Frederik Esterhuizen leads the ABB in metals workforce with care and collaboration

Frederik Esterhuizen is passionate about elevating the potential of people to participate in a new era of greener metals production. As global manager of ABB’s Business Line Metals, he applies rich cross-industry experience and management strategies to mentor a future-ready workforce.

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Frederik Esterhuizen, global manager of ABB’s Business Line Metals.

What attracted you to the metals industry?

It's not an easy business, but I don't like to do easy things. The metals industry is very complex and can be cut throat. I thrive in environments where the only option is to do things differently. Metals will never grow at a two-digit growth rate because of the oversupply in certain markets, but when you consider that steel is one of the industries with the biggest carbon footprint, there is a real requirement and impetus to change. Offering the customer a range of options, such as real efficiency and productivity-boosting solutions, can help improve their margins in a difficult environment and help the world reduce carbon emissions.

There are a lot of new things we need to try to figure out and make work. I believe that how we bring up our workforces and how we collaborate is crucial to shaping what happens next.

You are a great proponent of mentoring and enabling the ambitions of your team members. How does that work to ensure ABB in metals is future ready? 

Giving people stretch opportunities is important because it encourages them to develop. Some people don’t want to be a manager, they just need to be supported to be excellent at what they do. To manage for the future you have to know your people, understand where they are headed.

Like many managers, I have a monthly team meeting with all 14 of my direct reports, but then I also have a fortnightly, 15- to 30-minute, one-on-one call with each of them. They choose what they want to discuss. We might talk about what they want to do next. What they need from me in order to achieve their goals. How they want to develop their skills. What they see going on in the business and how they’d like to address that. It’s a really powerful platform.

When I visit customers around the world, I always schedule time to talk with our own people to know them a bit more, what their ideas are and where they want to grow in their career.

Once people get to know me, they are much more open to telling me directly, “This doesn't work,” or “Maybe we should handle this differently going forward.” I tend to get more honest feedback.

It takes a while, but once you get to that level, you can better understand how things really are, and where you can then use people’s talents or their capabilities. Staying close to my team helps identify people we can put on a unique opportunity or on something new that we'd like to develop; to drive either a business direction or a culture change within the organization.

Have you had similar experiences in your career?

Things have changed a lot since I started at ABB in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1996. One pivotal moment was after two-and-a-half years with ABB in the training department, I was training one of our customers how to operate and use our equipment for pulp and paper application when I was summoned to the local business line manager’s office. My first thought was, “What the hell did I do wrong?” I walk in and he hands me the phone and says, "Call your wife and tell her you’re moving to a new project in Pietermaritzburg from tomorrow. I think it's the right thing for you." We had a huge project there and our lead engineer had resigned to go to a competitor, so his contract was terminated with immediate effect, and the company couldn’t afford to spend time recruiting someone with his same skills. I was the only guy with a metals background. It ended up being a three-year assignment.

Subsequently, I’ve been privileged to have the kind of career that our younger employees today tell me is their ideal. They want maybe three years or four years in a role and then to try something different. I understand that.

Like the metals industries we work with, ABB needs to adapt our offering to employees.

When you consider that steel is one of the industries with the biggest carbon footprint, there is a real requirement and impetus to change,” says Frederik Esterhuizen. “Offering the customer a range of options, such as real efficiency and productivity-boosting solutions, can help improve their margins in a difficult environment and help the world reduce carbon emissions.

Speaking of adapting, a major concern of today’s workforce is the urgent need for industry to decarbonize. How is ABB helping the steel industry to meet low-carbon ambitions while remaining competitive?

It all depends what each customer needs. Our subject matter experts proactively approach them to find out what their drivers are and what they are trying to achieve. Then we discuss future solutions based on our long experience of integrating electrification, automation, metallurgical and digital solutions. Sometimes it’s cross-industry experience, with products and solutions that can be more broadly applied. We operate in a collaborative way and in a consulting vein, rather than trying to impose a solution.

Would you have an example of how your Business Line Metals teams have come up with cross-industry solutions?

In cement making ABB provides advanced process control which optimizes performance of the horizontal and vertical mills to improve productivity. Given that similar processes and equipment are used in both the cement and steel industries, our ABB Business Line Metals digital team has collaborated with inhouse metals experts and customers to configure this solution specifically for steel-rolling mills.

ABB Ability™ Advanced Process Control (APC) is the autopilot for driving production plants to an optimum state around the clock. It is based on Model Predictive Control (MPC), a technology with proven ability to provide control solutions using constraints, feedforward and feedback to handle multivariable processes that feature delays and processes with strong interactive loops. In simple terms, MPC produces a digital twin of any process and predicts how it will act. Using a plant model and objective functions, MPC can predict system behavior some steps into the future.

Our Manufacturing Operations Management — or MOM for Metals — manages and monitors production from melt shop to warehouse. It provides a visual overview of processes in real time, along with equipment status and analysis of performance. Sharing information between shop floor and top floor enables shared understanding of challenges and ownership of improved outcomes throughout the steel making business. This leads to more optimal asset utilization; and reduces waste, downtime and costs.

One challenge in steel making is to ensure that the final product always matches specifications. If it doesn’t, it may need to go back into the melt — a costly exercise in terms of energy use and plant time. The additional processing time can also mean your product comes out later than scheduled, affecting delivery to customers in an extremely competitive environment. MOM for Metals can be applied to any configuration of mill, to ensure the steelmaking workforce has much better control over the quality of output.

How will such digital solutions influence the skills needed by future industry workforces?

Automation does not replace people. Digital processes help people move away from dangerous work situations, but you still need people with knowledge to monitor those processes and intervene as necessary.

We also need to attract new talent to both the metals and metallurgical sectors. The challenge in recent years, as one generation of long-time workers retires, is that younger people tend to shy away from traditional industrial environments. Digital solutions open new opportunities for metals workforces to be involved in analysis and data-aided decision making. The benefits we gain from developing and adopting technology as a team are key to supercharging industry efficiency.

4 Takeaways for bringing up a future-ready metals workforce:

  1. Create regular opportunities with your teams for frank interchange of ideas and feedback
  2. Get to know and understand the ambitions of your people
  3. Recruit from within — matching ambitions to stretch roles
  4. Engage employees in the deployment of technological solutions that supercharge efficiencies and enable informed decision making

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