IT is becoming an important part of the value proposition for more and more businesses. Schuberg Philis, in close collaboration with its partners, is making the impact of modern technology tangible, based on short-cycle experiments combined with everything it has proven to be good at in the past. CTO Roeland Kuipers and CIO Ilja Heitlager talk about the new Lab 271 for business-oriented innovation.
To illustrate what they mean, Kuipers and Heitlager show off a small-scale, working model of an intelligent factory, in which a simplified production line is equipped with sensors. In the maze of machine hardware and connections, two boxes can be distinguished: one orange, the other gray. The data generated from the process is stored in the orange one: this is the cloud to which the industrial Internet of Things (IoT) is linked. The gray box houses the intelligence that runs the factory. Together, these two boxes represent the mission-critical beating heart of all processes – the core module which monitors, controls and manages them.
Ilja Heitlager: "Even though these are in fact major assets, what you actually see here in a small-scale model is the representation of Industry 4.0. Individual production lines are digitized and brought together so that, based on data and intelligence, the entire system can be controlled in the best way in real time. This is how we bridge the gap between physical engineering and IT."
Roeland Kuipers: "Once you have the right data points, not only can you follow one specific production line and improve the performance of each machine – you can also centralize all the lines and manage them as a whole. Thanks to our experience with this small-scale model, we were able to get things up and running in a real production line within a single day. Practicing first gave us a great head start once it came to the real thing."
Experts in the lead
According to both the CTO and the CIO of Schuberg Philis, business-oriented innovation demonstrates new forms of interaction with the partners the company is serving. Long-term relationships based on a tender, for instance, as well as planning and major contracts are making way for more experimental interactions with short to very short cycles. The added value for the business always comes first. Then, after a proof of concept or a minimum viable product has been created, things can be scaled up rather quickly.
Ilja Heitlager: "Here at Schuberg Philis, we are adding something very important: a focus, within a mission-critical cloud infrastructure, on security, including data security, and continuity. Systems that make it possible to run an industrial environment intelligently are not necessarily secure. For example, a secure connection to an IT infrastructure requires additional measures."
Roeland Kuipers: "Here, too, we are starting from two principles that are quite important for Schuberg Philis: ‘experts in the lead' and 'the whole system in the room.' Our customer contributes specific knowledge of its business, processes and IT, while we deliver competencies in technical and data engineering. And a specialized partner takes care of the hardcore data science. Instead of thinking up everything individually, we go on a joint hunt for value."
Chief Information Officer (CIO) Ilja Heitlager and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Roeland Kuipers
Making technologies tangible
All these activities – and the mindset that goes with them – are being developed in the new Schuberg Philis Lab 271. This is a setting in which there is less risk aversion than there has been in the past. The CIO and CTO talk about a combination of competencies, daring, and what they call fearless learning. In the new space to be set up for this purpose at Schuberg Philis's headquarters, new and complex technologies will be made tangible. One example is the miniature factory. Another is a small-scale model of autonomous vehicles and other devices.
Ilja Heitlager: “The idea for each use case is: What can we forget, and what can we learn? And then, based on experiments and the accumulation of experiences, we can make progress. This is fundamentally different from traditional outsourcing, where you have to reassure the customer in advance that everything will turn out all right. Here you can fail in the experimentation phase, and then adapt things to ensure ultimate success.”
Roeland Kuipers: "It's about making steps as small as possible, and then quickly finding out whether they succeed. If they don't, you keep analyzing them and making adjustments until they do. Truth be told, in the trial run we do for clients, we sometimes come up against things that we haven't taken account of in the design phase, such as limits on connectivity, as well as complexity and technological differences between and among production lines. We then take account of all of this, including in our work with partners."
Lab 271 is a combination of a ‘makerspace’ and what is known as ‘the d.school’, which started at Stanford University in the United States, where the popular processes known as design thinking were born. That means taking the right steps and adopting the right mindset to come up with technology-driven solutions for the challenges facing people and businesses. This way of working is based on elements similar to those in Lean Startup: empathy (with the person or organization you are making something for), experimentation, and testing in the market. Any unconscious assumptions will always be validated during the development process.
Roeland Kuipers: "The emphasis is often on the full range of possibilities offered by a new technology: data, robotization, IoT, the cloud, machine learning, and other forms of artificial intelligence. That said, technology is not the issue, and should never be an end in itself. To create value, and not get bogged down in technological complexities, you have to make things small and manageable. It all starts with the question: What do you want to achieve for the business? And then you bring everything together that's needed to make that happen."
Ilja Heitlager:”The beauty of Lab 271 is that the technical possibilities are endless. By doing experiments and combining elements – and possibly even creating a bit of chaos – you can get things going in a creative way. So the process is certainly bottom-up, even though by formulating the right objectives you're also making it top-down. Our knowledge and expertise in large IT infrastructures help get things up and running. In everything that happens, it’s the final result for the customer that matters most."
Business IT Translator
Within Lab 271, Kuipers and Heitlager are working on a new concept that builds on design thinking; they call it the Business IT Translator. The basic idea is that, thanks to its knowledge and experience in large-scale, mission-critical environments, Schuberg Philis is uniquely placed to offer guidance and advice to both management and those running the day-to-day business at its partners, in how to make digital transformation happen. The role of strategic consultant is becoming more and more important here, rather than just that of implementation partner.
Ilja Heitlager: "In practice, the IT components in large organizations are still highly compartmentalized. This hampers the optimization of processes, and gets in the way of business innovation. Starting with the question “What do companies want to achieve with their strategy?" allows us to determine the extent to which things need to change on the IT and technology fronts. We're looking for that sweet spot between planning, strategy, and execution: a combination of strategic thinking and a good feel for technology."
Roeland Kuipers: "Here at Schuberg Philis, we're becoming more and more of a presence in this field. As we said a few minutes ago, we work with executives, business analysts, and IT departments to find new sources of value, either with or without the support of specialized professional partners. We have already achieved results in this area for several clients, and we can now quickly test and keep developing new initiatives at Lab 271, by combining a systematic approach with agility, and bringing technology and business closer and closer together.