Timo Reu, Senior Sales Manager at Syntegon Technology, tells Dr Kevin Robinson what this means for the service portfolio, customers and employees.
KSR: Mr Reu, special mechanical engineering is a kind of microcosm, with complex systems and a highly specialised customer base. Do mass trends such as digitisation and globalisation affect this area at all?
TR: Absolutely. As a specialist supplier with the appropriate service, we are experiencing these developments at first hand with our customers in the pharmaceutical and food industries. During the past 20 years, many of them have evolved into multinational organisations with numerous locations around the world.
They are all operating in an extremely regulated market with high cost pressures. Especially in the pharmaceutical industry, wherein expiring patents and ambitious competitors are constantly exerting a downward pressure on prices, manufacturers must ensure smooth production.
At the same time, cost also plays a crucial role in the food sector. Exporters to the so-called emerging markets, for example, tend to offer their products at lower prices compared with the European market. However, they must produce more to cover equipment costs.
Every minute of downtime costs hard cash. For this reason and many others, customers expect their service partners to provide fast response times, top quality, reliable delivery and worldwide availability in the event of a breakdown. We recognised these signs early on and have expanded our service accordingly during the last two decades.
Timo Reu, Senior Sales Manager at Syntegon Technology
KSR: Would you say you’ve evolved from a local to a global partner?
TR: Correct. In the mid-1990s, we offered a mainly reactive service on demand. If a customer called with a problem, our technicians were, of course, immediately on the spot. At that time, we received orders from pharmaceutical customers centrally in Crailsheim, Germany, and processed them from there.
This changed with the increasing internationalisation of our customers and the growing cost pressure. As such, service is now integrated as an independent product group into the pharma and food business units with numerous local service hubs. This made us more international, more flexible, more powerful and much closer to our customers. Different time zones and language barriers are no longer an issue.
KSR: Let’s talk about products. What does the service offer now that did not exist in the mid-90s, and where does digitisation come into play?
TR: If you compare our services yesterday and today, you’d hardly recognise them. Data, its analysis and the associated optimisation potential for manufacturing processes were all still in their infancy, if they existed at all, 25 years ago. Today they are an indispensable part of production and service.
Accordingly, we design our solutions digitally to support our customers in all kinds of business-critical processes — from monitoring their production data and plant status to preventive maintenance. However, we are not developing this portfolio out of thin air or because such solutions are currently in vogue. We are in close contact with our customers and listen very carefully to their requirements.
KSR: So, it’s a kind of co-operative service?
TR: That describes it pretty well. We have the technical knowledge and our customers have the on-site experience; that combined expertise is what makes service 4.0 successful. Let me illustrate this with an example: we have been offering the Pharma i 4.0 Starter Edition for a few years now.
With this solution, plant operators receive important real-time data on overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), condition monitoring and important events such as alarms or availability losses. Before this was possible, customers had repeatedly expressed a desire for more process transparency … and even sent us data for evaluation and troubleshooting.
That was an important stimulus to start working in this direction. We tailor our digital solutions in both the pharmaceutical and food sectors to meet the needs of our customers and jointly develop the applications.
Operators can practice part changeovers with the VR training application from Syntegon Technology
KSR: What about spare parts, maintenance and training?
TR: We also work closely with pharmaceutical and food manufacturers when it comes to spare parts. For example, we advise on stock optimization by analysing customer orders to know which parts are needed. We can inform our customers about the components we permanently have in stock and those they should rather stock themselves.
The orders can be viewed and managed via our e-portal, a digital platform for spare parts. Customers can search for parts and they can also check prices and delivery times. Ideally, the e-portal is used in combination with our electronic maintenance tool.
Another innovation from the Industry 4.0 service portfolio is a virtual reality (VR) application for training courses. Using special VR glasses, operators can, for example, practice part changeovers on a horizontal flow wrapper for cookies and crackers — and expand their machine knowledge without great effort. VR trainings can now be completed independently and virtually … without being tied to fixed times or locations.
KSR: Where will digitisation lead us?
TR: We are currently observing two trends that will keep us and our customers busy for years to come: predictive maintenance and artificial intelligence (AI). As mentioned at the beginning, pharmaceutical and food manufacturers are struggling with constantly high cost pressures.
Machine downtimes should therefore be as short as possible and easy to plan. Thanks to predictive maintenance, it’s easy to determine when which part needs to be serviced. Downtimes can be planned in advance, which means that nasty surprises are minimised.
KSR: How do you intend to achieve that?
TR: This is exactly where we apply AI as machine learning. We are currently developing self-learning algorithms in several projects that can predict, for example, when maintenance on an assembly is due. We are also working on another service product, so-called “smart machines,” which are equipped with additional sensors to detect parameters such as temperature or vibrations.
This gives customers more system control and enables them to take corrective action. It also enables them to make optimum use of the lifespan of components, thus saving resources in production.
KSR: Where is the human being amid all this data and AI?
TR: Humans are still our main focus, and this will not change. Special mechanical engineering needs communication from person to person. Customers want a partner who understands them and knows their specific requirements. The younger generation, who are now working in the pharmaceutical and food industries, communicate digitally.
For us, too, communication via various channels is becoming increasingly important to be able to interact with these people — especially through social media. So, algorithms will by no means replace service staff. From my point of view, this is not going to happen at all.
Needs can only be understood and creative solutions can only be developed personally. An excellent customer relationship is the be-all and end-all of service.