Royal DSM, which started life as Dutch State Mines in 1902, has a strong track record of transforming and reinventing itself in line with — and ahead of — market demands and customer needs.
DSM Chief Technology Officer Marcus Remmers talked to Sustainable Plastics about how his R&D organization is leveraging digital capabilities to drive further growth and value. Sustainable Plastics is a sister publication of Plastics News.
Q: Would you say DSM is engaged in a digitalization process or in a digital transformation?
Remmers: DSM is highly engaged in a digital transformation across all its functions, business groups and locations around the world. As such, our digital transformation is embedded at all levels of our organization and fully aligned with our strategy. Our digital transformation program is centered around three elements: building a digital tool set, skillset and mindset across the company. We believe that only putting the right digital tools in place is not enough. You need to have an engaged workforce that intrinsically wants to explore new, digital ways of working and that is trained to do so.
Q: What is the potential of digital technologies for R&D?
Remmers: Digital is fundamentally changing the way R&D is done. Digital technologies have the potential to increase the R&D efficiency and accelerate the innovation process.
For instance, implementing data and knowledge management tools support the integration and reuse of scientific data, which allows scientists to significantly reduce their time spend on scientific experiments. We have implemented an intelligent online search application called brAInS. Now there is no need to skim through thousands of scientific publications anymore. Instead, brAInS suggests the most relevant papers from sources from within and outside DSM and highlights the exact paragraphs a scientist is looking for.
But there is more. We are also looking at automating and robotizing labs. Robots can execute repetitive tasks with higher speed and precision compared to humans, which increases the efficiency of our lab work — allowing us to speed up the time to market of our innovations. Equally important, it allows our scientists to free up time for more value-added activities, like creative thinking, interacting with customers and exploring novel business models, which is not only more impactful, but also more engaging.
Q: How far along are you on your digital journey?
Remmers: Our digital transformation is an ongoing journey; there will be no hard finish line when this transformation is complete. However, the immediate horizon for our current road map is 2022. Our digital R&D road map was developed by looking at the latest trends in digital technologies — like data analytics, artificial intelligence, high-performance computing and robotization, to name a few — and matching those with the current and future requirements of our customers. Our marketing and sales teams play a pivotal role in pinpointing the trends in the markets as well as customer needs, while ICT supports us with the implementation of the tools. As you can see, digitization is bringing together different competences and departments, fostering collaborations we have never seen before, which is truly inspiring!
Q: Can a company the size of DSM respond in an agile way to changes and developments? For example, during the current coronavirus pandemic, were you able to adapt easily?
Remmers: Absolutely, yes! During the coronavirus pandemic, we demonstrated the significant impact a purpose-led organization has when it responds quickly to wider changes and developments. Among many other important initiatives, we were able to help manufacture 2.8 million nose swabs for COVID-19 test kits, coordinate the production of protective medical mouth masks and quickly convert one of our coating resin production lines to create 130,000 liters of hand sanitizer for Dutch health care workers.
More than ever, we put our science-based capabilities to the service of people and the wider society — and our digital capabilities play an important role in this.
For instance, the design of the nose swab, as well as the mold for production, were developed with DSM's additive manufacturing expertise. 3D printing allowed us to design and rapidly test multiple prototypes. Without this digital technology, we would never have been able to deliver on the sharp deadlines given by the Dutch government.
Q: Have you run up against any barriers on your digital journey?
Remmers: As mentioned before, we are working hard not only to put the right tool sets in place, but also to help our people develop the right skills and the right digital mindset. For each of these elements, we face challenges at different moments in time.
Take the element of mindset: On the whole, our R&D community recognizes the enormous potential of our digital capabilities and sees these technologies as enablers rather than a threat. But people are dynamic, not static. So as our digital journey evolves, we need to be conscious that we keep our people on board and supportive. Sharing success stories and recognizing the people behind these successes helps a great deal.
Q: Can digitalization support sustainability? How?
Remmers: Digitalization and sustainability are intimately linked. As an organization where sustainability is a core value and a key business driver, digitalization helps us to speed up the development of sustainable solutions to conventional market alternatives. Take DSM Niaga, which enables waste reduction and minimizing the depletion of natural resources through their range of fully recyclable products, from our Again carpet collection to mattresses and beyond. Our digital capabilities helped DSM Niaga to significantly reduce the time to market of their solutions by implementing prediction models based on 3D image analysis of CT scans.
Q: In what way has DSM incorporated sustainable thinking into its digitalization process?
Remmers: At DSM, we believe so strongly in sustainability that our business strategy is based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As such, it's not a question of sprinkling a bit of sustainability into our digital transformation; rather, the two go together, hand in hand. A nice example of how digitization supports our sustainability efforts can be found in our automotive solutions. We now apply computer-aided design engineering technology to develop and design novel performance materials. Predictive fatigues modeling for reinforced polyamide parts, for example, can simulate parts performance under stress, reducing the need for material testing; in particular, multiple design-build-test-learn cycles.