Why every digital enterprise needs superglue

By Andrew Wilson  LinkedIn
Sales Lead - Digital Applications

About the author
Andrew combines excellent customer relationships with consistent achievement of targets. He has deep knowledge of the challenges facing the cement and related industries going forward into the 21st century. Andrew is driven by the desire to use existing and future IT technologies to assist our customers to meet their goal of reducing their CO2 footprint in an increasingly economically challenging world.

Notes from a pre-digital world

I’m not a digital native. In fact, I considered my first mobile phone a luxury, with its 90-minute talk time worth a small fortune. For many years I used to carry paper maps to find customer locations. I also knew people who were able to check industrial equipment using sight, smell, touch, and sound – not a digital screen in sight.

Of course, when advances in technology came along, I embraced them. My career has also evolved from Commissioning Engineer to Product Manager and then to Digital Sales Lead for the mining and cement industries.

In short, digital is something  my generation and I have had to adapt to. We’re grateful for that –– it’s transformed our everyday lives for the better. And as one of my friends said, we played with a i486, US Robotics dial-up modem, pci card, AOL chat, ICQ chat, installed a LPT1 printer, replaced a PCI card… We had fun.

Meaningful change

The mining and cement industries I am working with are just like me – not “born digital” – which means they also have to adapt. The pressure to rethink where they see themselves in the future has never been greater.

But many organizations are still out of sync with the rate of change in the wider industry. I am not here to predict an endgame or promise the earth, I simply want to help people adapt faster. Take the best from both worlds. There’s clear potential for improvement, and digital has become a catalyst for meaningful changes.

When digital doesn’t stick

There is no shortage of valuable advice on how to embrace change. The underlying assumption seems to be that humans are afraid of change. I think that we simply resist something that we consider unhelpful.

Here’s an example. There’s a lot of interest in digital initiatives that reduce “fly-in, fly-out" fatigue, things like implementing remote mines’ central management within a more comfortable headquarters office. That’s why I was very surprised to read about a mining company that implemented a Remote Operations Center (ROC) but never really used it!

Imagine: the center allowed operators to perform functions such as dispatch, equipment health monitoring, and maintenance planning. But it often remained idle because there wasn’t a clear role for it in the organization. Some operators even tried to limit use of the ROC. Once the company’s leaders and top talent lost interest, the facility was decommissioned. Thankfully this wasn’t our customer, but it’s a valuable insight into the worst-case scenario.

Holding together

Like any sales person, I’ve also experienced my fair share of rejection. Nowadays it can take months to reach a decision where in the past all it took was a RFQ (request for quotation), a few calls and a demo. So if a customer turns to another supplier because we haven’t cultivated the relationship, it’s always hard to hear.

That said, digital transition is so multifacted, it’s important that everyone works with the partners that are their genuine best fit.

To ensure I create that ‘best fit’ scenario, I’ve complemented my technical expertise with broader industry understanding – to be able to connect with people on all levels. That means developing tailored solutions and overcoming hurdles, together. And it ranges from solving purely technical problems on-site, to going deep into overall business issues, company strategy and the economics of corporate digital initiatives.  

I’ve realized that most value comes from conversations. Thanks to keeping my ears open to what people across various departments had to say, I could generate new insights and perspectives.  And now, rather than competing solely on products, I strive to compete on ‘views of the world and the future’.

It’s like becoming the ‘phone-a-friend’ connection on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”   You’re the person customers think of when they get stuck. You’re their lifeline when the answer can’t be Googled.

This is when the hard work of staying in close contact really pays off.

Why every digital enterprise needs superglue

All the ingredients are there for industrial companies to make a major leap in digital. At the operations level, there’s no lack of sensors, data analytics platforms, and apps. At the corporate level, there’s no lack of management advice from digital transformation consultants. Billions of dollars are continually invested in cloud infrastructure, 5G, Artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technology developments. But despite all this the path to success is often bumpy.

Each of these areas has its own characteristics, priorities, language, and stakeholders. It’s not easy to bring them together. I think that at ABB our main strength is our ability to act as a kind of ‘superglue’ that holds together these different perspectives: the business as a whole, the people on the ground in operations, and the ever evolving technical possibilities.

Chemical structure of ethyl cyanoacrylate - a family of strong fast-acting adhesives (superglue)

The ‘superglue’ recipe for ROC

So how do we avoid the under-used ROC scenario? How is our approach different? It begins with building a tight bond with users at the mine because they’re directly involved in the development. (See Eduardo Lima’s blog on agile co-creation). It’s also about making sure the control room operators understand the impact of their decisions in the mines thousands of kilometers away. This iterative process involves management and end users, but also often customers’ own R&D and other development partners.

A digital partnership usually begins in a very focused area. In the ROC example, operations management and scheduling software designed specifically for mines would be a huge improvement on generic planners. Taking part in its development would give mine operators a taste for digital transformation and deliver instantly appreciable efficiencies.  “This part was my idea, I contributed this”.

When first targets are reached, it strengthens mutual trust. And this often opens the way to broader discussions about digital strategy, roadmap and finding other business cases that weren’t initially considered. This could be asset condition monitoring and predictive maintenance. Or it could be advanced process control that gets grinding, flotation or cement kiln processes to the most profitable level. It’s about creating possibilities.

‘Are they using it?’

As the ROC story illustrates, access to the latest tech doesn’t mean adoption. We always obsess over the question: ‘Are they using it?’ because digital applications are only effective when they make sense to the people operating them. That's why this is one of my favourite ABB customer quotes, which refers to our production information management solution, tailored to mining and cement:

‘You have no idea how much of an improvement this is over our old days of Excel data analysis and trending. I went from a tool that no one ever looked at to a flood of wanting more data’.

Partnership and progress

We always keep challenging our clients with new ideas. But I believe it’s better to do less and scale more, replicating the highest-value solutions with the best user acceptance at other sites.

The closer the relationship, the more personalized the solutions become. Each digital use case serves as a lever for safer onsite working conditions and acceptance by local communities and regulatory bodies. This is why it’s not enough to just put ‘digital lipstick’ on legacy systems.

Digitally advanced customers can even build apps to solve specific issues on our new enterprise-grade industrial analytics platform. As a partnership, we continually adapt the solutions based on user feedback, business priorities and new technologies.

Whether it’s acting as ‘superglue’ or offering that ‘phone-a-friend’ assurance, our partnership approach to digital is about progress towards set goals and accelerating performance across multiple sites. It all stems from our close connections to people across the process industries and our vast experience of both analog and digital worlds.

You’ve probably known about ABB’s traditional automation and electrification offering for a long time. Now let’s have a deeper conversation about where you want to go with your business and the new ways you can create value with digital. We can help you find the solutions and make the changes stick. >> https://new.abb.com/mining/digital

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