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How data analytics, artificial intelligence, and the right mindset for change make Industry 4.0 a reality

The smart factories at Henkel Adhesive Technologies

Future Jul 11, 2023

The production of modern adhesives is a complex matter. All processes need to be tightly synchronized. With 124 highly specialized production facilities, Henkel is one of the world’s leading manufacturers in this field. Dr. Nick Miesen, Head of Digital Operations at Adhesive Technologies, tells us about the advantages of transforming existing production facilities into smart factories and explains why people are so important to driving the digitalization process within a factory.

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We are speaking to Nick via video call from his home in Singapore. He and his family have been living there since October 2022, having previously been based in the Netherlands: “My sons are very happy here and that’s what matters to me,” he says. Nick has been with Henkel since the beginning of 2020 and joined the company to lead a major project: the digitalization of the 124 adhesives production facilities worldwide. In the Asian metropolitan city that he relocated to for its digital maturity, Nick assembled a team around him to support him in this huge task.

“We are transferring the processes that already exist in the physical world to the digital world. We want to gain insights into our machines, processes, and products, which will help us make informed decisions. This will thus allow us to improve production in the long term, because all our processes will be based on many unbiased data sets.” What Nick is describing here is the transition of traditional production to Industry 4.0, and Henkel is working at full speed to move other production units into the digital era as well. But every digitalization process comes with its own challenges. In some areas, such as laundry detergent production, the primary challenge concerns the size of the production facilities: enormous production halls containing a large number of machines. In the adhesives sector, the main challenge lies in the number of production sites and the high variation of chemical technologies and products.

Portrait photo of Dr. Nick Miesen, Head of Digital Operations at Adhesive Technologies

We want to gain insights into our machines, processes, and products, which will help us make informed decisions.

Successful digitalization begins with definition and standardization

The reason for this is that nearly every one of the 124 production facilities has its own machines, which differ in terms of age and manufacturer. Replacing them all would be a highly complex task: Different machines, different processes and workflows therefore make a standardized approach the basis for any next step.

Therefore, one of the first things that needs to be done for each production site is to accurately define which machines belong to which production line. This includes determining the sequence of mixing and where the filling happens. In order to map the physical in the digital world, Nick and his team must accurately define these things for each and every production facility. Hence, defining processes and standardizing production lines is the biggest, but also the most important challenge in their day-to-day work.

Once this has been done, unbiased data can be gathered on all the production facilities around the world. This includes detailed insights into the type of production and the process; information on exactly what happens, when, where and in which environment; insights into the entire process, from raw material to finished product; and, of course, information on quality control at the end of the process. Centralizing data collection makes production predictable: What will happen if there is a change in material? If you vary the temperature? Or shorten certain processes? Bjoern Jackisch, Corporate Vice President Global Digital Operations and responsible for Operations & Supply APAC region at Adhesive Technologies, emphasizes the project’s ambition: “Data as objective source of truth is the key driver and basis for the transformation. By connecting data from all part of the process, such as raw material data, process and machine data, and product performance data, we can optimize decision-making in real-time.”

All this data will in turn help to create more value for our different stakeholders. “We can use all of this information, for example, to integrate feedback from our customers into the production process. For this purpose, we have created a large, central tool: a platform that allows us to centralize feedback from customers all over the world. And because it is digitalized, we can easily incorporate this feedback into our production process,” explains Nick.

The ultimate goal: prescriptive operations

For Nick and his team, this ability to directly incorporate customer feedback is part of a long-term goal that they want to achieve by introducing a digital backbone. This goal is to create both a transparent production process and a transparent value chain from the suppliers through to the customers – who can then introduce their feedback and experience back into the production process. True process optimization becomes possible only when a manufacturing operation succeeds in making its entire value chain transparent. This includes material usage, quality, type of production, and distribution. This form of open production not only creates an economic advantage; it also makes it possible to optimize operations in the interest of ecologically and socially sustainable process design.

Digitalization is what makes these optimizations possible in the first place. The close-meshed and accurate data received makes the outcome of production predictable. And being able to accurately predict certain processes means being able to continuously optimize them – by developing increasingly better modules, and by using sophisticated AI tools for further improvement. The deployment of such complex applications is the highpoint of the Singapore team’s work. It is, after all, the result of a long chain of definition, standardization and conversion tasks, of a process of data generation and analysis. But the Digital Operations expert is also aware that “especially with AI applications, we have to keep a transparent overview. We must not rely too heavily on black-box applications.”

Why the people factor is crucial in digitalization

One thing that quickly becomes clear when talking to Nick is that people play a crucial role in the introduction and implementation of digital processes. This is one of the reasons why he talks a lot about his people in Singapore – the place where the team that plans and manages the global digitalization process is based; where everything comes together. They are the ones keeping track of everything. For the native Dutchman, this is the ideal location, “Singapore is bolstered by its strategic location and large professional talent pool. And it is here that I can find precisely the talent I need for our work.” In total, he works with people from eight nations. He sees the existing cultural diversity as enriching. Being aware of these differences and listening closely to others are important aspects that bind his team together.

Nick and his team stand together in a meeting room posing next to a roll-up that says “Complete Digitalization of AO”.

Nick sees high value in working closely with his team in Singapore.

In addition to the team in Singapore, Nick is also responsible for the regional implementation of the company’s digitalization strategy in the APAC region. Part of his work here is to ensure that plans and strategies become reality. This is an important experience, which he can draw on when communicating with production facilities around the world. After all, there are much more than 10,000 people involved in the digital transformation of all the adhesives production sites. The digitalization specialist has to get them all onboard, explain the transformation process to them, and generate enthusiasm for the digital revolution. Production lines are changing and becoming digital. Nowadays, even a car is a computer that can be digitally connected to read diagnostic trouble codes. The same applies to modern production lines. Of course, for many people, change also means effort, as it requires new expertise.

Portrait photo of Dr. Nick Miesen, Head of Digital Operations at Adhesive Technologies

We need to be willing to continuously learn.

“We need to be willing to continuously learn,” says Nick. “Then, technology will allow us to lead better lives.” Moreover, he is convinced that a willingness to learn is one of the core competencies that employees will need in the future. After all, Nick and his team are working on this future, which will see fundamental changes to the way we produce.