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Digital innovation is go!

AkzoNobel’s R&D Director for Performance Coatings, Klaas Kruithof, reveals an unlikely link between the company’s digital innovation and classic television series Thunderbirds.

Traditional thoughts of innovation might conjure up mental images of scientists and inventors toiling in their laboratories and workshops to develop new products and technologies. For those of a certain age – me included – it’s hard to resist thinking about the impossibly bespectacled Brains and his unforgettable Thunderbirds rescue vehicles from the still popular 1960s TV series.

Today, however, while the collapsing palm trees and retractable swimming pool of Tracy Island still have the capacity to delight audiences (as a child I was convinced those puppets didn’t have strings), innovation has advanced rapidly and entered a new era. One where digital developments are being relied on to come to the rescue and deliver major benefits – not only in terms of boosting the bottom line by generating cost savings, creating an enhanced customer experience and improved service, but also with regard to new-to-the-world business models and revenue streams.

At AkzoNobel, digital innovation is a major area of attention and is playing an increasingly important role in product development and how we work with customers. We are embracing the possibilities it offers across the whole organization and have achieved a number of recent successes. For example, from an industry perspective, the Interplan Mobile app supplied by our Protective Coatings business is making a significant impact by helping customers to carry out effective maintenance planning, saving them both time and money. It’s a powerful assessment tool which is available in several different service packages and forms a basis towards predictive maintenance.

The free Visualizer app developed by our Decorative Paints business – which was upgraded in 2016 – also continues to be extremely popular all over the world. Downloaded more than 13 million times to date, it’s a world first in augmented reality technology which enables users to see in real time what a room will look like in a wide range of different colors – before any paint is applied to the wall – providing inspiration for customers and driving sales of our decorative paints.

Digital opportunities are also being targeted to benefit our manufacturing and supply chain operations, as well as selected functions. These new technologies are designed to positively impact our commercial teams – for example, sales staff will be more connected to each other and to our customers.

In addition, digital platforms are being used to help with open innovation, evidenced by the recent Imagine Chemistry Challenge launched by our Specialty Chemicals business. It resulted in an enthusiastic response, with more than 200 innovative ideas being submitted by chemistry start-ups, scientists, research groups and students around the world. It was launched to help solve real-life chemistry-related challenges – such as finding ways to revolutionize plastics recycling – as well as uncovering sustainable opportunities for AkzoNobel’s Specialty Chemicals businesses.

The seemingly unlimited potential of digital possibilities is also playing an important role within our Technical Service and Quality Assurance Groups. They recently teamed up to devise new digital solutions that are making technical service reporting more efficient. As well as improving quality, customer issues can now be identified and resolved much faster.

One of our most significant digital innovations over the last year or so has been Intertrac Vision. It’s an award-winning digital tool which uses “big data” to predict the hull performance of a marine coating, before it has even been applied. It enables ship owners to control costs by making informed choices about the coatings technology they use in order to provide the essential protection they need.

The software package uses 3.5 billion datasets to provide accurate and transparent predictions on the fuel and CO2 savings potential of fouling control coatings, prior to their application. It enables our trained consultants to advise owners on multiple coating and application scenarios, clearly explaining the financial and performance benefits of available options before important investment decisions are made.

What’s also unique is that predictions are bespoke to specific vessels and are entirely dependent on vessel type, trading route, speed and activity. It therefore offers options to influence all major investment choices, such as preparation levels, coatings preference, scheme selection and even days in dry dock. In an era when big data analytics are powering a shift to outcome-based models, Intertrac Vision has the ability and intelligence to explore and remove performance prediction uncertainties – which is exactly what ship operators want.

Another great example is AkzoNobel’s digital approach to vehicle refinishing – something Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls Royce could have done with, given the number of scrapes Parker got into. Known as Colorvation, it empowers body shops to significantly increase efficiency and color accuracy, while boosting productivity and profitability. Colorvation uses advanced digital color matching combined with cloud-based formula retrieval, bringing measurable improvements for businesses in the form of greater accuracy, greater efficiency and, ultimately, greater profitability.

Working this closely with customers is fundamental to the way we do business. In Intertrac Vision’s case, as well as being able to identify their individual needs, it also helps us to improve our customers’ sustainability performance. This aligns perfectly with our Planet Possible sustainability agenda, which puts a clear emphasis on becoming more energy and resource efficient.

So what’s next? Well, in addition to projects where we’re exploring and experimenting with promising technologies in the fields of artificial intelligence and the internet of things, we’re certain that advanced robotics will also have a role to play. In fact, we are already conducting pilots which involve using drone-controlled imaging to help with the inspection of assets for our marine and protective coatings customers. The project will use advanced robotics in combination with advanced image technology to deliver safer, more accurate evaluations of ballast water tanks, offshore wind farms and other enclosed or difficult to access spaces on ships and marine structures, including inspections of coatings and corrosion.

Finally, I must mention the new virtual reality center we’ve opened for our decorative paints customers in the UK, which allows visitors to explore different store environments. It’s an industry first facility that enables retailers to immerse themselves in the customer experience and view product innovations before they go to market. The facility is located just outside London, close to the Slough Trading Estate. Which, by sheer coincidence, is where they made Thunderbirds.