8 min read
Speed is better than perfection. A journey into automotive that innovates (from Loch Ness to Titanic)
2020-10-05 2020-10-05 5 October 2020 - Gabriele Crepaz
8 min read

Industry 4.0? At GKN Sinter Metals in Brunico and Campo Tures it is already a reality. A digital roadmap sets the goals to be achieved, aiming to answer all (or most) of the questions. How is a digital entrepreneurial culture obtained? Why might it make sense to hire a psychologist? Paul Mairl, Chief Digital Officer who defines himself as "the most analogical person ever", tells us about it.

Paul Mairl wears crimson jeans and does not want to talk too much about technology, even though our topic is Industry 4.0. He prefers to discuss Loch Ness, the Titanic and the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, only to then return to icebergs. "I am probably the most analogical person I know, but emotionally I feel very involved in digitalisation," says the Chief Digital Officer of GKN Powder Metallurgy, leading us into a meeting room that looks like a youth centre and overlooks the Valle di Tures,  with a glass wall giving us a partial view of the Zillertal Alps. "I see enormous potential in digital on both a human and an emotional level," he explains.

The Automotive cluster at NOI Techpark: a network of knowledge for 800 companies

His is an unusual approach in the automotive industry that traditionally relies on automated solutions in manufacturing. And in South Tyrol they know it all too well: one in three cars in the world has a component produced in the territory, 800 companies with 16,000 employees are active in the automotive sector. NOI Techpark has set itself the task of creating a capillary network between individual players with their own "Automotive cluster" and connecting expert partners as well as Italian and foreign research institutes. Thus the "Automotive Excellence South Tyrol" network was born. And in 2020, NOI Techpark is going to open its own branch in Val Pusteria focusing on this sector.

The biggest ally is GKN. As companies of the British industrial group of the same name, GKN Sinter Metals and GKN Driveline in South Tyrol are among the world's leading suppliers for the automotive, industrial and domestic sectors. GKN Sinter Metals, with plants in Brunico and Campo Tures, is part of the GKN Powder Metallurgy division, for which Mairl has created a digital roadmap: 7,000 employees in 30 locations follow this map.

Titanic or Loch Ness: why the term ‘Industry 4.0’ is unfortunate

Right from the start we came across the term Industry 4.0. For the CDO it is an unfortunate term. “The industry has not invented anything. All smartphones deliver the information we need quickly, reliably, anywhere, anytime. Within companies we still are not that advanced”. Therefore, this year, the GKN executive also mentioned the Loch Ness monster in his talk at the International Mechatronics Forum in the Bavarian city Cham: “No one has ever seen it and that is why everyone imagines it differently. Digitisation is similar.”

For many, in fact, it remains a nightmare from which it is best to stay away. But, according to Mairl, companies' resources are going in the wrong direction. The problem is not the technology, explains the GKN expert, but the inertia in the companies themselves. The reluctance to overturn established structures and processes. Which brings us to the Titanic. And the icebergs. "The most advanced ship in the world did not react nimbly enough to those icebergs which showed up on its route," he explains. "Today's icebergs are represented by competitors no one expects and routes which were once considered as safe but are no longer today. Digitisation should help companies become faster and more flexible”, thinks Paul Mairl.

The freedom to experiment

Mairl is in an enviable position. At GKN, innovation seems to come first. The company's strategy is to digitally develop all processes within it, including services for customers and suppliers. At the end of the roadmap, the production department of the future shall be so intelligent that people only have to set the parameters to start performing processes between teams and departments. Yet, it is going to be the system itself that looks for the best way to process orders in a transparent, efficient way and with resources to match. "The goal is clear. However, it is not yet clear how to achieve it." This gives him the freedom to experiment: “I do not have a permanent team. I always have to find allies. I am actually an influencer in my own company”.

He feels comfortable in his role. As if he had installed a radar, he continually interrupts our conversation to ask employees for information on the progress of projects, to motivate them, to spread new digital experiences. He is an extremely agile person. One who quickly grasps chances and opportunities.

Speed ​​over perfection: because no system provides 100% accurate data

For the CDO, digitisation has everything to do with speed. "Speed ​​over perfection", this is his belief and he repeats it like a mantra. Even to his employees. This includes the courage to accept mistakes, but also learning quickly from them, make data transparent to shorten decision-making processes without blindly trusting machines, and to give up on projects which simply do not work. "We are never going to have systems providing one hundred percent accurate data," he explains, "and therefore we have to learn to analyse data from various sources and understand when it is wrong." Above all, we must be ready to make decisions in real time.

It is Wile E. Coyote time. "Do you know the cartoon character, the coyote, which continues to devise new plans to finally catch Roadrunner?" Asks Mairl. Here, although the coyote always fails, it never surrenders. In the blink of an eye, it always has a new idea: as our interlocutor experienced this principle in San Francisco. One Tuesday, he received a call to understand his interest to visit an innovation incubator in California. "For how long?" He asked. "Two weeks," they replied. "When?", "Monday," they said. And Mairl left. With the same readiness he changed job every three years since graduating from Bolzano's Commercial high school, worked in many areas, and covered several jobs at GKN always being ready to face new challenges.

"I did not understand anything," he admits, recalling that trip to the United States. Not because of his English skills. "Silicon Valley speaks another language. They think differently”. They think in style. And the South Tyrolean brought this experience back to the world of work known to him. "If digitisation is to really work, it must be disruptive, subvert tasks, schedules, work models and hierarchies."

Digital culture: do brave employees really need a psychologist?

Who of the employees dare to make this change? “It is like jumping from the Europa bridge in Innsbruck, which is 190 meters high. Only when employees are willing to accept this challenge, digitisation can be successful. We need brave people. And it is up to the management to give them the security they need”. But there are still many questions for the CDO: what holds the digital company together on a human level? What should a digital culture be like? How will employees interact in future?

Mairl predicts that employees will be characterised by emotional intelligence. They will have to solve complex problems and come together in variable work groups in order to come up with creative ideas and change perspectives. "We will probably have to pay more attention to diversification in team composition," he predicts.  Digitisation tends to make systems uniform. "But we need people who question processes, working methods, ideas and who take responsibility for the decisions taken." The difficulty might be to harmonise the different human skills and strengths.  "That is why I am thinking of hiring a psychologist."

The flexibility that overcomes the crisis

The development of GKN is certainly unstoppable. An application is soon to be released which is going to help customers place orders. Production employees have already been equipped with Smart Watches reproducing personalised data and decision-making suggestions. Mairl aims to issue a corporate currency, GKN Coins, so that employees can test flexible working time models.

Everyone and everything can act with agility and flexibly adapt to change. Mairl has a clear picture of the industry he works in: the automotive is under pressure, no one knows what the mobility of the future will be like, everyone suspects that many things are going to evolve. For GKN, entire spheres of activity probably need to be transformed. "Therefore, it is essential to make our working methods, organisation and production processes as flexible and adaptable as possible". GKN is already investing in 3D printing, additive manufacturing and hydrogen propulsion. Sintered metal parts, i.e. the powdered molten metal elements, are also used in lipsticks to make them heavier. And thus, making them emotionally more valuable. “But lipstick alone, probably, will not have a lasting effect on our company's future,” Mairl concludes with a smile.