The last year has challenged many businesses but it has offered opportunities too, not least the opportunity to change how we all do things.
We talk to Erich Brunner, President at Wheelabrator, about the impact the pandemic has had on customer industries across the globe, how customers have responded and adapted, and how Wheelabrator has supported them.
Erich, thank you for joining us today. To kick off, can you tell us a bit about how customers in different regions and industries have been affected by the pandemic?
The impact on our customers has been incredibly varied. We have around 15,000 machines installed worldwide, in all regions and a broad range of industries. Across those, there have been significant differences.
For example, the coronavirus hit China last February in the middle of Chinese New Year but, in the end, it only had a minor impact on their output. Our Chinese customers have been producing at full speed since last March. Even industries like Aerospace and Automotive that have been hit very hard literally everywhere else are going strong in China. In contrast, India saw massive business interruption and our customers and colleagues there could do little else but wait it out.
In Europe and North America, the situation was different again. There we had a complete interruption in several but not all industries. The situation changed constantly, country by country, continent by continent and market segment by market segment.
In general, our customers did want to maintain their own production where possible and continue to serve their customers under often very challenging circumstances. Access to our service teams was really important.
How has Wheelabrator been able to provide that support?
Like everybody else, we had to adapt very quickly and then continue to adapt. We set up a pandemic information centre early on, where we gathered intelligence on a fast-changing global situation and kept track of developments in customer locations, sometimes below country level. For example, at one point, we were able to deliver to Northern Italy but not to Southern Italy. Same country, different rules. So the pandemic information centre was vital for us in understanding travel and transport restrictions and planning around them. Our local and regional teams called up customers to make sure we understood their situation and needs. Our strong local presence across the globe was a real advantage here, allowing us to communicate closely and directly with customers to find out how we could help them. Throughout the pandemic we were constantly able to deliver which is a great testimonial of agility of our supply chains and teams.
How did customer needs change in response to lower demand in their markets and long periods of lockdown?
The big change was in capital investment, with most investment plans coming to a standstill in light of all that uncertainty.
On the flipside, we have seen relatively strong demand for upgrades and improvements. Customers who experienced falling demand for their usual products pivoted to new products and used Equipment Modernisation Programmes to adapt their existing shot blast equipment for new applications. They could do that without capital investment, by using maintenance budgets for the upgrades.
Customers who had to postpone investment in new machines have been coming to us to see how they can optimise existing machines and increase productivity. Some pulled forward upgrades to make best use of extended downtime.
In Q3 and Q4 in 2020, we saw a big increase across Norican Group in this kind of aftermarket activity in mature markets like Europe resulting in some orders since the beginning of 2021.
At Wheelabrator, we are ourselves investing in new equipment. For example, at our subcontract shotpeening facility in the UK and at our Wheelabrator supply chain factories - to further increase productivity. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it means we will be ready when demand picks up.
We’re seeing that kind of thinking in our customers – invest in productivity now even at lower budget, when it is less disruptive.
Does that include investment in digital technologies?
Yes, shot blasting customers have been expressing an increased interest in Wheelabrator digital solutions lately. The focus there, both for the customer and for us, is to use digital tools to unlock significant savings quickly. Any digital applications have to be meaningful and deliver a direct operational gain. This is not data collection for the sake of it. The biggest cost factors in running a shot blast machine are wear, abrasive consumption and energy use. We’re developing digital tools that tackle those cost factors – by collecting the right data, visualizing it and then giving machine operators and production managers actionable insight that they can use to improve the process. They can see, for example, if and why they are using too much abrasive and can time the changing of wear parts like blast wheel blades, impellers or control cages to ensure consistent performance and reduced downtime.
Is the pandemic accelerating the adoption of digital technology among Wheelabrator customers?
I would say it does. The digital products that Wheelabrator will be launching this year, starting at the end of Q1, are currently live with pilot customers who wanted to play an active part in developing digital solutions. The pandemic has put businesses worldwide under pressure to work smarter while also giving them that bit of room to try something new.
Our customers typically have multiple data sources, some are manual and paper-based. That makes it hard for them to monitor live production, react quickly to problems or get a digital view of their whole process. It can seem like a big leap to go from paper and clipboard to digital data collection. But it doesn’t have to be.
Since the start of the pandemic we have seen a marked uptick in customer interest in remote monitoring and digital products and services. Products like our Monitizer suite help them collect, process and visualize meaningful data in real time - ultimately to alert them automatically when changes in production parameters are needed.
We are pretty excited to be able to support our customers more and more on their digital journeys. We work closely with our colleagues at Norican Digital Lab and at DISA, Italpresse Gauss and StrikoWestofen, to create robust solutions and meaningful digital applications with and for our customers.
I have no doubt that the effect will be one of acceleration that would not have happened as easily without extreme challenges of the last year.