Revolution in after-sales sales and customer management


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2019)

Digital twins are widely talked about. With plenty of application scenarios, they have become crucial elements in the current phase of the digital revolution as well as in the upselling of after-sales products and solutions and in customer management. We conducted an interview on the topic with Alexander Pircher, Managing Director of infolox GmbH.

What are digital twins or digital clones?

They’re virtual replicas of objects in the real world, so they’re not just models for types, but rather for specific objects Digital twins are mostly used for complex objects that are unique. Entire buildings are digitally modelled through BIM (Building Information Modelling) in the construction industry, for instance, all the way down to individual power sockets. That’s the digital twin. The counterpart in the real world either already exists or still needs to be built. Because a digital twin can easily be accessed digitally from anywhere, information on a building and its construction can be accessed much more easily and quickly than through the actual object itself. Digital twins can be used in many different scenarios, from the planning and creation phase through to its maintenance, expansion and even the demolition or dismantling of a construct. 

How important is the topic to upselling after-sales services and solutions and to improving customer relationships?

Digital twins are a means for determining requirements. Those who know what the customer already has and the maintenance cycles involved can offer additional targeted products and solutions that fit the bill. This avoids wastage and allows you to sell in an incredibly efficient manner. The customer is no longer overwhelmed by irrelevant offers and is instead provided with optimal support, which significantly increases the relationship.

What significance does the topic have for your customers from the technical trade and manufacturing industry?

For our customers, digital twins are going to completely change customer relationships and the opportunities for upselling products and solutions. This will apply to manufacturers of components just as much as to plant and machine manufacturers. The knowledge about the customer’s use in real objects is comparable to the knowledge about the users from the point of view of major online retailers. So it’s an invaluable competitive advantage in the present day, where the topic is becoming increasingly important. It will soon be impossible to get by without digital twins. It is therefore essential to survival.

Where do your customers stand on the topic?

Most manufacturers, retailers and plant manufacturers nowadays don’t know what happens to their products, machines and equipment once they’re sold and installed. How the customers use, operate and maintain them, when they last had them serviced, which consumables and replacements parts are regularly needed, which additional components would be useful, which new products and services would help to optimise the machine or plant, what would save on operating costs, and so on. 

What potential does this knowledge hold for suppliers?  

To name just one simple example: a plant manufacturer has a digital twin of every plant it ever built. This not only contains all the information about a plant, but also about all the installed components, the plant’s history and master data, including technical data, documentation and dynamic data such as run times, kilometres and switching operations per time unit. This clone offers suppliers and customers enormous potential in terms of automation and customer relationships. Not only can replacement parts and services automatically be delivered, digital twins can also optimise outages, delivery times and service life. 

What is the basis for a digital twin such as this, and where do you start? 

Just like with catalogues, shops and configurations, product data are the basis for a proper digital twin – but not just as a list of individual components, but rather as a complete system with precise plant specifications with additional data on the original version’s lifecycle. 

And where exactly is the digital twin located from a technical or system point of view? 

Essentially, there are different supplier and customer systems that provide the required data and content. From our point of view, the golden record of all products and its custom manifestation in the form of applications, projects, constructions, buildings and machines should be located in the PIM/MAM system of the manufacturer or plant manufacturer.  

Please describe the use of a PIM system in this context in more detail.  

Many merely see PIM systems as a means for mapping the product portfolio of a manufacturer or retailer, but PIM systems are able to do much more than that. For instance, they can also depict relationships between products. In addition to a manufacturer or retailer view, they have also long since been able to depict user views in order to create solution-related catalogues. They also control interfaces to other external systems. The latest generation of PIM systems have retrieval capabilities based on databases. And what else is a digital twin other than a solution that consists of individual components? It can therefore perfectly be depicted in a PIM system just like information on maintenance cycles and their beginning in a specific construction. Automated analyses can also be carried out through the database. We can assign an important component or subsystem the characteristic “maintenance cycle: 6 months”, for instance, in addition to the relationships to the affected consumables, while giving the twin the specific application starting date. The PIM system can then automatically initiate the dispatch of the consumables a week before every scheduled maintenance.

Is there an option for involving the customer more closely?  

There are many options, depending on the customer’s situation. The customer can provide the dynamic data of the construct, for instance, or inform the manufacturer or plant manufacturer about any changes to the object so that the twin can be updated. This can either be done manually or automatically though interfaces. In return, the customer can access their digital twin and efficiently find, download or order any information, documents, replacement parts, etc., for their machines and plants through an after-sales portal or web store. 

What are the challenges?

Firstly, there is the question of whom the data belongs to and what information will be made available to every participant along the supply chain. Manufacturers, retailers, system integrators and customers alike must learn that a game of “my data versus your data” is not the answer, and instead stands in the way of a win-win situation for all those involved. A digital twin must also be kept up to date. If it is neglected, the twin quickly loses its value, while updating it will become more complex. Automation is therefore extremely important, which requires high process and interface competence from the entity implementing it. 

How can companies approach this topic? 

As is often the case, “Think big, but start small” applies here, too. Select several A-customers and build pilots for their most important constructs. You will quickly be able to win more customers based on this. We can provide support with consulting, experiences and the right solutions.

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Alexander Pircher completed his training as an automation engineer and studied business administration. In 1999, he started his career in the omnichannel e-commerce industry  as a consultant for technical marketing and product communication. In 2003, he founded infolox GmbH.

infolox GmbH

Picture credit © BenAkiba/Getty Images 


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