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Modern methodology gives Sweden’s 100-year-old SKF a digital push

Long-established engineering company takes a leaf out of the startup guide to software development

Swedish engineering company SKF has taken the unusual step – for a company with its DNA – of trying out design thinking for its software development, and has reported good results.

Design thinking, an iterative approach to problem-solving that empathises with the user from the start, is traditionally popular among startups. It is unusual for a traditional manufacturer like SKF to adopt it.

But the Swedish bearing and seal manufacturer had a good experience with the method. Using design thinking to develop its software has given the company a much-needed shove towards an improved digitisation process.

Mikael Björk, who is in charge of SAP design at SKF, said the successful project may lead to the company continuing to use design thinking in the future.

Who would have thought that SKF, which was founded over 100 years ago, would make use of a method newly developed at Stanford University in the US? 

“We are all new to this at SKF – we only started using design thinking about a year ago,” said Björk. “There are no other big companies that have used it before us that we know of. This meant there were virtually no experiences to learn from.”

SKF has had to learn as it goes, and still regards its knowledge as limited. Its introduction to design thinking came at a time when the company was planning to replace its legacy IT system.

Björk, who spoke to Computer Weekly at his office in Gothenburg, said SKF had a lot of development work ahead because of its outdated computer system.

While most other established engineering companies have upgraded to modern enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, mostly from major suppliers such as SAP and Microsoft, SKF stuck with a system it had developed in-house years ago, and waited.

But now there is a clear need to change. Technological developments in the business community mean SKF must upgrade and join the digital bandwagon – and quickly. It recently took a formal decision to make extensive investments in new IT. 

Read more about design thinking

After looking at different approaches, SKF opted to introduce design thinking for software development. It embarked on two design thinking projects (referred to as cycles), one of which has already resulted in a finished product that will be used on the shop floor. This product will be launched early this year. 

The second cycle also resulted in a software system, but SKF has yet to decide whether to invest in it further. 

“The biggest advantage of design thinking until now is that people here have shared so much more information and thoughts with us,” said Björk. “The users are more involved than they would have been if we had run the project in a more traditional way.”

The software SKF is developing using design thinking is proving more effective than previous systems. Björk described how a new system to support engineers was rolled out recently and has proved a greater success than a similar project last year which produced software that was almost a burden to users.

“This time the product is a helpful tool, designed with users in mind,” he said. “It is also intuitive, so there will be no need to spend time and money on a lot of education.”

Design thinking is so useful because the organisation can bring people with different skills to meetings and incorporate more of their knowledge into the finished product, said Björk. The result is a more developed tool that takes less time to develop.

Björk recommended the method to other companies and said SKF is likely to add design thinking to the list of design methods it uses regularly. However, it is important to know when to use it and when not to, he said.

Complex design challenges

“Design thinking is useful when you need to involve more than one department and or more than one process,” he said. “Use it for your more complex design challenges.”

Björk is in charge of all SAP-related design teams at SKF. He has experience with ERP technology and introduced new business systems at six or seven other companies before joining SKF, in a career spanning 20 years. 

Design thinking is almost like taking part in a game, said Björk. But it does not fit into the thinking of every company, so will probably not be used everywhere. The “games” help the workers understand it, and Björk and his team brought in an illustrator to made illustrations of the results. Visualisation was an important part of the process, he said.

“You quickly develop a target image that you can agree on,” said Björk. “Then you decide what issues to address. Design thinking can be used for quite a few different and complex problems.”

Björk and his colleagues hope to continue learning about design thinking. “We look at this method as one very suitable for innovation,” he said. “Someone gets an idea about something that can be improved and then you use the design thinking method until you get a finished prototype.”

SKF is “only at the beginning of this journey”, said Björk – a journey that started in March last year. 

Although the advantages seem huge, SKF has not yet committed itself to design thinking, said Björk. “We cannot say yet whether we will continue to use it in the future, but we include it as one of the tools in our toolbox.”

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