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Service in times of bits and bytes

by EzeeProjects01

Whoever talks to the service experts at Syntegon Technology, formerly Bosch Packaging Technology, today communicates digitally and globally. The shift from analog to bits and bytes has not only changed communication between service employees and customers. In the course of digitization, the company has modernized and expanded its entire service portfolio – and has reinvented itself to a certain extent. Timo Reu, Senior Sales Manager at Syntegon Technology, explains what this means for the service portfolio, customers and employees.

Mr. Reu, special mechanical engineering is a kind of microcosmos, with complex systems and a highly specialized customer base. Do mass trends such as digitization and globalization affect this area at all?

Timo Reu: 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. Over the past 20 years, many of them have evolved into multinational organizations with numerous locations around the world. They are all operating in an extremely regulated market with high cost pressure. Especially in the pharmaceutical industry, where expiring patents and ambitious competitors are constantly exerting a downward pressure on prices, manufacturers must ensure smooth production. 

But costs also play 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 to 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, delivery reliability and worldwide availability in the event of a breakdown. We recognized these signs early on and have expanded our service accordingly over the last two decades…

...from a local to a global partner?

Correct. In the mid-1990s, we offered 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 internationalization of our customers and the growing cost pressure, so that today service is 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.

Let’s talk about products. What does the service offer now that did not exist in the mid-90s, and where does digitization come into play?

If you compare our services yesterday and today, you will hardly recognize them. Data, its analysis and the associated optimization potential for manufacturing processes were still in their infancy, if 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.

A kind of cooperative service?

That describes it pretty well. We have the technical knowledge; our customers have the on-site experience – the 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 the wish for more process transparency, and even sent us data for evaluation and troubleshooting. That was an important impulse to start working in this direction. We tailor our digital solutions in both the pharmaceutical and food sectors exactly to the needs of our customers and jointly develop the applications.

What about spare parts, maintenance and training?

We also work closely with pharmaceutical and food manufacturers when it comes to spare parts. For example, we advise on Stock Optimization by analyzing customer orders to know which parts are needed. We can inform our customers about the components we have in stock permanently 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.

Where will digitization lead us?

We are currently observing two trends that will keep us and our customers busy for years to come: predictive maintenance and the major topic Artificial Intelligence (AI). As mentioned at the beginning, pharmaceutical and food manufacturers are struggling with constantly high cost pressure. Machine downtimes should therefore be as short as possible and easy to plan. Thanks to predictive maintenance, it is easy to determine when which part needs to be serviced. Downtimes can be planned in advance; nasty surprises are minimized.

How do you intend to achieve that?

This is exactly where we apply AI. Under the keyword “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”: the machines are equipped with additional sensors to detect parameters such as temperature or vibrations. This gives customers more control over their systems 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.

Where is the human being amid all this data and Artificial Intelligence?

Humans are still the focus of attention, 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 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.

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