Digital partnerships – "Building a bridge from both ends"

By Marcos Hillal  LinkedIn
Global Product Line Manager
Automation ABB Mining

As someone who has lived and breathed process automation for almost 20 years, there’s one thing I know for sure: if digital transformation is to succeed, it requires partnership and a mindset shift at every level.

A recent survey from the Boston Consulting Group revealed just how extensive that mindset shift needs to be. It displayed stark differences in how managers and employees view digital transformation. And it seems that there’s work to be done to get both managers and employees on the same page - making sure they are "building the same bridge from both ends"

Managers are far more engaged in their companies’ transformation projects. 90 percent say they feel involved, compared to only 65 percent of employees.

Managers also think differently when it comes to approaches to transformation. 80 percent want to use new ways of working (and think their teams would too). But in reality only 66 percent of employees would say the same.

Clearly, one of the central issues to address for organizations is getting buy-in to an agreed approach to digital transformation at every level, not just the top.

This can be a challenging position: most organizations hear the future calling and know they need to change. The problem is they don't know where to start or how to scale successful digital pilots.

The good news is that mindset shifts happen while changing your actions. So, how do you pave the way for a smoother digitalization journey? Here are some of the hard-earned lessons from a career dedicated to industrial transformation.

Go further in partnerships

No single company can realize the ambitious Industry 4.0 vision alone. Choosing digitalization partners with proven expertise is the first and most useful thing you can do for your project to get the buy-in, to build up necessary skills and to progress.

Partners able to understand and speak the language of all the stakeholders: senior executives, corporate IT, technology and digital leaders as well as site-level management, process experts and operations people. Partners adept at working with what there is, implementing meaningful changes on all levels, rather than providing powerpoint slides and generic cookie-cutter solutions.

Over the past few years, ABB has emerged as among the most trusted global technology partners for enterprises going digital. Our 50-year history of working with mining, aluminium and cement in particular means these industries are in our DNA. We can contribute with our own vision for their future, describe practical and tangible digital use cases, put them on a fast-track, adaptable roadmap and get results.

A full portfolio of integrated end-to-end solutions for mining and cement, a large team not only armed with deep domain knowledge, but also able to take advantage from data on all levels - this is an extremely strong foundation for successful digital projects.

It’s certainly the big differentiator that industrial customers respond to. It makes sense –– because our team have the depth of experience, they can quickly grasp the reality and offer a pragmatic step-by-step approach to bringing your company's vision to life.

Work together to join the islands

One of the key things we often discover when we start working with a partner is that their plans, though ambitious, are not usually organized into a single, aligned journey. Instead, they manifest as a series of contained projects or what I call “islands”.

These islands are the reason for a common digitalization pitfall –– the damaging gaps between HQ’s plans and actual developments on sites.

That’s why it’s vital there’s a common vision and alignment across the organization. This can be challenging as plants are used to autonomy.

To keep ahead of this issue, top management should be constantly seeking to increase their technical knowledge, so digital initiatives can be communicated clearly. Everyone from the c-suite to engineers on (or under) the ground should be working towards one common purpose.

Once that aligned relationship between management and plants is in place, that’s half the battle. Local plant autonomy can be strong as they’re the ones making the money so growing support through ‘quick win’ projects is key to everything, not least funding the next round of development.

Combine quick wins and long-term goals

Years of ground-level perspective mean I know just how important it is to rapidly build internal trust and create fast value through pilot projects.

Quick wins are crucial. But they’re not the whole picture. Being truly holistic means taking a dual approach, having a long-term transformation's "North Star" AND changing your actions today (that's how mindset shifts happen, remember?)

What we often hear: "I do not want to do more assessments. Let's stop doing it on paper, I want to go to real activities"

It’s also crucial to be clear on what constitutes a ‘win’ and understand how difficult it is to make predictions or truly reshape existing processes. I can think of a recent example using AI technology that demonstrates this.

A group of researchers from ABB and Boliden used AI simulations to optimize concentration processes. What constituted a successful result – a win ­– was well defined in simulation environment. The goal of the project was to check if AI method called reinforcement learning could perform better then traditional regulatory control.

The algorithm successfully taught itself to accomplish the task, but it turns out that it did so by heavily exploiting a small model mismatch between the simulation and reality. Hence, the obtained control strategy wouldn’t work in the real world. So the next step was for the team to change the goal and optimize the overall profit instead of optimizing the tracking of a process variable.

With the new goal in place, the AI algorithm took 80 hours of simulation to learn to run the process profitably. That was the equivalent to a plant operating time of more than 300 years. 

Sounds impressive, but further studies are still needed before we get to a viable production solution.

This example shows the difficulty of making predictions for a real production environment even with the most powerful analytics tools, and it stresses the importance of having the skills to understand, question, and rethink existing processes.

Reality check

But do not get an illusion that a real digital transformation will come only from Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Analytics solutions. Those disciplines are of course very relevant in this context, but they are far from being the response to all the problems. A real transformation based on a solid long term vision will guide exactly what technologies are needed and when. Technologies are just tools for solving problems and not vice-versa.

This reminds me of another partnership with a South American mining company where I was personally involved. As every mining company, they are striving to reduce the cost of operations, while improving production yields and quality at same time. To do so across several existing sites and a greenfield site to come means turning into a more digitalized and automated operation - which will not happen without changes in the company's culture.

Before translating their vision into a well grounded plan, they did a benchmarking of the world's most advanced players in mining - to see what they can learn from the early adopters. This provided a good basis for assessing their own operations reality and defining a broad Automation and Information master plan for the next 5 years.

It became clear that any advanced digital solutions would not be possible or would not make the expected impact until there is a higher level of automation, harmonized across all sites. This was the best step to start with, driving operations towards a more consolidated and digital ready platform with uniform, trusted, up-to-date and secure data. And at the same time training people, inspiring them with user-friendly tools, bringing immediate improvements in safety and involving them in operational enhancements. I am grateful that ABB was selected as their digital transformation partner to implement the plan. We are walking this path together as a team, hand in hand.


A successful partnership is about creating an environment that allows multiple stakeholders to have their voices and vision heard, so that both sides of “the bridge under construction “ are lined up according to the plans.

It also means the ability to leverage the client’s ecosystem. This varies according to the customer’s individual needs but broadly it means working with multiple partners with the appropriate capabilities required to realize the vision. For us, it’s not about pushing products but taking a more agnostic approach, bringing in external experts as needed. This is because we’re collaborating to deliver a full solution, not just a few puzzle pieces.

And everything comes back to mindset.

According to Simon Cookson, “You simply cannot tell people how they should feel and what they should think. Telling people where they are sitting on the Change Curve, organising them into new Agile team structures and giving them the latest messaging apps will not change how they think and feel. “

In other words, success comes from bringing people into digital transformation process early, getting everyone aligned around what really matters, letting them contribute with their own ideas on how to join those islands, both in the partnership and within the customer’s organization.

Nobody said the road to digital transformation was easy, but with these strategies in mind, you can certainly make it a smoother ride. Come along if you feel like that’s what you want to do >>

More blogs

In the next blog we invite you for a deeper conversation on how to strengthen the bond between different perspectives mentioned in my blog: business as a whole, people in operations on the ground and ever evolving technical possibilities.

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