“Our ability to use sensors and data analysis to increase equipment up-time has had a significant impact on the efficiency of our own manufacturing and the value of our products to our customers.”
Insightive.tv: Do you see innovation as a force driving profit?
Chris: A focus on innovation enables us to ask the difficult questions around the challenges that our customers face and how things will change in five or ten years’ time. This is crucial to the adaptability and growth of our company. More specifically, I think there are two distinct elements to how innovation can drive profit. The first simply relates to how we take costs out of our operation. The second is related to how we solve problems for customers — making tasks easier, cheaper and more efficient for them. If you look at the cost of running a hydraulic pump for 3-5 years, for example, the initial purchase price and maintenance will, on the high end, only account for 20-25% of the total cost. Anything we can do to increase the efficiency of running an asset has a dramatic impact on its cost to a customer. Innovation is absolutely a force driving profit.
Insightive.tv: Can you describe or summarise your innovation strategy?
Chris: We have to be clear on what the corporate goals are — anything we do from an innovation perspective has to align with the goals of our Senior Leadership, the Board and shareholders. That goal is to be a tier-one provider of premium solutions to the mining, oil and gas and energy sectors. Within those parameters, we work to make sure that anything we are doing from a technology development perspective is aligned to our product roadmaps, which are driven by our customers and market roadmaps.
The second element is the front-end of innovation — where do we get the best ideas and how do we make sure that we are finding the technologies that are going to change how we do business? Communicating with our customers and learning the challenges they face is vital, but that information has to be interpreted within a robust and contextual understanding of the market built through cooperation with academics and other businesses within the sector. As Henry Ford purportedly said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Recently, we formed a team that is specifically responsible for watching emerging technologies with the aim of publishing an internal report every three months on what we should be looking at. We are also in partnership with one of the large technology intelligence organisations to gain an external perspective on the same issue.
Insightive.tv: What are the largest challenges you face in the development and implementation of these technologies?
Chris: In terms of developing solutions, a lot of that is research. By its very nature, not all research turns into something of direct value. With some difficulty, we have made great strides towards developing a culture that is much more accepting and tolerant of the fact that some of these incubator projects don’t necessarily pan out. We have to look at them less as failures and more as learning experiences. If we learn something, we are still adding value to the organisation.
In terms of implementation, the largest challenge is confronting technologies for which we don’t have the appropriate skill sets developed within the company. Our top priority at the moment, in terms of technological development, is the application of digital technology to our mechanical and hydraulic solutions — our smart connected products program, or the Internet of Things. We have a significant technical capability within The Weir Group — thirty-six different engineering and technology teams around the world. But, this project, particularly, has sparked interesting discussions about partnerships. Hiring and recruiting teams based on skill deficits is a slow way to solve a problem.
Last year, we announced our collaboration with Microsoft and Dell. Microsoft is enabling us to understand data capture, local analysis, storage and communication — developing algorithms and machine learning. Dell is helping us with the hardware. We have become much better at identifying appropriate partners and finding a collaborative way to work — be it with a university or another company; loose relationships or joint ventures.
Insightive.tv: Can you specifically discuss how technology is helping you improve your workforce and operational efficiency?
Chris: On a basic level, we are working to make sure that the people working in our machine shops and assembly lines have all of the information they need to make decisions. We are working to create common platforms for enterprise resource planning and manufacturing scheduling. Our ability to use sensors and data analysis to increase equipment up-time has had a significant impact on the efficiency of our own manufacturing and the value of our products to our customers. Smart technology has not only enabled us to more accurately determine when equipment will require servicing, but allowed us to work with customers using older assets to assess, in real time, the condition of that equipment. This allows us to approve a life extension of ten or twenty years on products that, otherwise, could not be left in the field for fear of a catastrophic failure.
The enablement of our service engineers is another area in which we are making great strides. Smart technology provides the ability to access information about all of the equipment on a mine site, oil or gas well or drilling location. The moment our service engineers walk onto a site, technology allows them to know the condition of the equipment, how it is running, when it was last certified and gain advanced information on when it will next need to be serviced. This information was only previously accessible in limited form through administratively heavy processes. This kind of digital enablement instantly makes those interactions with customers more valuable, and it is possible that we will, in the future, be able to capture information about competitor products on the site as well — increasing the value even further.
Insightive.tv: What can we expect from The Weir Group in the future?
Chris: The current focus has been on the application of technology to our existing product portfolio. But, we have increased our investment in research every year for the past decade. This investment has been spread across a number of types of projects. Some of our really fundamental research is looking quite interesting but is too far down the pipeline to discuss publicly. Broadly, we are looking at new materials and surface coatings — nearly all of our equipment operates in fairly harsh and hazardous environments. In some cases, we are looking at totally different technologies that you would not recognise in our current portfolio.
The fundamental processes for extracting minerals from ores, or for recovering hydrocarbons from under the ground or under the oceans have been more or less the same for many years. The Weir Group has a healthy pipeline of fundamental and applied research projects with academic and industrial partners around the world to explore new and better ways to accomplish these tasks. The outcome from these programmes feeds valuable knowledge and insight into our busy and innovative new product development teams tasked with bringing higher performing, more efficient and lower cost solutions to our end markets.
Chris Poole is Group Head of Engineering and Technology at The Weir Group. He was appointed to construct an enterprise-wide innovation strategy and expand the profile of engineering and technology within corporate leadership. Responsible for teams across 35 worldwide locations, Chris is leading a new company initiative to harness technology and bring mining and energy production into the 21st Century. He has secured seven university partnerships, achieved over $250M in research program value and raised corporate investment in innovation. We spoke with Chris to gain his insight into how technology is changing manufacturing, energy production and resource extraction, and understand how The Weir Group intends to capitalise on change and bring further value to its customers.
The Weir Group is a global leader in engineering solutions. They design, manufacture and supply innovative products that play an integral role in global energy and industrial processes. Founded in 1871, The Weir Group now operates in over 70 countries — primarily focused on enabling mineral resource extraction and energy production. With an emphasis on sustainability, the company is looking to innovate for the new Century and remain an industry leader in all of the markets they service.
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