"Over the Fence" - Development by Cross-Functional Collaboration

After many years as a subdivision foreman in POVAL's Process Engineering / Training & Education division, Fernando Mancilla-Pantoja felt it was time to try something new.

He has long been interested in the topic of digitization, having helped to introduce the OTS simulator in POVAL operations some time ago. This enables colleagues in plant control to simulate the operation of distillation columns and to reproduce their reactions to changes in various parameters, e.g. pressure and temperature, in the digital model - a great tool for learning and also for preparing for any critical situations.

From July to December 2020, Fernando Mancilla-Pantoja was on assignment at OBS in the Digitization & Lean Management department, which is still young at KEG and is headed by Astrid Geue. The timing was good, because the POVAL operation is in the process of further advancing the process of digitization: by having a defined contact person for digitization topics in the operation, all related inquiries, tasks and projects can be bundled centrally, so his supervisor, Johanna Schneider, was happy to support his temporary transfer.

Our colleague has very good knowledge of the POVAL plant, and both general and very specific applications as well as needs for IT-supported solutions and interfaces are very familiar to him from his daily work, making him an ideal candidate as a "bridge builder" between the requirements of production operations on the one hand and the digital solution proposals on the part of OBS on the other.

"My tasks included writing so-called user stories: this is a structured, agile method in which the USERS describe exactly WHAT they need FOR WHAT PURPOSE."  These user stories are standard in the formulation of requirements in the cross-functional Scrum teams. In this method, the way in which the requirements can be met is not described by the user, but rather worked out by the digitalization engineer or IT specialist, for example.

Fernando Mancilla-Pantoja and Sandro Neuenfeldt, the team's digitization engineer, applied the method to the area of big bag filling in POVAL operations as an IoT project. Here, the aim was to optimize the bagging processes: "We want to make the process control intuitive in order to minimize faulty controls," he says, describing the goal of the project. "In this process optimization, we used the central Thingworx platform, which uses artificial intelligence to network data from humans and machines and allow them to communicate with each other." The important thing here was to capture the needs of production management and colleagues in the filling department as users and their goals in great detail, analyze them, prioritize them and translate them into user stories in a comprehensible way. One challenge here was the quasi-simultaneous conversion of the SAP software in the POVAL operation, since the IoT applications dock onto an SAP interface. The coordination effort for the intensive exchange with all parties involved was high and cost time, and the pandemic was another hurdle because contact persons were available in a way that was different from usual. But the effort was worth it: the new concept for big bag filling is in place and will be introduced soon.

What has been Mancilla-Pantoja's experience in this interdisciplinary project? "In operation, the plant sets the pace. That was completely different here: I had my head free for my own ideas, was able to concentrate fully on the project and create good results in coordination with my team colleagues. The cooperation was great. Although I had to familiarize myself with the specifics of the filling process, Gert Oelmeyer's support was a great help. I had to be quite persistent to get the necessary information from the bagging colleagues and other parties involved. They hadn't exactly been waiting for me, and due to the Corona-related absences, it wasn't at all easy to reach my contacts." What's next? "The backfill process step should also be optimized, and I'm continuing to work on that. And Thingworx could also provide digital solutions for other applications in POVAL operations, for example."

What advice can he give to other colleagues who are also thinking about an "over the fence" experience? "You have to be open, get involved with other ways of thinking and working, and stay curious. First and foremost, though, it has to be a voluntary project, because if you're not interested on your own, it's not an option for you."

"Fernando's assignment is admittedly not a typical project within the framework of "Over the Fence", since it was carried out for a longer period of time and with a higher degree of complexity than the trial internship for collegial exchange originally envisaged under this name. It also served a very specific purpose. Nevertheless, it is a successful example of the benefits of cross-functional collaboration on a project basis, and for everyone involved," says Dominique Buono, HR Training & Development Partner.