How real-time global data helps us build the future

Frank Ernst
Oct 23, 2019 · 6 min read

Digital innovation at the intersection of business requirements, user centricity and technology

LH MAQER: Laying the groundwork to address new global challenges

Humanity is on the brink of a new, mostly overlooked global challenge. 60 percent of the houses, schools, roads, and hospitals we need in 2050 do not exist to date. The fast growth of megacities with millions of inhabitants is a symbol of the progressing urbanization worldwide. In the next 25 years, two billion people will move to cities. Consequently, metropolises such as Dhaka will double their size to 27 million inhabitants by 2035. An emerging challenge, for which we still have to find lasting solutions. The global leading building materials company LafargeHolcim Ltd, has set out to reach this goal: in order to develop the infrastructure of the future in an efficient and resource-friendly way, we aim to completely break new ground and to fully exploit the opportunities of the heavy industry. How? By accelerating innovation through open exchange and digitization in a traditionally conservative industry, through our collaboration and innovation platform LH MAQER.

But how is that supposed to work? And where to start? In order to tackle this challenge proactively, digital solutions are our cornerstone. Solutions that we are driving forward at LH MAQER. The initial focus is on laying the groundwork: data-based decision making and production optimization with the help of large data pools that we aggregate, consolidate and evaluate in real time in our factories worldwide. Needless to say, such a step comes with major challenges. After all, we are talking about transformation in the heavy industry. However, we have a lot of different data in different systems due to the historic growth of our portfolio and the decentral nature of the industry. Thanks to successful standardization and digitization, however, many of the core processes in our 270 cement factories are now running in a similar way. This allows us to test and compare existing and new approaches worldwide. What works well in one factory has great potential to be applicable in other factories as well. Close to real-time data is a great accelerator for these process innovations.

Data projects are usually initiated top-down. In industry, this often leads to process and production errors. The reason for this is simple: If those who are expected to interact with new software of tools do not fully appreciate the idea behind the innovation, they have a hard time adapting and implementing it. As the success of our transformation hinges to a large extent on the willingness of our factory employees worldwide to actively ensure data quality in our systems and to make use of that data to optimize processes in their factory, we have chosen a different approach. Our new main system for operational decision making, the Performance & Collaboration Tool (PACT), was developed bottom-up — involving the users from the beginning — in the last two years. Today, it connects factories of the group all over the world, consolidating technical and business data — almost in real time. In close collaboration with the users, we worked on structuring and aggregating the data in such a way that those who deal with it can make decisions for their production as directly as possible.

Resolving a core business need — taking data based decisions in factories

Take a core need in our production, for example. In the daily meeting mentioned above, the production manager of the cement factory plans the production with his team: where have problems occurred? Which activities need to be planned? They consider health and safety issues, as well as information on emissions, production performance, maintenance and inventories.

The challenge: Up to now, data from different monitoring systems has been collected manually. This made collaboration and exchange very difficult and led to a bias towards experience-driven decisions rather than concise data analysis. Another hurdle: each plant used different systems, and action management tools making direct comparisons of factories impossible.

Today, PACT supports the management and teams to take better and more forward-thinking decisions, consistently achieve targets and spend less time in meetings and data crunching. This allows our teams to focus more on optimizing the processes and adapting in a flexible way to requirements from the markets. It supports in three ways:

  1. It combines data from different systems and presents them in output applications. An automatic pre-analysis allows for targeted discussions of unusual events. Real-time data enables a closer monitoring of target achievements.
  2. It provides a tool for defining, tracking and managing actions. All events are displayed directly and automatically transferred into personal calendars. Higher transparency of data and activities allows for better and safer collaboration of operational teams.
  3. It also provides insights on how the tool is used: What actions do findings from data series translate into? What are the results? Or is the tool only used for the consumption of data? These insights help the local teams to steer their transformation processes.

Practicing user centricity — future users design their tools themselves

One thing is key to success: the mindset driving innovation also drives empowerment. Our employees in the factories should determine for themselves how they work with the tool, which data they access and which actions they derive from it.

For this reason, we initially conducted interviews with users on all continents to identify where PACT can and must facilitate, support or take over work processes. During this user research it became clear that we would be faster in the implementation if we make individual parts of the application available before completing the big picture. We quickly realized that digitization and the accompanying change processes work better for us if we develop the much quoted “Minimal Viable Products” in agile processes and leverage fast prototyping. We therefore initially focused on the smallest component that provided added value to the users. After its launch, we continued the development based on continuous user feedback.

To make it more tangible: just like the Lego-principle, we do not construct an entire house at once, but instead start with a kitchen that can immediately be used as such. In the course of time, further rooms are added, until finally the building is completed. During the process, several architects contributed their share to the overall work — and were at the same time inspired by the pieces already built. To come back to PACT, this means our manufacturing community developed a rough direction and the realization happens then step-by-step.

Building the right Technology –making applications future-proof

However, this is only the beginning. The next step is to expand the PACT applications further, enabling users worldwide by providing various dashboards, automated analyses, action management and the insights on tool usage. This also includes predictive control technologies to run our factories such as predictive maintenance. These are significant steps in an industry where spare parts have to be ordered and shipped on demand and production halts of a single day can amount to millions in lost revenue. In order to orchestrate all this, we now need a common platform — a platform we have called “Connected Factory”.

The Connected Factory is composed of data from our existing systems, some of which are already in the cloud. In some cases, however, they can be also found locally in the factories, distributed in our worldwide locations, or in regional units. The major challenge lies in aggregating and merging all this data. Exactly that is the goal and vision of the Connected Factory as our groundwork for building the future of manufacturing.

LH MAQER accelerates the technological transformation of LafargeHolcim through open innovation and digitization to help address the big urbanization and infrastructure challenges ahead of us as humanity. To make this transformation sustainable, we believe it is key to solve economic requirements by involving users from the beginning and by then selecting the appropriate technology.


More details on urbanization can be found in the 2018 revision of the United Nations Report “World Urbanization Prospects”

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Technological transformation through open innovation…