When it comes to digitization, companies tend to talk a good game, but not get much done.To counter this tendency, Friedrichshafen’s Plant Engineering business unit has proactively generated specific project ideas by organizing a hackathon.
Oliver Thiel is very excited about it: “The progress achieved in such a short time was just sensational.” He is Head of Automation at Zeppelin Systems GmbH, and he launched the hackathon as a unique format in this industry. It involved teams from three selected start-ups working long into the night to develop new digital applications for a production system – in just a day and a half. “We ended up with three fantastic stories which gave us plenty of food for thought,” says Thiel enthusiastically. “The hackathon is a genuine catalyst for digital innovation.”
Held at Zeppelin Systems GmbH, the hackathon was just one example of how to accelerate desperately needed innovation in many medium-sized companies. Although these companies know only too well the importance of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT), these issues are frequently discussed but not followed-up –which is simply not the way to survive in a rapidly changing and dramatically accelerating business environment. Hackathons are a perfect way to highlight the potential on offer from new technologies. The key to success is in ensuring engagement not only in words, but in actions, and young start-ups can provide much-needed stimulus for the digitization of production and company processes.The hackathon concept is taken from the software industry, where it has proven to be a quick and effective method for planning and implementing new software ideas, and evaluating their benefits.
Creating added value for industrial customers
At the suggestion of the VDMA and with the support of Ernst & Young (EY) management consultants, Zeppelin Systems GmbH sent out invitations to an industry hackathon. The start-ups, which had been selected in advance, were looking to support small and medium-sized production enterprises in managing digital transformation, by means of big data, machine learning, and augmented reality (AR). Digital applications that create substantial added value for industrial customers were the main focus of the hackathon. The start-ups were supported by engineers from Zeppelin Systems.
The focus for the competition was a baked goods and confectionery production system that has been installed in the Food Technology Center in Rödermark, part of Zeppelin’s network of technology centers for the handling of high-quality bulk materials. After being briefed on the technology, the start-up teams set to work on developing their project ideas. They presented their results the next day: Actyx programmed an app which could be used by the baker’s customers to order bread made to a specific recipe. During their presentation they were able to demonstrate how these orders would be processed and sent directly to the production system control unit.
Point 8 visualized the data generated by the system, using the information to detect any wear-related defects at an earlier stage. The Kinemic team used the example of a manual weighing station to illustrate the improvements that could be made using gesture-based control – in this instance resulting in a weighing system that requires no screen touching, resulting in simpler hygiene management among other benefits. “We can really run with these ideas, and will certainly stay in touch with the participants,” says Zeppelin Systems director Thiel. Short duration, clear timeframe, real results – the hallmarks of any hackathon. From this perspective, the event format is a good response to two major barriers faced by companies during digital transformation, according to a survey by EY and Bitkom Research. Two-thirds of companies complain of a high investment requirement. In the opinion of 57% of the 550 companies surveyed, there is a shortage of skilled staff.
High investment is not necessary
Small and medium-sized companies lag well behind on these issues. After all, almost all large Groups – from Siemens and Bosch to Trumpf – have already
established their own innovation units for digital transformation, in which start-ups support or pursue new business ideas from their own ranks. Small and medium-sized enterprises are generally reluctant to invest,but they should still participate in incubators and enter into partnerships with start-ups and universities to gain the necessary expertise. Doing this does not always require major investment or indeed any investment at all.
For example, joining chambers of commerce and industry and participating in regional networks can create excellent platforms to help boost results. Another way to take the first step includes exploring use cases. This involves defining a specific process step for which an innovation should be developed. EY offers starter packages for this, delivering tangible results after just ten days. Other event formats which encourage the exchange of ideas between companies from different industries are also recommended, in an approach known as cross-industry innovation. This enables a company in a different industry to learn about and adopt a solution to a specific problem. For example, many years ago BMW discovered TouchSense technology, invented by Californian enterprise Immersion, and used it in developing the operating concept for the iDrive driver assistant system. The technology had previously mainly been used in joysticks. Although it is certainly extremely important to work on specific innovations to boost innovation capability, that is not the whole story: The company must consider changing its organizational structure and its incentive scheme for employees.
Failure need not be the end of the road
Engineers and developers who pursue new ideas must also be able, and indeed allowed, to fail. They must be more accepting of mistakes, as must the companies that employ them, and failure should not be penalized. The target systems must also change. Rather than focusing on individual requirements – which fosters a kind of “silo mentality” – the new thinking incorporates team goals or a direct link with business success, and recognizes that even a failed project provides vital information. This is exactly the type of ideas culture that we have in place today at Zeppelin Systems. Oliver Thiel opened the hackathon with the words: “Though we are of course always excited about new applications, it is certainly not the end of the world if no usable results come out of today.” That is not how things turned out. Boosted by their success, VDMA and EY plan to hold a series of industrial hackathons dedicated to specific topics, including the optimization of production processes in mechanical engineering. This should eventually lead to the creation of a guideline for VDMA member companies.
* Stefan Bley is a partner with Ernst & Young management consultancy services at 68165 Mannheim, and is responsible for the plant and mechanical engineering division there, Tel. +49 (0)621 4 20 81 73 42, firstname.lastname@example.org