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Driving the digital transformation

During his time as an IT management and digitization trainee, Tobias Eckhoff got to know various business units of the thyssenkrupp group: ideal preparation to hit the ground running as a digital lab manager in the Strategy, Architecture & Innovation team at thyssenkrupp Steel Europe in Duisburg. His role: driving the digital transformation through jointly developed solutions that make work easier for everyone. In our interview he explains what that means in practice.

What changes are you making at thyssenkrupp?

I’m helping actively shape the digital transformation at thyssenkrupp. That’s the task we as a team are focused on. We want to make a difference with our work. Together with various departments in the company, we test innovative and promising ideas based on digital technologies. For this we use an agile working model, so-called digital labs. I’m responsible among other things for project management. To run our digital labs, we have support from a network of internal and external experts. We also have a physical digital lab, our co-working space in Essen, where we can work with participants undisturbed and productively, away from their normal jobs, for the duration of a digital lab, typically one to four weeks. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, all our digital labs have been run remotely. Our goal every time is not just to create neat-looking charts but to develop (almost) complete prototypes. The result could be an app for example. This is then made available for testing to the department that initially approached us with a problem. If the tests go well, we take the app live according to a specified procedure. At the end of the day, the digitization ideas we implement should make work easier, more convenient and above all more efficient for end users.

What kind of projects do you work on? Can you provide an example?

Our plant in Duisburg is gigantic – around five times the size of Monaco. We have our own port and the biggest in-plant railroad system in Europe. But as well as the huge volume of goods transported by ship and rail, there are also large numbers of contractors’ trucks traveling inside the plant all the time. In the past, truck drivers arriving at the gate were given a map with a route to help them find their way. But that was a real challenge – and it’s hardly surprising that people soon got lost. In many cases drivers come from neighboring European countries and don’t speak German. Explaining the way using signs and gestures isn’t that easy. Our logistics department approached us with this problem with the idea of developing a kind of “Google Maps” for our plant site. We thought that was great and got to work together. We had to check for example which map service providers would be suitable for the project and would meet our requirements for data protection, et cetera, because sensitive data relating to our plant must not be publicly accessible. Also, the idea was that rather than keying in a destination, drivers would just have to scan the delivery note to be automatically navigated to the right place. And of course back out again. All this, by the way, is called “steel maps truck”.

What would you say: how important are new technologies to thyssenkrupp in general?

Generally, new technologies always point the way forward: With them we can do things differently – often even better. The result might be higher data quality or the automation of manual activities. At thyssenkrupp Steel we’re already highly digitized in some areas, which many people don’t expect. Parts of our production involve high-precision processes that have been automated for many years. Nevertheless there are of course other areas as yet relatively untouched by digitization. Often it’s not a question of whether there’s anything we can digitize but what we should digitize first and what will really help. New technologies and their integration into everyday work are incredibly important – otherwise you could be forced out of the market one day because you just can’t keep up anymore. And that’s exactly what we’re working on. We want to position ourselves as a modern, forward-looking enterprise.    

When you tell other people about your job at thyssenkrupp, is there anything that surprises them?

At events with people from other companies, I often get to hear “Hey cool, you do stuff like that at thyssenkrupp?” For example a drone that automatically collects something, or presentations in virtual environments are things a lot of people don’t expect at thyssenkrupp. Above all the setting around our digital labs is anything but traditional and surprises many. We work together here in a very modern way and can achieve presentable results in a short space of time. And we’re always surprising people inside the company too with our projects. And because our digital labs and the results achieved are often successful and make work easier, more and more departments are seeking our support and want to work with us. So there’s more and more networking – and that’s terrific. Together as #GENERATIONTK we’re going to create a lot more change.