Globalization and digitization are turning the process manufacturing industry upside down, the impacts of which can also be felt by industry service providers such as Bilfinger: consolidations, a lack of specialists, and digital restructuring make new solution concepts a must. With the level of complexity increasing, plant operators and service providers now need to work more closely together. In this interview, Gerald Pilotto, Executive President of Engineering & Maintenance for Continental Europe at Bilfinger SE, talks about challenges and solutions.
Interview: Roland Hensel
Mr. Pilotto, Bilfinger SE operates as an industry service provider. What has changed in process manufacturing in recent years?
Our customers’ goals haven’t changed over the decades: they’re looking for safe turnarounds, schedule compliance, high quality assurance, and budget reliability. What has changed significantly is the market itself, which has moved towards consolidations and acquisitions. At the same time, more and more plants are being built directly in customer markets. We also see a high level of consolidation in the supplier market. We ourselves are the best example. Our historical roots can be found in the construction industry. As a result of many acquisitions and divestitures, we’re now a leading supplier of services for industrial plants and power plants, with around 36,000 employees. And consolidation is also on the rise for EPC contractors, primarily due to the lack of specialists.
How are you preparing?
We also need to be in a position to offer our services throughout the entire life cycle and do what we can to extend our value chain – taking into account, of course, the situation in Central Europe, with collective bargaining agreements and working times. The following applies here: Which services can you still provide and how much are you paid for them? Particularly in the context of continuous staff utilization with increasing peak times in spring and fall. This increases the need for coordination, making long-term strategic partnerships between customer and supplier all the more common. We’ve therefore developed our Bilfinger maintenance concept and, on that basis, our Bilfinger turnaround concept as a comprehensive range.
Different cultures, languages, and mentalities don’t make managing staff any easier.
In the case of large turnarounds, I’d say that 70 percent of the employees aren’t native German speakers. We need to involve external staff in both the planning and implementation phases. Bilfinger SE has its own global network that lists all employees along with their qualifications and training as well as our subcontractors and staffing agencies, organized according to similar criteria. This provides us with a quick overview that also includes their availability. It’s important to us that successful teams stay together, led by employees from the subsidiary in their country, in which case cultural differences don’t play a role. All the same, a project in Belgium works differently from a project in Austria or Eastern Europe.
It’s ultimately always an issue of improvements, meaning higher plant efficiency, higher availability, lower maintenance costs, etc. What potential do you see in digitization?
We can plan very differently with digital media. A digital plant allows us to observe the entire life cycle process in a new way and change the decision-making process. A businessperson can maintain a better overview and that includes procurement costs, maintenance, security, and compliance. While still in its early stages, this form of overall assessment is gaining ground, as it represents an important tool for further increasing productivity. Digitized processes are also very helpful in reducing the amount of manual administration. That’s because the necessary documentation associated with all of the processes needs to be completed directly online if at all possible and with few intermediate steps. Here we try to digitize existing paper processes and standardize all of the processes. We founded a start-up and assigned it the clear task of addressing the changes resulting from digitization and identifying added value.
Digitization represents a radical technical transition. Are IT specialists all we need now?
No, we need both. Namely people who understand the plant business and of course people who portray concept developments and processes in software. We thus appointed a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) two years ago who comes from maintenance. We made a conscious decision not to hire a computer scientist, as we need someone who understands the business and can describe the processes. At the same time, we founded a start-up and assigned it the clear task of addressing the changes resulting from digitization and identifying added value for Bilfinger SE. Here, methods and tools are tested, and markets and customer expectations analyzed and translated into technical products.
In your opinion, which social or political changes are absolutely essential?
If we in Europe want to survive in an environment of global competition, we need to talk about education, training, and knowledge exchange as well as the social situation and infrastructure. We won’t be able to survive with cheap staff who don’t have the necessary skills. We’ll never achieve cost leadership, which is why we need market leadership and knowledge leadership. The way I see it, politicians should create the corresponding conditions for making investment in industry attractive. For example, the new posted workers directive planned by the EU is counterproductive for our industry, as an employee may only be posted for 18 months. After that, the job needs to be filled by a permanent employee. But what do you do when an upcoming turnaround has a much longer planning time frame? You can’t send a different employee. Politicians need to support globalization with the appropriate laws.
When you compare the basic attitude towards the job today with that of ten years ago, what has changed?
First and foremost, employee mobility. Young people aren’t as flexible today as they were ten years ago. They place a higher value on their social and private environment and are generally very rooted to where they are. I’m often surprised at how important it is that the company offer a high job guarantee. It used to be important to have an interesting job and good development opportunities. Money is not as important to the generation of today. They’re more interested in the total package: What does my work–life balance look like? Is there a cafeteria or a gym? Do I have flexible working times? In my opinion, expectations have changed significantly.
Have expectations regarding work performance changed?
Yes, they’ve increased dramatically. Work performance has become much more demanding. In addition to his actual work, a technician now also has to document everything and even contribute to the business side of things. At the same time, he has to observe a lot of guidelines, standards, and extreme safety regulations. The requirements made of employees have increased to some degree.