How Manufacturers Can Gain Competitive Advantage Through Servitization

June 15, 2017 by Alison ColemanAlison Coleman

In a fiercely competitive global market, manufacturers’ product margins face increasing pressure, forcing them to look for ways to differentiate their businesses. Many are going down the servitization route, a digital transformation that enables them to provide services and solutions that supplement their traditional product offerings.

It also means gaining a better understanding of customer needs by forging closer working relationships with them, overwhelmingly the main reason for adopting servitization, according to the 2016 Annual Manufacturing Report. Three quarters (74%) of manufacturers surveyed cited their main reason for offering servitization was to build “closer relationships with customers”. Almost half, (46%) were seeking to boost profitability through the provision of added-value services, while 44% were looking to increase revenue.

This transition from making goods to selling services represents huge change that creates major challenges for many traditional manufacturers, as their product effectively becomes the platform from which to deliver those services. For some, the solution will lie in developing product-service systems, combinations of products and services, to deliver the outcomes their customers want and value. They will also need to bring in new technologies.

[Further Reading: 5 Project Management Trends for Manufacturing Teams to Watch in 2017]

A study on the future of servitization, carried out by the University of Cambridge, found consensus among capital equipment manufacturers (CEM) on five key technology requirements to enable servitization in the future. These included predictive analytics to anticipate specific failure modes, remote communications to resolve issues from a distance, consumption monitoring to create customer-specific service offerings, pushing information to employees, suppliers, sub-contractors and customers via mobile platforms or the internet, and mobile platforms to access business software remotely for maintenance techniques, production outputs, etc.

Servitization involves digital transformation on a massive scale, and not surprisingly it has created a huge demand for project management skills.

[Further Reading: How to Be a Project Team of the Future]

There are plenty of examples of manufacturers that have been successful in moving to servitization, including Rolls Royce, which famously stopped manufacturing aero engines and instead contracted with customers for its ‘power by the hour’ service. In this model, the customer buys the power that the engine delivers, and Rolls Royce provides all of the support to ensure that the aero engines can continue to deliver that power. It was a seismic shift in business model, but the result was a much closer alignment between the interests of the customer and the provider.

In its manufacturing heyday, global technology firm IBM was churning out a range of products, including computers, data storage devices, and software. It also offered a number of services, including networking and related services. When the company began to flounder in the early 1990s, it switched strategy and focused on its services, which included supplying integrated IT solutions to business. The result? IBM became a one-stop shop IT service provider, a move that strengthened its position in the market.

Of course, these global enterprises have the internal resources needed to make the switch from product to service focus.

Can smaller manufacturers achieve the same? Many already are, selling products that are combinations of manufactured goods and services. In the digital age, however, the servitization journey is largely driven by new technology that will take them beyond the bundling of manufactured consumables and spare parts with scheduled product maintenance tasks to forging much closer relationships, some would say partnerships, with their customers, where they know in real time what they need, and can respond in real time to provide it.

For many traditional manufacturers this presents challenges that require the digital skills and expertise of project management professionals to facilitate their transition to a servitization model.

Modern technologies, particularly in the project management and ERP (enterprise resource planning) spaces, are great enablers of this. In some organizations, effective servitization relies on the use of sensors embedded in products, so IoT applications and platforms will have a role to play in this process.  They will need the capability to record and control the services they are offering, which requires data analytics expertise.

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