Insights from the field
We’ve spent the last four months at Opeo Studio developing a third tech venture in the manufacturing sector (still in stealth but not for long). Our research and ideation with manufacturing companies in the studio’s network, had highlighted a string of problems pertaining to performance management on factory floors. We hypothesized that tech could both solve these problems and unlock additional gains in workers productivity and experience.
Teaming up with Octave Lapeyronie, Renan Devillieres, Andréas Blondeau, @Leopold Lambert advised by Michael Valentin and charles bouygues, we traveled throughout France to observe workers in manufacturing companies and deploy proof-of-concepts (POCs) to take on the problems we aimed at solving. We refined our POCs based on user feedback, and used inputs from executives and data from industry experts, to size the addressable market and sound existing competitors. We could successfully convert some of the manufacturing companies we collaborated with into paying customers, happy to pay for our baby-MVP and signing-up to use upcoming and more mature versions of our solution.
In the course of this process, we’ve learned the following key lessons that we are happy to share with the increasing number of startups active in the industry 4.0 space.
Insight #1: Network matters
It is generally accepted that startups need early user feedback to avoid wasting resources developing a product no one needs (lean startup canon). Startups therefore need a channel to access test users. However, access is particularly difficult in the manufacturing sector. Solutions need to be tested on premise, on the manufacturing floor. Hence, manufacturing plants need to open their doors and forsake resources that would have otherwise been dedicated to production, in order to accommodate the requirements of a POC.
It is therefore crucial for startups to partner with people who have access to manufacturing companies, and whom these companies trust. In our case Opeo Conseil, the consulting firm incubating us, leveraged it’s network to introduce us to manufacturing companies. Their reputation in the industry opened up doors for us and made manufacturing executives pick up our calls and answer our emails. We realized that we would have otherwise needed much more time to put a prototype in the hands of a real user in a factory.
Insight #2: First clients are ambitious executives
Talking to various manufacturing professionals, we’ve identified a psychographic pattern in the executives who opened their doors to us. Our finding is that the ideal executive client has two main traits: ambition and vision. On the ambition side, those who said yes were highly ambitious execs with an agenda to achieve stellar results for their company. They were able to imagine and articulate the potential competitive advantages that technology could create — visionaries of their industry segment. These execs want to harness the potential of new technology before their competitors; they are thus much less risk averse than their peers.
On a side but interesting note, some execs also said no to us, and with sensible justifications. Following is a primer of the reasons that we mostly heard:
- Organisation: “we need to fix our processes first before putting new tools in place”
- Culture: “we don’t even have wifi”
- Security: “our data is too sensitive”
- Pragmatism: “your thing won’t make a dent on my bottom-line in the short run”
- Risk aversion: “you do not have any references in the industry”
Insight #3: Geeks will be your ally
We’ve also identified a pattern in those who welcomed the product with enthusiasm and drove adoption internally by coaching and evangelizing their colleagues — power users. They were usually adepts of consumer tech products, familiar with and sensitive to great user experience, and loosing patience with the clunky UX of industrial enterprise software. We’ve found them at every level in the hierarchy: plant managers, support functions or operators. We’ve also learned that power users are not necessarily digital natives as one could expect, they come in all age ranges.
Power users used our product heavily, to the extent that they detected most bugs and sometimes crashed our app by experimenting to the extreme. Their heavy usage and tech skills led to critical feedback, which guided our product iterations. They also gave us brilliant ideas for features we would have probably not thought of.
Insight #4: Agility is a necessity
Agility was critical to us in two regards. First, it boosted credibility with respect to clients. Manufacturing companies are used to high costs and long implementation time when it comes to deploying technology. Our clients were sincerely impressed by our ability to deliver a prototype that does the job within weeks. By being agile, we were able to continuously demonstrate that we knew how to implement their feature requests and bug fixes, building up trust along the way. Second, from an operational perspective, agility helped us optimize the use of our limited capacity in a small team by prioritizing the most valuable tasks among the deluge of requests from our clients. We’ve found agile to be an essential strategy for survival and early account management.
Insight #5: Manufacturing workers are the “Blue Ocean”
As the former CEO of a metallurgy company rightly told us in a discussion, industry didn’t wait for the buzz around industry 4.0 to invest in technology. Indeed, computing and information technology have a long track record in manufacturing. Starting in the 60’s already there’s been waves of great technologies, ranging from machines and industrial sensors networked through PLCs to database software, control applications (SCADA and MES), business processes software (ERPs), and obviously automation. This legacy stack has brought about great gains in productivity. However, workers have been widely ignored by successive waves of technology, and that’s the peculiarity of the manufacturing vertical when it comes to innovation.
There is an ever growing incongruity between the legacy tools that manufacturing workers use and the possibilities that the recent wave of tech already enable in other sectors. This incongruity is all the more so striking, because manufacturing workers operate in the most challenging conditions. To name a few low hanging fruits that tech could easily pick in the manufacturing environment: coordination of complex interdependent tasks, communication among very mobile teams, process optimization, up-skilling, labor penibility, health and safety etc.. We’ve seen that workers pain is real, and they are receptive to innovations that could reinvent the way they work.
We believe the core of the opportunity in industry 4.0 lies in improving workers productivity and experience with digital solutions to the aforementioned pains. Integrating worker-centric digital solutions to the legacy stack will unlock new streams of ubiquitous and real-time information, which could enable a quantum leap in manufacturing productivity. Factories will become transparent to workers, and uncertainty will decrease across supply chains (think the end of the bullwhip effect, or perfect just-in-time). This is a vision that we’ve coined “The Glass Factory”. We are utterly impatient to get there.