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C-Level conversations

Interview with
Saint Gobain

Revolution 4.0

At Saint-Gobain, which designs, manufactures and distributes materials and services for the construction and industrial markets, the Industry 4.0 revolution is just as much about people as it is about digital.

2018. That was the year the revolution started. “There was a lot of hype but also a lot of confusion” recalls Kyle Tansill who, as an automation engineer, was on the frontlines of Saint-Gobain’s Industry 4.0 revolution.

According to Tansill, who today serves as Digital Manufacturing Solutions Architect at Saint-Gobain Life Sciences, the spark that lit the digitalization fire was a spur of acquisitions. “Facing a low level of standardization for our machinery, we turned our focus to automation and connectivity” he says.

It was also a matter of bringing the company from the Paper Age into the Digital Age. “We got to work using Google Maps on our smartphone, but once we are there, we switch the phone for pen and paper” explains Tansill.

However, as Tansill is quick to point out, the solution to this problem wasn’t as easy as replacing the pen and paper with tech and apps. Change is never so simple. “We brought in all these sexy tools and then we realized that while everyone knew we should be doing something with them, nobody actually knew what that something was” he adds.

Regardless of how digital a company becomes, you cannot remove the human factor.

Kyle Tansill,
Digital Manufacturing Solutions Architect, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics

Bridge a disconnect

To bridge this digital disconnect, the company took a couple of steps back. They started with skills, ensuring that its people had basic automation skills. They also upgraded their PLCs and invested in automation infrastructure.

As a result, today Saint-Gobain is in a position where most of its strategic machinery features updated PLCs and some form of connectivity. Most importantly, its sites are staffed with people who understand automation.

“Our teams didn’t know what an industrial network was just a few years back” remarks Tansill. “Since then, they’ve developed the necessary skills, which puts us in a really strong position going forward.”

Digitize Your Head

While going forward does mean increasing automation, it does not mean replacing people. “Regardless of how digital a company becomes, you cannot replace the human factor” says Tansill.

So, how does one preserve that essential people component in a sector notorious for having a high turnover?

Somewhat ironically, the answer is digitalization.

“Turnover means more than just having to train new people, it also means constantly losing your company’s knowledge base” explains Tansill.

To help plug this leak, Saint-Gobain is in the process of digitizing its know- how. One approach being implemented involves utilizing data to establish standardized operating procedures for its machinery. This ensures that the operational steps are embedded within the machine itself, rather than relying on an individual’s memory or personal knowledge.

The company also decided to bring in a ringer. “We employed a top-level senior software engineer who was an incredibly talented Python developer and all-around software genius” says Tansill.

Achieving the goal of performance

While the developer was only with the company for less than two years, his impact remains. “Having this developer allowed our automation developers to learn how to do develop properly and then implement a proper continuous integration lifecycle and support system” adds Tansill.

We’d All Love to See the Plan

Over the course of six years, Saint-Gobain went from Industry 3.0 to Industry 4.0. Yet its journey is far from over. In fact, Tansill doesn’t even like the term Industry 4.0, believing it gives the false perception that one comes in, does digital, and then is done – which clearly is not the case.

“Digital shouldn’t be seen as the end but the means to achieving the goal of improved performance” says Tansill. “Whatever domain you’re working in, you need to accept that even though your expertise might be digital, you are just as responsible as everyone else for the company’s performance.”

Yet while Saint-Gobain’s digital transformation may be an ongoing work- in-progress, they do have the benefit of hindsight – meaning they can offer some sage advice for those just starting off on their journey.

I don't even like the term Industry 4.0, believing it gives the false perception that one comes in, does digital, and then is done

Having a clear plan is key

“Do not start this journey without a clear plan of where the business is going” warns Tansill.

As Tansill explains, without a plan, you risk deploying technology for technology’s sake. “But with a well thought out roadmap, you can match technology to objective, ensuring that every investment gets results, improves performance and, ultimately, advances the company towards where it wants to be” he concludes.