Reimagining Manufacturing on a Digital/Covid Canvas – Altizon and SRF Limited Podcast

Altizon and SRF share their insights on the emergence of the role of a CXO as a Chief Revival Officer and payback from digital transformation in the unprecedented times of COVID.

Established in 1970, SRF Limited with an annual turnover of ₹7,541 crore (US$ 1,077 million) is a multi-business chemicals conglomerate engaged in the manufacturing of industrial and specialty intermediates. The company’s diversified business portfolio covers Fluorochemicals, Specialty Chemicals, Packaging Films, Technical Textiles, Coated and Laminated Fabrics. Anchored by a strong workforce of more than 7,000 employees from different nationalities working across 11 manufacturing plants in India, one each in Thailand and South Africa, and an upcoming plant in Hungary, the company exports to more than 75 countries.

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the podcast. Enjoy!

Vinay Nathan: Good evening, good afternoon, good morning to you depending on where you are joining from. I welcome you all to this podcast as part of our Born Digital series that Altizon conducts. Today’s podcast is about reimagining manufacturing. Altizon is an Industrial IoT platform company that is among the leading platform providers for the entire smart factory and connected asset space in the industrial world. We have products and platforms collecting data and connecting assets in 31 countries around the world and are working with the leading industry conglomerates out there in terms of accelerating their digital strategy.

It is a great pleasure for me to start off this particular podcast with SRF which is among the leading manufacturers of fluorochemicals, specialty chemicals in technical textiles and various other diverse industrial products, and has multiple manufacturing plants spread across India, Thailand and South Africa. It is a 100 year old business group with a very strong track record in quality, having won the prestigious Deming award a couple of times. They have been associated with the social sector in terms of education and many other activities for almost a century. So it is a pleasure to invite Mr. Bimal Puri onto this particular podcast. Bimal is the head of IT and Automation for the technical textile business at SRF, and, is a very active CIO with representation and participation in many industry forums both here in India as well as around the world. So, welcome Bimal to the podcast.

Bimal Puri: Thank you, Vinay! Thank you for the welcome.

Vinay Nathan: Thanks! So today is going to cover a lot of topics that really look at how we are going to reimagine manufacturing in the backdrop of the COVID Canvas. Some of the commentators in the world are talking of The Great Acceleration as this being a period where suddenly decades of work happens in a matter of a year or a couple of years. So in the backdrop of that and while we are actively fighting what is an invisible enemy, how do you look at, this new normal, as they call it in manufacturing, and, how is the overall market scenario shaping up?

Bimal Puri: Good question as far as the new normal is concerned. I just want to mention that for the new normal, we have to be normal. So today the situation is not normal, so it’s not easy to predict when this new normal will come but yes there will be some changes in the ecosystem which we have already started looking at in terms of online buying or you can say visual analytics is playing a key role in terms of social distancing. Yes definitely, there is going to be a new normal after this current situation gets normalized. Organizations will take forward a lot of technology projects. The pure reason for that will be the cost mindset. People have understood and realized that using technology is easier to manage cost. That is my point as far as the new normal is concerned.

Vinay Nathan: Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? No one in the market can exactly calibrate a lot of the demand will come back, so is it in the light of that that you are talking of the cost? Can you share an example of how this will play out in the market?

Bimal Puri: Visual analytics is one of the examples. Now, for example you have a plant to set up and you have a barrier to get people from overseas to get it installed, so are you going to wait for long or find another way? I will give you an example. Recently, a line got started in our packaging film business. We were at the last stage and suddenly the lockdown happened, so people could not travel. With the help of technology and supporting the project online, we could start that line during this tough time, which is a remarkable achievement of our packaging film business and also the organizations supporting that project. It is a real example of using the technology in a difficult time and we never know it may become the new normal going forward.

With respect to running plants as well, if you see the movement of people is restricted and it has now been going on for some time. People have already tested a remote support architecture, which was earlier not welcomed as much in certain areas of manufacturing. That is going to be another area that people are going to look at when the new normal comes.

Vinay Nathan: That’s a good point and something that we are also seeing a lot of as being a big factor around working with somebody or not working with somebody, is the ability to deal with low touch deployment, get things up and running with minimal feet on the ground. Is that something you see as part of the new normal?

Bimal Puri: Yes!

Normally organizations have the mindset to do automation later after putting a new plant. So robots and other automatic systems will be considered during the initial inception itself, as part of the design. I see this as a potential game changer.

Vinay Nathan: Very true! So obviously there’s a lot of this happening in the market out there. Every company is kind of looking at what their adaption is going to be of this new normal. So how is SRF looking at it?

Bimal Puri: From SRF standpoint, you have been associated with us so you know that as an organization we are proactive in using technologies. In most cases, we don’t get any resistance from the management to invest in this technology and rather they are very happy to invest as we get to manage the cost, when it comes to managing a physical disaster kind of like the ongoing scenario. If you see, our IT systems and setups are running from the past 40 odd days. Everybody is working remotely. Everybody is connecting with each other as a few plants are running. Every day there is a meeting between the peer groups and the leadership team. The technology that we invested in at that point in time is showing returns today. As an organization, we will continue this journey and we will be further becoming more aggressive in terms of investing in automation where we can leverage the benefit from the technology not only as a cost price, but also to improve the productivity.

When people talk about IoT, they believe it’s only about connecting and getting some data but I see that there’s a lot of scope in managing the variable cost, like how you read the data process parameters and control your consumption of the raw material. So it is not only anomaly detection and anomaly prevention.

Vinay Nathan: Could you please share an example of leveraging IoT for optimizing raw material consumption – what kind of advantage it would have?

Bimal Puri: I will give you an example. When we normally talk about process optimization, we talk about process conditions. But when we use IoT data for, say, our dipping line, we use that data for planning as well – so which process condition process parameter is running and what will be the optimized model which I will follow when I plan or to do my scheduling on the shop floor so that I can actually reduce my cost at that point in time. How I can do so is by getting that data from the machine for a little longer and do that analysis on the top.

Vinay Nathan: In terms of tangible output, would that be on the lines of doing multiple products simultaneously as based on the insights that you gain from advanced monitoring and planning?

Bimal Puri: Yes

Vinay Nathan: Great, so this is something of immense value. Here we are talking of IoT having immediate tangible value for the way you do business and having an impact across multiple KPIs you may have as an organization. So, SRF’s digital journey, I know, began a lot earlier and we ourselves have been associated with you for several years now.

So how do you look at your digital story and what are the objectives that you are working with?

Bimal Puri: There are two areas we are working on – one is the information, which is the data side,  which helps us in running a process more efficiently so that we have no rework or wastage and we manage our consumption well. So that is one part of the digital journey we have and another thing we have recently started is physically making use of automation on the shop floor. We have a lot of trolley movement on the shop floor for yarn, from the yarn spinning section to the textile section. So how can we automate the process? We have recently gone with an automated guided vehicle, which is first of its kind. It works on various maps that can be configured to it and we can use it for metal movement. I can also put sensors around it to check my condition source. We have recently started using it. If you see today’s situation where I talk about less object touching scenario, that vehicle doesn’t need any manpower to be driven and the route is marked on it, so it moves from A to B location on its own. That’s the journey which we started recently and I am taking care of that area as well. I foresee very strong use cases in industries to go for these technologies. We have explored and adopted a lot of automation technologies, but we are now moving on to not only prevention but predictive analytics. We now have a couple of models in place that will help us in managing our consumption of raw material and other utilities.

Vinay Nathan: SRF is one of the companies we have had the privilege of working with. That is a very holistic picture but there is an advanced set of things that are really unique and SRF has even won a CIO award for some of the predictive quality work you have done around this. But right from the basic use cases to the most complex, they all run in parallel. One of the things that has stood out is integration. How you look at combining all of these to have data sets correlating so that you can build predictive algorithms. SRF has been way ahead of the curve. That has always been a big learning for us as well. As you spoke about automated vehicles, how do you look at AI and VR – VR in particular? What is the next future thing that you know you want to look at while automated vehicles being something that you are already looking at?

Bimal Puri: VR is going to play a critical role, for example, if you have specialized machines you won’t have experts on the floor at all times to help out. So what is the way forward to solve that problem? If you call them, the cost will be very high and there would be a delay as well. So how can you be productive by adopting automation in this area, not automation per se, but technology? How can you use technology to reduce cost of maintenance and also have a high availability of key resources at any point in time? So these are the two challenges or problems for which we are engaged in research and analysis. We have created certain use cases as well around what we can do in the area of remote support. Again, as we talked about the new normal – we were earlier only concerned with data but now the video is going to be a very critical asset. Technologies as VR devices and various other apps that can be directly loaded on the mobile can help you out in remote management of the machines. There are plenty of such use cases available but India would, I feel, also see the adoption of these technologies.

Vinay Nathan: That’s a perfect segue to a couple of questions by the audience and something that I also wanted to talk about. How do you see the adoption picture across Asia, maybe Africa as you have plants there as well? How do you see the adoption of these advancements in the manufacturing world right now?

Bimal Puri: That’s a good question. I have been asked to address this in a couple of CIO forums as well. When you say adoption, the first step comes from the top, how the management looks at it. If you create a case where you have an ROI of a project, offering or technology that you propose, definitely the first level of production gets signed off right there. This applies in SRF and we don’t face any issues at this level of adoption, if the ROI is in place. If we bring new technology on board, you have to train people on the shop floor. I have seen that the new people who are joining are already tech-savvy and feel more comfortable with technology. It is very difficult to control voluminous data by acting manually. So these technologies, be it RFID, Barcode or IoT, actually help and adoption is already there. We have all of these technologies in place, for which there would be questions but I don’t consider that as resistance. People need to hear them out and respond, and adoption will never be a problem.

Vinay Nathan: You touched upon two points there – you spoke about desire within SRF to fast-track some of these things if ROI is there. There was one question from the audience on ROI – so we know that the desire is there within SRF. Also, from our conversations in the past, I know you firmly believe if ROI is there it is something that should be done. Can you address that in more detail?

Bimal Puri: When you run a process analysis, you find that there are a lot of anomalies which are difficult to handle manually. Though people will have a SCADA system but you will not come across people engaging with the SCADA or DCS system to look at the anomalies. So normally, you see on the shop floor that data is fed into these systems but users aren’t actively engaging with them for anomaly detection. But there is a lot of deep data in the process. There is a lot of other sensors that can provide deep insights.

By using IoT and integrating it, I have seen that you can easily finetune your process and if you are focused on time management, you can manage temperature and other process parameters, which can increase savings in terms of LPG consumption, for example. If you do a process parameter correlation with quality so you can do fine-tuning on the process parameters, which can reduce rework due to substandard quality.

Vinay Nathan: One of the questions that have come up is around how you prioritize sequencing of some of these things.

Bimal Puri: First, you need to find out the problem you are trying to solve. Once you identify that, you find which technology is going to help you solve the problem. Assume that you have 10 problems to be solved, you would prioritize basis cost benefit. Again, prioritization would depend on the problem. You have to first list down your issues and then prioritize them based on a methodology.

Vinay Nathan: Thanks Bimal! As we look at different aspects of accelerating ROI, be it the people aspect, the cultural aspect – which is critical – how do you address that in SRF? Again, this is one of the questions from the audience.

Bimal Puri: As far as the people engagement is concerned, we do take key stakeholders on board right from Day 1. Even at the problem identification stage, we have discussions to decide how to take the technology in question on the shop floor. So we do one kind of FMEA to assess which problems we may face. The first and very important thing is to have all scenarios listed before even looking for a technology. Sometimes, people buy technology purely out of fascination and miss out on the scenarios. When they buy the technology and are at the implementation stage, they realize that, say, 5 out of 15 scenarios cannot be addressed. So you need to think more from a solution perspective. If your solution is not addressing the problems or creating more disruption within the smooth process, you would definitely face resistance from the shop floor. If people on the shop floor feel uncomfortable using a certain technology, they will resist. They would not otherwise.

Another question I am often asked is whether increase in automation would lead to loss of jobs. Believe me, in my time at SRF I have not seen anyone lose their job due to the implementation of automation. At SRF, we treat people as our assets, which helps build trust and confidence – this culture supports me whenever I have to implement new technology on the shop floor.

Vinay Nathan: Great, I will segue into a few relevant questions here. One of them is around the ROI in Greenfield versus Brownfield solutions. There is this myth in some ways that Greenfield offers greater ROI, whereas in my opinion Brownfield is where the maximum ROI is. What is your take on that, Bimal?

Bimal Puri: As you correctly mentioned, ROI in Brownfield will be much better compared to the Greenfield because you will be working on the technologies which are old and the processes will be inconsistent compared to the new technology, that is, the machinery side of the shop floor. In the Brownfield you will get much better benefits in terms of ROI if you implement the process or technology well. People often question why they are not allowed to connect to the DCS. There has to be a specific architecture on the security also which people must consider when they deploy IoT technology. It is also important to have a partner that can help plug in additional sensors, if required. They should have a good ecosystem around them. You will find a lot of people who would pull the basic data for you but would be clueless if you ask for more data or adding additional sensors. It is a critical role that a business partner or service provider has to play – he should have an ecosystem around him where even in the older machines he can add more sensors and make them more communicable.

Vinay Nathan: Correct! The advantage that you have in Brownfield is the basic benchmarking for the key processes and the KPIs are already there. That is what you need to improve. In Greenfield, you first set the baseline. Existing baselines have the advantage of quickly demonstrating ROI.

Typically, when an organization looks at Industrial IoT, they are looking at productivity, quality, the whole maintenance side of the equation, traceability, visibility and energy – tying everything together. So what are your thoughts on energy and ROI?

Bimal Puri: Energy conservation is becoming a costly component of any cost of conversions. Let us take the example of chillers which would consume power throughout the day. Why don’t you have a system which tells you at what point in time you can switch them off to save energy! Minimizing or controlling consumption is in our hands, the rates are not. If you have a connected factory with data available for analysis, it becomes easier to take action on a real-time basis.

Vinay Nathan: Let us now look at the vendor ecosystem. There are a couple of questions by the audience on the topic. So what are the attributes you are looking for to build a vendor ecosystem, what kinds of partnerships do you build?

Bimal Puri: In terms of the ecosystem that is required to implement any technology today, especially with when it comes to IoT, we have people who can fetch data and push it on Edge. Who would assess whether that data is insufficient? Domain experts would do so – they will share which parameters they monitor. Assume I have a set of machines, for example, which are old. I want to address one problem, say, temperature management, which is critical to maintain product quality. However, I may be having limited sensors and may want to add more. When I have to assess the expertise of a vendor or IoT solutions provider basis my requirement, I would check whether they have that strength. If not, do they have an ecosystem that can support this process. This is very important criteria when shortlisting a vendor. The 70‒80 percent of work you may have done, if not complemented by the work of a reliable partner, may not yield results.

Vinay Nathan: Correct, with the whole digital nature of it and with Cloud accelerating some of this journey as well, even the partner needs to be ready for the new normal. Isn’t that also a core important skill?

Bimal Puri: Yes, that is also an important skill that one needs to manage these systems, have technical know-how. The technology is already there, so are skill sets and digital transformation isn’t new. However, it is only a question of when you want to get into that mode. The people who are leading these initiatives are important here, how they manage to list down the needs, scenarios and benefits from the business side, engage the domain experts. The service provider has to play a critical role by marking those requirements and scenarios, and assessing whether suitable technology is available. The provider needs to have the skill set to manage the technology from a long-term perspective.

Vinay Nathan: When you talk about the ecosystem, it is about the vendor and technology, but also about how you also see yourself as a digital citizen in the context of the ecosystem. There are your customers and then there are your suppliers, so would it be pretty much a view that everybody who is already on the digital path would be a preferred supplier? I know SRF prides on their digital journey, so what is your take on how this will evolve?

Bimal Puri: When any customer buys a product from you, it should be of required quality and cost. And yes, when everybody first sees a product, it is the quality that they notice, followed by the cost. All the good organizations that we see nowadays have a strong and robust vendor evaluation system. People don’t only see the product but whether certain processes are being followed. The customer often rates a vendor basis problem-solving skill as well. If I have sent a product and in between lots I suddenly face a problem, are you helping out customers in solving those problems? And to solve a problem, you need technology.

Vinay Nathan: To be able to audit this and ensure that compliance is maintained from the supplier’s side, would it be fair to say that when you look at your vendor evaluation, you definitely factor in whether you are getting a digital footprint of the quality logs and such, and is there any additional data feed from my supplier that assures me of process compliance?

Bimal Puri: That becomes an added advantage.

Vinay Nathan: I know for a fact that some of our customers who are suppliers to folks like you take pride in the fact that ‘We already have this system up and a part of the factory tour is also showing up and is documented digitally in case you need to verify any data’.

Tying back to the ‘new normal’, security is very important in the context and it isn’t an add-on but inbuilt in the products, I am sure you have some thoughts around it Bimal.

Bimal Puri: Yes, this point is valid and comes up in the initial stages of discussion. OT security is more concerning than IT security. You need to convince people on the shop floor. At the end of the day, your core processes should not be disturbed. Companies that are responsible for such implementations, such as Altizon, should come up with a process document or white paper detailing good practices that need to be taken care of before any project in terms of OT security. In fact, OT security needs to be the first step when you start your vendor evaluation.

Vinay Nathan: Just to augment what you rightly pointed out, Altizon runs an IT‒OT assessment as one of the first things we do. It does a comprehensive check of the data availability and the network security. A big part of our job is ensuring that the OT infrastructure is set up the right way. It takes a lot of cycles and very often gets misunderstood till we have walked the customer through the sensitivity, the reason for it. Having done these things for close to seven odd years, we have had systems running on public and private Cloud. It takes a lot of work and it is a lot of practices that have evolved over time that have gotten us to where we are. It should be a key part of a key question one of the attendees has asked.

To summarize this and get us back to the role that a CEO, CIO, CXO, if you will, has in driving this.

How do you think the CXO is supposed to drive this change?

Bimal Puri: If you see the other side of Covid-19, if you see what CXO, CIO, CEO are not doing – Covid has done it. People are really using technology to the maximum – attending conferences, running webinars. Many more people are now comfortable with the idea of webinars and knowledge sessions. Yes, Covid has put back the technology implementation on track. It is the choice of the organization and the people who are driving decisions to see when they want to start. Technology is here to stay and the younger generation is coming into the system, going to the organizations be it manufacturing or non-manufacturing. Right from their childhood, they know how to work with technology.

Vinay Nathan: Thank you, Bimal. We covered a lot of ground. Thank you, attendees for the active participation.



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