical expertise but at the same time they have to acquire soft skills to communicate with others beyond the technical interfaces, on an interdisciplinary level. It’s particularly important that they can understand others. One term being used in this respect is Tshaped skills – equipping people with knowledge in other areas. Vocational training and degrees do teach people the things they need to know at the moment, but existing workers need to be put through a change management process to make others more aware of what is happening. New processes will be needed, with the right structures, but these should only be introduced if there’s the right underlying acceptance from the workforce.
Finally Professor Jansen, your Steinbeis Enterprise offers customers help with embarking on the journey to a digital future. Which of your services do customers ask about most?
Our Steinbeis Transfer Center for Industrial Digitization was set up to provide a networking platform for manufacturing technology. As a Steinbeis Enterprise, we’re in a position to offer SMEs discounted initial consultations, so they’re free. These help clients explore the steps they would need to undertake to digitalize their manufacturing. We can also offer support on other fronts, such as project support, customized training, or joint research projects funded by third parties. Our portfolio of services revolves around the product life cycle, so we help with developing concepts, test lounges on machining, improvements in logistics, and the introduction of new services.