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Smart automation tools unlock competitive advantage in lubricant technical service

By Aaron Stone

A wave of digitisation has been changing the way companies do business for more than a decade, forcing the adoption of new and innovative business models. No industry is immune from the impact of digital disruption; and while the shift to digital technology is not overly new, the next upsurge seems to be hitting at rapid speed, driving a dramatic period of change.

Speaking at F+L Week 2017 on the future of lubricant technical services, Cameron Watson, general manager, Shell lubricants Technology, says this transformation is evolving the traditional provision of onsite expert advice, providing an opportunity to leverage smart automation tools and processes to deliver a more impactful and integrated service provision.

Clearly, lubrication is central to the efficient operation of many businesses. The delivery of lubricant technical services has the capacity to add significant value, identifying the most appropriate technology, and managing it in the most effective way to improve business performance.

Watson says the evolution of smart automation tools, including cloud computing, big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and augmented reality are becoming increasingly relevant in order to “generate, capture and analyse lubricant tech data” and realise opportunities to create business value. He believes industry players are the key to unlocking this competitive advantage.

Still, Watson suggests many customers underestimate the potential impact of lubrication, or associated costs of suboptimum operation. During his presentation at The Four Seasons Hotel in Singapore, Watson unveiled results of a survey of 1,800 Shell customers worldwide, representing six different sectors. The findings are noteworthy. Nearly 60% understand lubricants deliver some impact on operating costs. Unfortunately, more than 40% argue to the contrary. A staggering 51% don’t expect higher quality lubricants will have any impact on their business, and 63% admit to insufficient staff training on lubricants.

Smart automation tools unlock competitive advantage in lubricant technical service“Companies are missing out on significant potential savings,” affirms Watson, Shell’s data suggesting lubricants can impact up to 30% of maintenance budget. The research also highlights “60% admit errors in lubricant selection or management that have caused unplanned downtime,” a quarter of which have led to a financial impact in excess of USD250,000.

While this lack of knowledge paints a ‘gloomy’ picture, Watson hastens to add “a lot of leading edge customers are really pushing the technology and requirements they demand from us.” He says, increasingly customers are seeing oils and greases as commodities, and it is the ability to provide differentiated solutions and services that is desired. This presents a sizeable opportunity for lubricant technical services.

So what does this wave of digitisation really mean in the world of lubricant technical services? Watson suggests we are moving from a reactive, preventative phase to becoming increasingly insight driven. Data driven decisions made in real time, improved access to lubricant knowledge and application expertise, and better product selection advice all support enhanced total cost of ownership.

To enable these developments and accelerate progress, partnerships with non-traditional technology providers are essential.

During his F+L Week 2017 presentation, Watson cited a couple of advanced technical service technologies to demonstrate the impact of digitisation at Shell and as a precursor to future lubrication technical services. Faced with the reality of limitations on high value high impact customer/staff interactions, and help desk resourcing constraints, Shell has adopted a more aggressive approach to virtual engagement. Shell LubeMatch is a publicly available service, globally connected to a worldwide database, that identifies the most appropriate Shell product for a given application. The recommendation service recognises which country the request comes from, and will match to the local Shell portfolio. Shell LubeMatch delivers approximately 14 million recommendations per year.

More recently, the company has expanded virtual engagement technology to include Artificial Intelligence. Watson believes they are the first in the industry to provide such a service. Shell Virtual Assistant is available to Shell distributors in key markets, and provides an Artificial Intelligence advisor (dubbed ‘Emma’ in the U.S.A. and UK markets) for frontline advice to customers. ‘Emma’ has multilanguage skills, textbook conversation, knowledge of more than 3,000 shell products and 10,000 competitor products. The technology is currently delivering 100,000 interactions per year. Watson predicts artificial intelligence supported services will be increasingly available in the near future.

Shell LubeAnalyst is a digital technology designed to monitor and analyse oil performance from the field to the lab. Targeting B2B customers and partners with extensive oil requirements, the technology has the ability to alert problems and minimise unnecessary oil drains. The technology is networked to the system, accessing 25 million data points, 30 laboratories worldwide, 24/7, from any location. Perhaps surprisingly, Watson stops short of calling it ‘big data,’ a somewhat overused term in the digital era.

While he says, the future is ‘smart automation,’ Watson concedes that in a world of rapid technical change and increasing connectivity – perhaps the “future has already arrived.” Systems are increasingly in the cloud, we have greater focus on accessing and using data, tools are ever more connected, many players are using artificial intelligence, and augmented reality tools are starting to emerge. Coupled with this is a new generation of employees much more expectant of using data.