Two worlds are merging into one

2019-05-08 – The world of work is going digital. How does this affect people’s roles? As part of our series on digitalization, we profile a colleague for whom the two worlds of mechanical engineering and information technology are merging. These days, Frank Spickermann knows more about forklift trucks than he would ever have imagined.

Tags of the article: #digital transformation #people

Frank Spickermann first owned a computer back in 1980, a C64. Next came an ATARI and, at some point, a PC. He got into IT at an early age. The classic background for many people who later become IT developers. But today, Spickermann does not work at a software company. Instead, the route to his office takes him past a factory, in front of which are rows of trucks. He can hear the humming of the machines; the unique smell of electric welders hangs in the air. “Before I applied to KION in 2016, I had no idea about trucks,” says Spickermann. “I thought they were all pretty much the same.”

Three years later and Frank Spickermann knows a great deal more about trucks. Exaggerating slightly, he explains that, in the past, “the IT department received a request that the developers would then spend two years working on before presenting it to the department that had requested it. But they would then have everything pointed out to them that they had misunderstood.” Nowadays, the production, business, and IT departments increasingly work hand in hand. “You won’t find any employees here at KION IT who haven’t got to grips with the processes in the projects on which they’re working.”

Something real

Spickermann thinks that this closer collaboration is fantastic. “KION manufactures something that you can actually touch, something real,” he says. And IT is part of the product, because the software that his team programs forms part of the trucks. Worlds are merging. Spickermann is responsible for ‘STILL neXXt fleet’, a fleet management system that gives customers full data records for their trucks. How much are the trucks being used? How high are the monthly costs? How hard are the trucks being driven? It is even possible to precisely configure a truck for a particular driver: “If a beginner is in the driving seat, for example, the speed can be limited to five miles per hour and all the lights switched on automatically,” explains Spickermann. All this helps new drivers to get to know the trucks and familiarize themselves with the specific tasks that they need to perform.

Incredibly complex, yet simple

Spickermann’s fascination with trucks has emerged gradually. “Incredibly complex and at the same time so simple,” he says, adding that even today’s high-tech industrial trucks still have features that hark back to their origins, such as the pulley and crane. What has changed is that modern trucks are now reliant on sensors and IT.

This makes it all the more important for IT developers to understand for whom and what exactly they are programming. Spickermann remembers one occasion when a remote diagnostics tool for trucks was under discussion. The specification stated that there still needed to be someone in situ. The developers only understood the reason for this instruction once they were standing in front of the truck in question: an eight-tonne monster, three meters tall. “If you do something wrong, this truck will drive through the wall and then carry straight on through the next one,” commented one engineer. This description hit the nail on the head for Spickermann. “IT in our industry is not abstract,” he says. “It is closely linked to the product.”

Boundaries disappear

Spickermann also notices his colleagues becoming more and more enthusiastic about the technology. “We develop a relationship with what we do,” he says. Today’s work processes also play a role. In contrast to the ‘waterfall model’ described above, in which a department places a request with IT, Spickermann’s project team has switched to an agile approach. This means responsibility is shared more widely, interim results are discussed more often, and dialog is encouraged. As a result, software developers have to think more about the bigger picture while salespeople and engineers have to take greater account of the underlying IT logic. Boundaries disappear; the distinction between requester and implementer is eliminated. In fact, the people involved would now be happy to share an office. “We all work together in the same boat,” states Spickermann.

The IT expert would like to dive even deeper into the world of trucks. He can also envisage getting end customers involved in software enhancements to a greater extent. “The challenge is to make sure that customers don’t feel like we’re rolling out software that isn’t completely ready,” says Spickermann. “But feedback from users at an earlier stage – perhaps collected during a one-day workshop – can be invaluable.” It is clear that once boundaries begin to blur, more and more potential becomes apparent.