In the lead-up to K 2022, the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, VDMA is conducting a series of interviews with leading businesspersons in the industry, under the title Way2K. Tim Rudersdorf, managing director of ProTec Polymer Processing GmbH spoke with VDMA on how "Digitalization plays a major role on the path to additional growth.”
What is the greatest benefit of digital transformation?
Rudersdorf: I think the greatest benefit of digital transformation is in interpersonal communication, because it enables a significant increase in employee efficiency. We have a very high wage level in Europe but are facing international competition. We cannot afford to operate with the same manpower as companies in countries where wage levels are lower. Conversely, this means that our employees must achieve higher productivity, which can be achieved through digitalization.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
Rudersdorf: I would like to focus on sales. I have been working in B2B business in the plastics industry for many years. We know from studies that buyers in the manufacturing industry today use other channels for sourcing than visits from sales reps. When seeking equipment for a project, they first conduct research on the internet first, so their method is digital. They obtain a lot of information about products, possible suppliers, and even about the contact persons listed on the website. It’s only further down the line in the decision-making process, when the sourcing is already very far advanced, that a personal meeting will take place, which can now also take place virtually. As a supplier, we are therefore close to the customer despite the physical distance, enabling us to deploy our sales staff much more efficiently. Of course, personal visits will still take place. In the future, it will be important to find a good balance.
Has the pandemic accelerated this process?
Rudersdorf: Absolutely. We were able to significantly increase our order intake last year, even though trade fairs were almost non-existent. We have therefore rebuilt our online presence with a new website, our own social media channels, and a considerable amount of new content. Customer enquiries and ultimately orders are generated through this online presence. The pandemic has shown us that digitalization plays a key role for us on the way to additional growth.
What role does digitalization play at a later stage in terms of the cooperation with customers? Are they ready to exchange data yet?
Rudersdorf: There are still some hurdles to overcome for customers to rely on data exchange in the digital transformation. For example, if we received production data from a customer's plant, we could tell them how to operate the machine more efficiently in the process. It is still comparatively easy to convince small and medium-sized companies of these advantages, where we are often in close contact with the managing directors. With large international corporations, it's so much more difficult, as they usually have IT guidelines that make the digital transformation more difficult due to security reasons.
Is it necessary then for you to improve security?
Rudersdorf: On the one hand, as suppliers, as machine builders, we must be able to offer solutions of that nature for secure data exchange in the first place. But we only do that when there is a need. People have been talking about Industry 4.0 for years, but in my experience, many companies have been reluctant to use it for fear of losing know-how.
Could the experience of the pandemic help to initiate a rethink in this field?
Rudersdorf: For sure. When customers' machines failed unexpectedly in 2020 and 2021 because service technicians were no longer allowed to enter plants, we tried to solve the problems via data glasses or mobile phones with cameras. If those customers had opened up to us a little beforehand, allowing us, as their supplier, access to productivity levels, times, processed quantities and other framework parameters of their plants, it would probably have been possible to notice that something was not going right before the breakdown. I feel that the experience of the last two years has increased the pressure on customers. They know they have to do something. We are seeing a surge in maintenance contracts. That is a first step. Preventive maintenance, for which data exchange is essential, will hopefully follow.
The government is relying heavily on digitalization. Is it doing enough in this respect?
Rudersdorf: Politicians are already quite supportive. There are many opportunities for companies to apply for funding. We have also done that, and the funds from the Federal Ministry of Research help us a lot in financing our digitalization projects. For example, if we want to offer our customers secure data exchange in the future, we will need a qualification process for our employees. This is exactly what the ministry supports in our case. We can therefore not only offer customers secure predictive maintenance, but also make it easier for employees to operate the machines. This represents great added value, especially in times of skilled worker shortages.