“For us, it always starts with the customer’s needs”
Robert Müller has been with Voith for a quarter of a century. Müller, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering, has been involved with advancing the DIWA transmission in development, sales and after-sales. Today, his professional experience in a wide range of fields helps him work on the mobility of tomorrow in Product Definition at Digital Solutions. In an interview, he tells us what sets innovations apart and the role transmission data will play in the mobility of tomorrow.
Mr. Müller, what does innovation start with?
Robert Müller: For us, it starts with the customer’s needs. Only when a technical solution meets the customer’s needs can it become a real innovation in the end. We ask ourselves what added value we can offer the customer and what the solution to that customer’s specific problem might be. That is why it is so important to be close to customers and work closely with them. One example is the development of the DIWA SmartNet telemetric system some ten years ago.
How do you mean?
Robert Müller: Back then, we were responsible for maintaining the transmissions of a fleet of around 1,000 vehicles in Dubai and Abu Dhabi on behalf of the automakers. The main question was not the state of the entire fleet, but rather which of these 1,000 vehicles was headed toward a breakdown because of the transmission and needed maintenance right away. To do so, we focused on the components with errors – a path known as management by exception. We soon came to realize that efficiently managing a fleet like this and being able to react as quickly as possible to defects when they occur require a regular flow of data from all the vehicles. So we started connecting existing technologies to receive data. We identified patterns, and we were able to define limits and automate analyses. Ultimately, this allowed us to develop a product that remains attractive to our customers.
Was there a moment when you knew you had achieved a breakthrough?
Robert Müller: No, there wasn’t any one moment like that. Instead, it was a series of baby steps that ultimately led to the breakthrough. From the very start, however, we had a clear picture in our minds of what we wanted to achieve. We were convinced that transmission data would help make the way the vehicles ran far more efficient and improve their availability. That turned out to be right.
Does this goal still apply today?
Robert Müller: Yes, but in a different dimension that we wouldn’t have dreamed of back then. At first, we were transmitting a few hundred kilobytes of data. Today we are talking about gigabytes, and the evolution is very likely far from over. Moving from 2G to LTE today and on to 5G in the future opens the door to greater and greater possibilities. Still, the limitations on data volume and the cost of data transmission weren’t the only obstacles. Often, it was simple and sometimes trivial things such as the use of ordinary SIM cards or managing cell phone bills. For a long time, we had a separate bill per vehicle, resulting in a great deal of time and effort spent on administration.
What is your take on the future development?
Robert Müller: We’re lucky that the transmission plays such a central role in a vehicle. It is the interface between the road, the driver and the engine. That’s why it’s a system where a great deal of data comes together, including data about other components. As a result, we can use the transmission to determine the state of the vehicle and optimize its use.
Could you give us an example?
Robert Müller: We have been using this data from the transmission for almost 20 years now. For example, we used transmission data to determine that buses are designed for speeds of 95 kph but are rarely driven faster than 60 kph in real life. As a result, the vehicles’ consumption was too high, creating an unnecessary financial and environmental burden. Our transmission data made it possible to design these vehicles more optimally for their actual use. This example also illustrates that data alone is not enough. It boils down to analyzing data intelligently. Voith can provide customers with substantial added value here.
What additional benefits can the constantly growing amount of data create?
Robert Müller: Large quantities of data make it easier to identify patterns and come up with reliable benchmarks for maintenance and repair. We will therefore continue to improve the efficiency and availability of the individual vehicles.
When it comes to development, what sets Voith apart in your mind? What was it like back then when you developed DIWA SmartNet?
Robert Müller: We sort of developed DIWA SmartNet on the side as a tool for our service, at least at first. Being able to exchange ideas with the many experts at the company gave us the freedom and ability to do so. Both of those things set Voith apart in my mind.
The development of DIWA SmartNet has led you to Digital Solutions today.
Robert Müller: Yes – for me, it was the logical next step based on my experience in past years. The variety of perspectives I have come to know in my various positions allows me to better understand the wide range of customers and their individual needs. That is essential to analyzing ideas from various divisions, picking up on them and continuing to pursue them using the options and possibilities available to Digital Solutions.
How is development today different than it was in the past?
Robert Müller: The basic principle of starting with the customer’s needs and always coordinating the path of development with the customer has remained the same. To me, that is one of the pillars of Voith’s corporate philosophy. But the possibilities have improved considerably. New methods such as design thinking and scrum allow us to make new ideas reality much faster and do a better job of involving the customer right from the start.
After all this time, what is the appeal of development for you?
Robert Müller: I truly enjoy thinking about and examining the opportunities that digitization offers. Doing something new and taking a close look at technological advancements have always interested me. One advantage Voith has in all this is our access to many experts from a wide range of departments and divisions, giving us extensive knowledge of methods – an important foundation for future innovations.