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The Switzerland-based Bühler Group is a world leader in manufacturing sophisticated machines used in food processing and die casting. It’s almost certain that anyone reading this blog has eaten pasta or other foods processed with Bühler machines, or ridden in a car built with components cast on Bühler equipment. Recent Bühler innovations include a process that uses low-energy electrons to eliminate contaminants in food, and die-casting machinery that greatly reduces scrap from while also saving energy.

Like other global corporations, however, Bühler faces a changing competitive landscape and evolving customer needs. To meet those challenges, Bühler has embarked on a mission to transform itself. “Digitizing is simply something we have to focus on,” says Stuart Bashford, Chief Digital Officer for Bühler. “Whether it’s in food processing or die-casting, we’ve seen the competition turn into software companies that can offer cool new products to our customers. To remain competitive, we have to be in the digital game.”

Small changes yield big results

The goal is to change from an industrial firm with an industrial mindset that in some ways dates to its founding in 1860, to a technology leader using the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better products as well as a wide range of innovative services.

That’s an ambitious goal. But it came about through both top-down and bottom-up decision-making. Bashford tells the story: “Probably two and a half years ago our CEO (Stefan Scheiber) said to all of the division heads, ‘You have nine months to show me a digital service using AI or IoT.’ Well, for a very traditional Swiss company to make that kind of change in nine months is quite challenging. But he made the request, and the eight business divisions delivered. Now two or three of their ideas are commercialized and being sold.”

Going digital has allowed Bühler to make seemingly small changes to processes that yield big results for customers. On the food-processing side, it helps companies that are around 90 percent efficient boost that by one or two percent – percentages that could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company’s profits. In die casting, Bühler’s new Digital Cell machines blow through the industry standard of a work stoppage every 40 minutes (to clear a breakage, for instance). That can save up to €200,000 per year for each casting machine. This is an important milestone of Bühler’s Digital Cell Vision in die casting, aimed at delivering zero scrap, 40 percent less cycle time and around-the-clock uptime to create a better, more efficient and profitable future for the industry.

Says Marcello Fabbroni, Director Product Management “Previously, if a machine went down, it was hard to figure out why. Some things you could see on the control unit, but often an operator had to walk around the cell to find the problem. It takes so much time because you had to shut the whole machine down, examine it, and then reset all components back to start position. There has never been a one-click solution before.”

Bühler has partnered with Microsoft to help it achieve its digital vision. Results include the Bühler Insights IoT platform, powered by Azure IoT Hub, that generates data that helps producers optimize safety, sustainability, and transparency. Bühler also is using AI in a variety of products. One AI-based solution allows manufacturers to predict the milling yield of a crop of corn from a single kernel. Says Bashford: “This process is entirely done by hand today. But our system can figure out the internal structure of a kernel of corn from a smartphone image, then analyze that image with AI and machine learning to predict milling yield.”

Today Bühler’s software engineers work closely with Microsoft engineering on IoT advances, how to apply AI to manufacturing, and how to take advantage of Azure to make a company with 13,000 employees across 140 countries more agile and efficient.

Bühler’s growth mindset

Says Ethem Azun, who is managing the partnership with Bühler at Microsoft: “Bühler is a great example of a company with a growth mindset. They embrace experimenting and risk-taking as a way of learning and progressing faster than the market, giving them a competitive edge. They cooperate very closely with their customers, academia, start-ups and strategic partners such as Microsoft to excel at everything they do. That’s the Bühler way.”

Bühler and Microsoft continue to find new ways to work together. Says Bashford: “The big deal for us right now is AI and how to maximize its use in our industrial applications. Every industrial company has to engage with this area because in a few years AI will be doing so many things with our machines – from predictive fault detection to improving quality to speeding new machines to market.” Bühler also is working with Microsoft on new ways to employ high-performance computing and deploying simulations of computational fluid dynamics to improve casting processes.

“At a strategic level we’ve made a decision that we want to lead our industry,” says Bashford. “To be a leader means moving beyond our core business to deliver a complete suite of digital services.”

Adds Lourenco Mello, Product Marketing Manager, Azure IoT: “IoT is transformative, and it takes time for companies to evolve culturally, but now is the time to explore the potential of this technology revolution. Bühler has not only the growth mindset but also the results have been remarkable: the company now has several IoT products on the market, along with a pipeline of more than 50 current projects.

“To succeed, Bühler changed the way the company worked. That’s digital transformation thought leadership.”