Cooperation brings innovation. Partnering with other market players is imperative in the new era of digital manufacturing. With digital technologies changing both customer demands and the way production lines operate, manufacturers are looking to collaborate to overcome emerging challenges.

One of the biggest challenges manufacturers are facing is in updating their existing production lines. Not everyone can redesign an entire factory. What can you do with a production line built 20 years ago when digital technologies didn’t exist yet?

Connect with the innovators

One of Europe’s largest innovation hubs, Startup Autobahn is an example of how collaborations can solve manufacturing challenges. The initial idea of Startup Autobahn was brought up by car manufacturer Daimler because it realised startups and their innovative technologies can help improve existing products, services and production processes. Traditional German manufacturers used to fly around the globe to meet startups, but then Daimler decided to bring the innovators to its home, Stuttgart, which as a manufacturing hub had great potential to become an innovation centre.

Startup Autobahn now is an open platform where big companies work together with startups to address manufacturing and automotive trends and challenges. This collaboration has two benefits: Innovative technologies become embedded in big companies, and the startups learn from these corporations’ business expertise how to grow from a basic idea into a strong company.

Deep Dive sessions at Startup Autobahn. Startup Autobahn partners meet with startups to discuss a potential collaboration on a certain digital transformation challenge.

How does it work?

Usually, the companies that are part of Startup Autobahn, such as Daimler, Porsche and DXC Technology, take the first step and determine the trends and challenges to focus on. Then, they scout for startups working on respective technologies and select 25 to 35 startups to work with for a 100-day period. The idea is for the startups and companies to work on joint solutions and prototypes that could help the manufacturers, or IT companies such as DXC, with digital transformation for manufacturing clients. The technology solutions have a testing and evaluation phase, and the ones that pass are tested in real-world environments and evaluated on how complementary they are with existing technologies and services. This allows the companies to see how reliable the new technology is and how useful it is to solve a specific digital transformation challenge.

For example, DXC works with Cybus, a startup developing a software called Cybus Connectware that provides a universal connector from manufacturers’ existing and new machines to internal and external systems, services and applications. The companies are working together on helping clients run their factory shop-floor effectively. Cybus’s Connectware translates machine languages into interoperable data and grants machinery data access to certain services. For end-to-end IT providers this helps to develop new services for manufacturing clients, such as shop-floor analytics, or service orchestrations across multiple plants. So, a manufacturer can basically get a digital twin of its manufacturing shop-floor and have all its data in one place to run different services such as maintenance or supplier collaborations.

Deep Dive sessions at Startup Autobahn. Startup Autobahn partner DXC Technology meets with startups to discuss a potential collaboration on a specific challenge.

Another startup, evan.network, started out by providing a platform that allows automatic contract management between a company and its suppliers based on blockchain technology to accelerate communication within the supplier ecosystem. Its solution can be very valuable as supply chains become interactive and move out of the linear model. The evan.network model uses smart contract-supporting blockchain technology that allows a company to put all its written contracts into executable code. For example, a manufacturer that needs a certain component can put its request together with a description of the product features and needed delivery date, send it to the ecosystem of suppliers, and get a quick response from various suppliers on what they can provide. In addition, the startup runs a blockchain network that helps manufacturers validate transactions, offers and contracts, which is valuable for creating stronger trust inside a supply chain network.

Although many manufacturers still believe they need to do and invent everything by themselves, it’s time to change the mind-set. Startups deliver transformative niche solutions and technologies that can address the existing and emerging needs of manufacturers and various clients. The industry is progressing fast, so collaborating with startups that have already solved part of the problem and distinguishing oneself in the market through such combined effort is the sensible next step.

Read more on why collaboration and openness are key to thriving in the digital manufacturing world.