The Hidden Side of Industry 4.0 technologies

por Alvara • mayo 07, 2021 in Events, Growth and Development Programme at P&G, Startups

It is lean, agile, and often goes unseen. It’s the product manager and her/his team.

Industry 4.0 on the surface

When you think of Industry 4.0 technologies, you might think of a smart factory: sleek robotic arms carefully reaching out to manipulate products, their movements tailored to a continuous stream of incoming data, and in turn uploading data to the Cloud for further optimisation. There’s hardly a human in sight.

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But if you look closer, the human touch is there.

In fact, it is the continuous innovation and interactions between people that are reflected in the interconnectedness of Industry 4.0 technologies.

Product Development and Innovation in Industry 4.0: Lean and Agile

By now, if you’re serious about innovation, you’ll be familiar with the concept of Lean business models (popularised by Eric Ries),* and the notion of being Agile.

In short, the Lean business model is that of rapidly discovering, developing, prototyping, and testing your product (known as your minimum viable product, MVP). The idea is to get your product exposed to customers as soon as possible, so that you can get feedback as soon as possible.

The opposite of Lean is spending years creating and perfecting a product, only to bring it to market and to realise that no one wanted the product in the first place.

While Lean is more of an approach, Agile covers the operational or management side. It’s a methodology to guide you through the day-to-day actions to take to become and stay Lean. There are many versions or methodologies of Agile, but most versions are based on the Agile Manifesto:

(1) Prioritize individuals and interactions (as opposed to relying too much on processes and tools), (2) comprehensive documentation can often slow product development down, so focus more on obtaining working software, (3) aim to collaborate with your customers as opposed to constantly negotiating over contracts, and (4) remain open to change, as opposed to obstinately sticking to a plan.

The problem is, however, that many companies think that they are Lean and Agile, but are - in fact - still stuck in the traditional waterfall process of doing things. Such are the findings of Marty Cagan, founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group and author of the defining book on innovative product design.** That is to say, companies are still following a long-term and sequential step-by-step process where ideas are followed by drawing up business cases, followed by drawing up a roadmap, followed by drawing up product requirements, designing, building, testing the product, and only then is the product deployed.

Companies who strive to be innovative, should instead be continuously discovering and deploying new products in parallel.

This is what makes innovation so demanding: you constantly need to have many balls/projects up in the air. That being said, you also need to drop products as soon as you discover they are not viable.

How to stay Lean and Agile in the 4.0 Industry

To be a forerunner in the Industry 4.0 field, you thus have to apply these principles, but it is also true that by its very nature, Industry 4.0 makes a Lean and Agile approach easier.

Product managers, engineers and designers have more data than ever at their disposal: whether this is data gathered from factory floors, or data gathered from the way consumers interact with products.

Additionally, Industry 4.0 technologies make it possible for members of product/innovation teams to communicate and collaborate more closely. Cagan emphasis that if teams want to be innovative, they need to work closely together, every day. It is also important that innovation or product teams consist of people who are passionate and remain motivated about the products they are working on (pp. 34-36). For this to happen, teams must stay connected and check in with each other regularly.

And finally, Industry 4.0 technologies allow us to reach customers faster and easier than ever before. With faster prototyping and manufacturing facilities at our disposal, and technologies that connect business directly with their customers, testing MVPs quickly, is much easier.

It is no coincidence that this trifecta was represented at the Workero by Procter and Gamble’s third Tech Pitch on the 6th of May 2021. Three companies, namely Hupico, Conversation Starter, and BUFFL, each presented their Industry 4.0 products/services to the P&G expert community.

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Hupico, a company specializing in industrial automation, industrial robots, parts feeding, intralogistics, vision and grippers, and augmented reality, is the typical picture that one has in mind when one thinks of Industry 4.0 technology. For example, the Autonomous Mobile Robot that avoids standstills in material flow by navigating around the factory floor independently (without physical guiding magnets), and safely avoids obstacles without stopping. Or, as Hupico's Managing Director, Johan Paul, showed us: the Epson Moverio smart glasses that can be used to share the user’s point of view (POV), record information, and help you get a second pair of eyes on a problem (thus making everything from communication, maintenance, to employee training and consumer testing, instant). With their emphasis on connectivity - both between persons and between units in the manufacturing process, Hupico is obviously doing something right when it comes to innovation in Industry 4.0 technologies.

Next, a company that one wouldn’t typically associate with Industry 4.0, pitched their innovative solution to online network events. Conversation Starter’s aim is to make “more meaningful connections happen by organizing online networking events.” If there’s one thing Cagan is adamant about, it is that companies bring together people who are missionaries - that is people who are truly passionate about the products they work on - as opposed to people who are mercenaries (people who are only hired to do a once-off job). Conversation Starter allows businesses to “understand what participants are talking about and learn about their needs”, in the process building stronger communities. As Dries Hendrickx, Conversation Starter's COO explains: Research & Development teams can benefit from international networking, Human Resource Managers can recruit and share knowledge internationally, and Marketing and Sales Departments can host conferences and create lead generation events, all on Conversation Starter’s platform.

The last company to present, namely BUFFL, has made agility their business. As the first agile & DIY-friendly market research firm, BUFFL helps companies get quick feedback on their products. Being Lean means constantly seeking your customers or potential customers’ feedback. Seppe Frooninckx, Senior Innovation Manager at BUFFL, showed us how BUFFL gets you customer feedback, and fast (sometimes as soon as in a few hours). The team at BUFFL knows just how important it is to prevent product-market mismatches, and therefore propose getting continuous and quick customer feedback at various checkpoints during product development (perfectly in line with the Lean and Agile philosophies). BUFFL thus allows you to co-create with your customers, and can even help you to involve your customers when your product finally launches.

*Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses, (Great Britain: Penguin Business, 2011).

** Marty Cagan, Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, 2nd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018), pp. 16-17