4 Ways Digitalization Is Transforming R&D

Thomas Ohnemus

Fully one-quarter of the world’s economy will be digital by 2020, forecasts a new report from Accenture. But that prediction doesn’t tell the whole story. Because increasingly, all business processes will be not only digitized – converted from analog to digital – but also digitalized – transformed in a way that blurs the physical and virtual.

Many organizations are struggling to respond. In fact, only five percent of companies say they’ve mastered digital transformation to the point of competitive differentiation, according to Forrester.

The challenge is especially acute for manufacturers. From innovation to production to logistics, manufacturers are seeing their operations revolutionized by digital technologies.

That starts with research and development. Here are four key ways digitalization is transforming R&D:

1. End consumers are more empowered

Technology has put consumers in the driver’s seat. Customers now have instant, constant access to information about products, quality, and pricing – for both you and your competitors. In the past, if you had established yourself as a leader in a region, the competition was at a disadvantage. Today, customers know how you stack up against rivals around the world, and your past market leadership is irrelevant. This isn’t just a problem for sales and marketing. It’s also a problem for R&D, which must respond – in as near to real time as possible – to changing customer demands. The good news is that technology is also the solution. For example, by designing smart products that leverage Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, R&D can capture usage data to understand customer desires and capture performance data to learn how to improve products rapidly.

2. Transparency is rewriting how manufacturers collaborate

Information access is changing the way manufacturers interact both internally and with suppliers. This is true for every function, but especially for R&D.

As R&D creates more smart products, the skills it requires are changing. The automotive industry is a case in point. Fifteen years ago, cars began to incorporate electronics such as engine-control systems. Today, electronics are where most automotive R&D is happening, and within 10 years, electronics will allow cars to pretty much drive themselves.

That dramatically changes how cars are designed. In the past, mechanical engineers led design efforts, and electronics were merely an add-on. Today, software development – with its very different requirements and design cycles – is integral to the process. In the automotive industry and in virtually every other industry, product design will involve new stakeholders who must work together in new ways.

3. Business models are growing more flexible

In the past, product designers worked for companies that sold products. But increasingly, manufacturers will sell not products but services. That affects R&D in fundamental ways.

A good example is a midsize SAP client that makes industrial air compressors. Some years ago it realized customers wanted not air compressors but compressed air. So it began offering compressed air as a service. Before this time, it designed and manufactured air compressors and then sold them to customers. Now, it designs and manufactures air compressors, installs them at customer sites, and then charges for the compressed air customers consume.

That new business model changes how R&D develops products. First, it needs to design in IoT sensors to monitor the compressors in real time and enable predictive maintenance. Second, it needs to optimize longevity and ease of maintenance. One way the company achieves that is by having engineers regularly spend time with field service to see firsthand how equipment is performing.

4. Business processes are becoming more customer centric

In fact, 83% of executives believe digitalization is driving a shift from supply-side economies of scale to demand-side economies based on interconnection with customers and partners, according to the Accenture report.

Manufacturers will have to be more connected to customers, because new business models will demand it. Take the air compressor customer. It hasn’t invested in a capital-intensive air compressor; it’s simply contracted for compressed air. At the end of the contract, there’s little disincentive to switching to a more attractive contract. The same will be true for many products across many industries.

How does that change R&D? Design cycles will have to accelerate to maintain competitive differentiation. For example, most carmakers update a car’s electronics only if the customer happens to come in for service. Tesla has upped the ante by sending new features and functions directly to the consumer through regular software updates. Don’t be surprised if its competitors start to follow.

Ultimately, the digital economy begins and ends with the customer. Customers are more empowered, so companies need to become more customer-centric. And nowhere is that more true than in R&D.

In my next blog, I’ll look at how digitalization is transforming manufacturing.

For more insight on the new customer-centric digital economy, see Customer Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.


Thomas Ohnemus

About Thomas Ohnemus

Thomas Ohnemus is the Vice President, Solution Marketing, Customer Value Office, at SAP. He is responsible for driving the go-to-market strategy, messaging, and demand generation. Thomas has over 25 years’ experience in business software solutions and his PLM expertise has awarded him key management positions in consulting, product management, service, and global marketing. He holds a master’s degree in engineering, and lives in Germany.