Eighteen months ago, automotive supplier BPW Bergische Achsen created its BPW Innovation Lab, which is already making a name for itself across the company for pioneering work. One such project is the “Internet of transport,” which was born of a design thinking workshop with SAP.
Getting to the Innovation Lab at BPW Bergische Achsen is not for the fainthearted. Around 18 months ago, the company, which partners vehicle operators and manufacturers worldwide, chose to set up its digitalization think tank on the top floor of a factory. If sports aren’t your thing, the walk to the lab can be exhausting. Because the building was designed to house huge machines, there are even more stairs to climb to get to the next floor. On your way up, posters tell you to “fail early, fail often” – something that took the manufacturer of high-quality goods, such as trailer axles, time to get used to.
BPW Innovation Lab: Haven for Innovative Thinkers
Arndt Hoffmann, an industrial engineer, takes on the stairs to the lab every day. The 90 m2 haven for innovative thinkers at BPW Bergische Achsen has come a long way since he first started. Back then, the space was totally empty. Now, it has a modern kitchen, a few conference tables, a red couch, numerous desks, some yucca plants, and, of course, flip charts. In the summer, a roof-top terrace extends the open office space to almost twice its usual size. Hoffmann is the man who puts new ideas to the test before filtering many of them out using the fail fast mantra.
Design Thinking and Business Model Canvas: Tools for Testing New Ideas
The company uses approaches such as design thinking and Business Model Canvas to develop new ideas and test them in detail. Just recently, employees from four different departments at BPW were in the Innovation Lab to assess the risks and potential of current business models, and define pain points that are likely to occur in the medium term.
“We’re presenting the findings to management in mid-June,” explains Marcus Sassenrath, CDO of BPW and the organizer of organized workshops for 80 employees at the company’s international management conference. Prior to the event, he trained six facilitators who then held the workshops. The aim: Discover what digital products can do for fleet managers and logistics planners.
“Afterward, a few more employees were able to apply the methods,” explains Sassenrath. He sets the IT and digitalization strategy at the company, which employs 6,900 people worldwide and earned €1.3 billion in revenue in 2016. Describing the advantages of design thinking, Sassenrath says: “None of the usual meeting formalities apply here. We achieve results faster and avoid endless discussions.”
How Digital Logistics Processes Make the Supply Chain More Transparent
Alexander Lutze, lab co-founder, presented a product that came out of the Innovation Lab: A tracking device to transmit the condition and location of goods during transport. Lutze and his colleagues were able to identify the need for this product by stepping into their customers’ shoes. For example, a production planner wants to know whether the components needed to manufacture a product are going to arrive on time. If a customer orders an axle, they want to know when it will arrive. The tracker, which can go two years without being charged, is fixed to the axle and enables the customer to follow it online. This is particularly useful for the sender who is shipping components to a customer.
“As logistics processes become more digitalized, senders and recipients will have much more control over the shipping process,” explains Sassenrath. “Our device plays an important part in this because it enables stock to be tracked digitally.”
Sassenrath describes the purpose of this device as, “to create transparency from ramp to ramp.” The idea of an “Internet of transport” first came about in a design thinking workshop in early 2017 with Kai Wussow, an innovation manager and head of SAP Digital Studios at SAP Digital Business Services. BPW has since trademarked the term “Internet of transport” in anticipation of its market potential.
As it stands, five customers are already using the pilot version of the tracking device. “The tracker is no longer just a prototype; we are preparing it for production,” says Sassenrath. An SAP add-on that takes SAP production orders and generates location updates is also in development. These ideas, and innovations from across BPW, earned the company a Digital Champion award (third place in the automotive class) from German business weekly Focus Money.
Sassenrath’s Sociocratic Approach: Every Idea Counts
At the BPW Innovation Lab, no one is manager. Sassenrath might be its co-founder, spend a third of his time working there, and formally report on the Innovation Lab to BPW’s board – but none of that actually matters. Everyone is equal, and manages their own workloads. Like at all design thinking workshops, every idea counts, regardless of who came up with it. Sassenrath calls this a “sociocratic approach.” He fights in the Innovation Lab’s corner if resources or topics that touch on established processes come up, and discusses them with the board.
Working on the top floor of a factory gives Sassenrath, Lutze, Hoffmann, and their colleagues an inspiring view of the city and the countryside beyond. So far, more than 200 BPW Bergische Achsen employees have used the space to develop and fine-tune their ideas.
“I am far enough away to be unhindered by company culture, yet close enough to stay in touch,” explains Sassenrath, who splits his time between the lab and company headquarters. When at the lab, he usually takes the stairs rather than the elevator. That’s only logical. Like climbing stairs, you need a lot of energy and stamina to innovate.