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Swedish-founded bearing manufacturer SKF has customers ranging from car and airplane makers to mining and offshore oil businesses.
The company focuses on making its customers’ machines more efficient, according its CIO Johan Tömmervik. “Our bearings can be used in everything that have rotating parts, so we have an enormous range of customers.”
One of the most important things Tömmervik has learned during his seven years as CIO of SKF is how challenging it is to create services for a customer base consisting of both manufacturers and end users, spread out over a huge range of different segments. “It has made me humble to face all the different requests our customers have,” he says.
Tömmervik used to be CIO of Swedish car maker Volvo. He does not want to down play the challenges of that job, but one thing was certainly less complex: “When you only manufacture and sell private cars, it is easier to create an understanding of the customers, even if there are differences between, for example, a family with children and a one-person household. If you have a relatively homogenous customer group, it is easier to create solutions for them.”
Tömmervik meets the challenge of creating solutions for SKF’s customers with the help of the company’s sales team. “They are fantastic, and have a deep knowledge about their markets. They let us know what expectations the customers in the different segments have.”
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For the channeling of customer expectations to work properly, it is paramount that IT is integrated into SKF’s business, says Tömmervik. “It is an ongoing challenge to keep IT close to the business. We have become much better at it during the seven years I have been here, but we have to keep persisting. The closer IT and business get, the more success we will have.”
It is also important to have the right IT competence, says Tömmervik. “And we have that. We have people who can interpret customer expectations into the right solutions.”
Customer solutions with a big IT component are an important part of SKF’s competitive edge, says Tömmervik. “Most of these are services based on sensors monitoring the rotation in the bearings. We use this data to, for example, predict when a wind turbine needs to be serviced, or to make sure that all the wheels on a train work as they should. If there is a problem, our engineers fix it.”
SKF has offered these kind of services since the late 1990s, says Tömmervik. “But it is during the last five to 10 years that the services have gotten really great, thanks to modern technologies. The sensors in the bearings get power from the rotation, so there is no need for batteries or power cables. The data is transmitted wirelessly to a receiver device, which then transmits the data via the internet to our cloud, where we analyse it.”
Tömmervik plans to put an increasing amount of IT’s resources into creating new services for the customers. “I also want to create services that gives our engineers access to all information when they are out in the field,” he says.
The budget will be shifted away from daily operations by moving to standardised cloud services, says Tömmervik. “We are successively replacing our old in-house solutions. Why should we operate things ourselves if someone else can do it for us cheaper and with less complexity? The user interfaces of the cloud services are also much better – they look like the services you are used to using as a private person.”
This shift requires lots of effort, says Tömmervik. “We are also putting in a lot of work on building a new common IT platform. We have acquired numerous companies over the years, and we have loads of different systems.”
Another time-consuming yet important task for IT is to take part in the ongoing automatisation of SKF’s factories, says Tömmervik. “We are trying to build totally automated production lines. To begin with, this requires a system that can catch the customer’s order, maybe directly from the customer’s IT system, without manual involvement.”
For example, if a customer wants 1,000 bearings delivered to its factory at a certain time the following week, the order is automatically analysed in SKF’s system: “Do we have enough capacity to fulfil the order? What materials have to be acquired? And so on.”
The next step is to automatically transport the materials to the production line, says Tömmervik. “Today we have people driving trucks and lifting up the material on the production line, and we are trying to automate this, with the aid of IT systems. We also want to automate the rest of the process: packaging, delivering, invoicing and receiving the payment. And for this we need systems that think for us and make sure everything runs smoothly all the way.”
In a factory with some manual tasks, it is not a catastrophe if the network goes down, says Tömmervik. ”But in a totally automated factory, it is not okay. So we are focusing on creating 100%-reliable 24-hour IT operations. We will accomplish this through the right equipment and competence, either our own or from a third party.”
SKF has around 400 IT employees, and works with a number of outsourcing partners. “We chose to outsource big parts of IT 15 to 16 years ago. But we have realised that we need a number of people with a broad IT competence, who can help us understand how we should apply the technology in the best way possible. IT has become an increasingly important tool since we outsourced. And when it comes to the digital services we offer our customers, we want to have the competence in-house,” Tömmervik says.