Conan the Barbarian contemplated one Riddle of Steel: No matter how well crafted a sword, it is still only as powerful as the man who wields it.
Today, the steel industry faces another riddle. It has long sought to create lighter, stronger, and more durable metals. Which is all great. But over time, less of the product has been needed. So, a law of diminishing returns comes into play.
The problem — for steel and other heavy industries — is that they are using an old playbook. They are investing in new machines and processes in an effort to improve their end product. That’s a laudable goal. But it’s not enough. Especially at a time when volatile resource prices, shortages of skilled labor, and heightened supply chain and regulatory risks are accentuating an already volatile market.
After all, it’s no secret that American manufacturing has had its share of struggles in recent years. Just look at the manufacturing index, which by the end of 2015 had fallen to its lowest point since 2009.
Companies can continue investing in the product — better steel, for example, which will lead to fewer sales in the long run. But there is another option: investing in digitization.
The answer — for steel and other industries — is digitization. In a recent survey, 80 percent of U.S. manufacturing executives called digitized operations “a critical driver of every organization’s manufacturing competitiveness.” In its 2015 Industry 4.0 study, McKinsey predicts that digital innovation can enable a 26 percent improvement in productivity over the next 10 years.
Digitization provides three key benefits: industrial machines operate with more uptime; they provide more user feedback to increase efficiency and productivity; and they improve safety.
All of these create higher margins. But here’s another riddle of steel: many companies don’t have enough digital capabilities.
Traditionally, that meant they either had to build those capabilities themselves, buy them, or partner. But building digital capabilities is expensive and time consuming. And purchasing them or partnering is often slowed by cultural gaps and miscommunications that don’t lead to real-world solutions.
To truly capture digital value, technical solutions can’t be just bolted on after the fact. They need to be integrated into existing processes, and reflect the real-world concerns and expertise of those increasingly challenged manufacturers.
Collaborative disruption is the way to make a digitization partnership truly impactful.
In this model, digital expertise meets deep industry experience. And the partners co-create real-world solutions at every step of the innovation journey. It brings together players from multiple industries and areas of expertise. It allows companies and their partners to innovate across a shared ecosystem and align solutions to real-world problems. And to do so faster, with deeper impact, and greater sustainability.
Heavy manufacturing involves highly complex processes and depends on deep expertise, hard-won over many decades. To transform those processes with digital solutions, that expertise and industry knowledge must be integrated end to end. That is the only way to create analytics solutions that fit seamlessly into real-world work conditions.
This is the approach that we have perfected at Uptake. By combining our cutting-edge data expertise (not to mention security, design, customer experience, etc.) with the deep real-world experience of our customers, we create solutions that work. A prototype is not thrown into the real world to sink or swim. It is designed from the start to meet the true pain points of our customers, with their input at every step of the journey.
Traditional partnerships lack the deep meeting of minds required to create meaningful, competitive solutions that will impact the marketplace.
Collaborative disruption, on the other hand, is a close, end-to-end partnership that transforms companies and entire industries. So they can drive their own disruption.
I believe that collaborative disruption goes far beyond making organizations more efficient, sustainable, and profitable. Industrial companies will break the cycle of diminishing returns and begin to grow again. And this will create a multiplier effect across other industries through digital advances.
Beyond that, I see it as a way forward to solving some of the most vexing problems our world faces today. Heavy industry, energy, transportation, agriculture, all of these industries are critical to our future on the planet. The more we leverage data and analytics, with solutions that are seamlessly integrated into everyday workflows, the more sustainable, efficient, and clean our world will be.
Even older industries like steel can be cutting-edge and digital. In fact, they must be. But that means taking data and analytics to the next level.
The key is finding an agile, innovation partner that brings that digital expertise to the table — but co-creates solutions with the deep, real-world knowledge that only many decades of industry experience can provide. In the end, the synergy between data expertise and industry expertise will drive great impact.
Older industries already have a wealth of untapped data. But as Conan the Barbarian (almost) said: It’s not the data, it’s what you do with it and how you wield it that will change the world.
Uptake — and collaborative disruption — can make that happen.
Joseph Bradley is the President of Business Ventures at Uptake.