In podcast episode 30, Madeleine Mickeleit talks to Stephan Verclas and Roman Wambacher from Digital Enabler as well as Stefan Schmitz and Bernd Walterscheid from Wirtgen. The use case revolves around the digitization of the construction site, a joint project between the two companies, and to what extent the road construction and rehabilitation machinery company has been “digitally enabled”.
Podcast episode summary
With over 15 years of experience in the field of IoT, the Digital Enablers implement digitization solutions for their partners across the entire value chain. Their business philosophy is based on personality, reliability and trust – and so is their cooperation with Wirtgen GmbH.
The focus of this podcast is cold milling machines. Wirtgen is the world market leader in this niche and its sub-segments. The use case is about the implementation of the so-called Wirtgen Performance Tracker (WPT) – a system that digitally records (live) data on the construction site, networks machines with each other and revolutionizes the entire business process on this basis. With the WPT, Digital Enabler support Wirtgen in the transformation to a fully automated data infrastructure on the construction site.
The WPT automatically collects process data on site, such as job site progress, milling depth, optimum truck loads, downtimes or milling pattern quality. Part of the cooperation was to link the existing Wirtgen IoT system, the post-processor, to the new performance tracker. In this way, it was possible to send all relevant data as final job reports to the appropriate recipients in a fully automated and individualized manner – without any additional manpower.
The success topics of predictive maintenance, artificial intelligence and digital twins are also mentioned in this podcast episode. The construction machines of the future will become smarter and more digital: At the end, Wirtgen looks into the networked future and sees promising approaches in soil stabilization, service mining, cold recycling and in the field of concrete slipform pavers.
The Wirtgen Performance Tracker is the ideal complement to the Wirtgen Group’s telematics solution WITOS and offers transparent determination of milling performance.
Stephan, could you briefly say a few words about yourself and your role at Digital Enabler, and briefly tell us what your core business is?
Yes, very much so. My name is Stephan Verclas. I have been in the IT and digitalization industry for over 20 years. Most recently, I was head of innovation at Germany’s largest service provider for ten years. In this role, I was then responsible for over 100 digitization and innovation projects for business customers, from the idea to the prototype.
And then I came to the Digital Enablers, because as Digital Enablers we go one step further and don’t end at the prototype. And we offer our customers services that are necessary for a successful journey into the world of digitization – from the creation of ideas, the development of business models, the design of solutions in professionalism, technology, the development of digital products, systems and platforms with the associated rollout and application lifecycle management.
Our name says it all: We see ourselves as digital enablers for our customers. And we are often the general contractor, from the idea, through development, to operation, including support. It is important to our customers that we bring both business and technology expertise to the table and then transfer this to our customers’ organizations as part of the projects. My personal focus is business coaching and consulting for digitization and digital transformation.
You just mentioned digitization and digital transformation. That, in the end, is exactly the focus topic of the podcast. Can you give us some insider’s perspective on what you’re watching in the market? Perhaps also to promising technologies, especially in mechanical and plant engineering?
Yes, very much so. So what I see is that in the mechanical engineering sector, business areas are currently emerging in many places that take up successful concepts from other sectors in which digitization has long been a key factor, such as cloud solutions in the IT sector. For me, predictive maintenance is one of the most powerful applications in the field of industrial IoT. Sensor-based systems and machines generate data that can be used by intelligent apps to monitor status or even predict failures, making the old, reactively planned maintenance a thing of the past sooner or later, for example. In my view, predictive maintenance can thus significantly reduce downtime and minimize the associated costs. When a component fails can be predicted much better and also avoided in advance. Such plants are also becoming increasingly safe. And then technologies come into play, such as artificial intelligence or machine learning, where the machines learn themselves on the fly, making them ever better and more fail-safe.
Another topic in the context of industrial IoT is Digital Twins. A digital twin serves as a virtual model of a machine or component that processes the same sensor-based data as the real machine or component. With the help of this digital twin, experts can experiment with processes, enable services remotely, document the life cycle, plan for contingencies, or even provide forecasts for the future. The networking of machines is the basis for such new digital approaches. This networking with corresponding connectivity is then used to set up the IoT platforms, which then enable the manufacturers’ service applications and which they can then offer to their customers. And this is exactly where we Digital Enablers help our customers, such as Wirtgen, whom we have “digitally enabled” – as we call it – with the joint development of the Wirtgen Performance Tracker.
Before we get straight to your joint project with Wirtgen, I would like to round off the round of introductions from your side. Roman, I’m looking virtually in your direction: Would you like to join us and briefly explain exactly which area of responsibility you have at Digital Enabler?
My name is Roman Wambacher and I am one of the three founders of Digital Enabler. I’ve been working in IoT for about 15 years – back then it was called telematics. Within this world, I am responsible for embedded systems and connectivity in our development department. Operationally, however, I am also active in many projects as a project manager, as was my task in today’s project.
Stephan had already hinted at a few buzzwords: AI, predictive maintenance and also digital twin. Now, here in the podcast, I always talk about concrete projects from the field to make the topic tangible. That is why I am very pleased that we also have the user, the company Wirtgen, with us today. Now we have another Stefan in the round, but spelled with an “f”. Stefan would you like to start and say something about yourself and your role at Wirtgen and tell us what exactly your core business is?
Yes, very much so. Hello everyone, my name is Stefan Schmitz, I’m 50 years old and I head the marketing team for the Wirtgen product brand and I’m also responsible for the topic of market intelligence throughout the Wirtgen Group. In terms of my job description, I am a mechanical and industrial engineer. I started working for Wirtgen in 1994 and have remained loyal to the brand and the company for 26 years now. The Wirtgen
GmbH and thus the Wirtgen brand is the original company of today’s Wirtgen Group and was also the parent company of our Group until the end of 2017. We are located near Bonn in the beautiful, sometimes cold Westerwald and employ around 2,000 people there. The entire Group has approximately 9,000 employees. The Wirtgen Group has been part of the American John Deere Group since December 1, 2017. Many listeners are probably well acquainted with the yellow-green tractors from agriculture. The core business of Wirtgen GmbH is the development, production and sale of construction machinery for road rehabilitation. Wirtgen is the clear world market leader in this niche segment with all its underlying divisions. The strongest division – and we are also talking about this today – is the division of so-called cold milling machines. Cold milling machines weigh up to 50 tons, are driven by engines with up to 1,000 hp, and can remove road surfaces – usually asphalt – up to four meters wide and up to 35 centimeters deep in a single pass by means of a milling drum rotating around its horizontal axis. The material is then loaded onto trucks via conveyor belts.
You said that your core business is mainly the construction machinery. What strategic relevance does digitization have for you? What digital solutions are available?
In principle, of course, the production of these heavy construction machines made of steel and iron is the core business. But in the 21st century, it’s no longer enough to defend your market leadership, your position, by “just making a machine that works.” I think many of us are familiar with the topic of smart homes – some of us use their smartphone app to control the heating temperature at home or to check whether a light is still on somewhere. We network things with our laptop, with the hi-fi system, with the TV, with streaming. Ultimately, this is what we all mean by the Internet of Things. And that’s exactly what has now spilled over into the construction equipment industry. If in the 90s the construction machines had mainly hydraulic and mechanical issues, then slowly they gradually became more and more electric. In the 2000s, electrical systems were replaced by electronics and the first programmable logic controllers were introduced. And for a few years now, the digitization of machines has been taking off. You then often hear buzzwords such as Industry 4.0 or digital construction site, to name just two. And now the circle actually closes quite nicely to our new parent company John Deere: John Deere is a leader in the agricultural industry and agricultural machinery has actually always been a bit further ahead than construction machinery, always a bit ahead of the times. And here, digitization is also a bit further ahead and so we are also getting more involved in the topic of networking our machines, recording and exchanging digital process data on the construction site, and all this with the aim of improving processes and work results.
Bernd, with you we would complete the round of introductions: Would you like to introduce yourself briefly and perhaps say something about your joint project by way of introduction?
Hello to all and thank you for the opportunity to report here today. My name is Bernd Walterscheid, I am 32 years old and live near Bonn, which is not far from the Wirtgen plant. I have been with Wirtgen GmbH since 2012. There, I first wrote my bachelor’s thesis in the area of mechanical design and then switched to pre-development via my master’s thesis, where I have now been working as a project engineer since 2014. My main tasks are projects around the topics of automation and digitalization.
True to our slogan “Close to our Customers”, we are constantly in dialogue with our customers and try to develop solutions that help or solve customers’ daily problems and thus create direct added value. And that’s how we got started a few years ago, in order to be able to offer our customers a solution for construction site billing as well as for the ever-increasing requirements for construction site documentation.
Construction site billing – what does that mean exactly?
Today, almost everywhere in the world, it is the rule that our customers, i.e. the milling service providers, submit bids for road construction projects, which are mostly area-based. That is, there’s a price per square meter that is milled, depending on the depth or the materials to be milled. They mostly refer to these tenders. It is not uncommon, however, for the milling work on the construction site to actually turn out to be more extensive than it was tendered for. Accordingly, it is important for our customers to determine this so-called allowance, i.e. the area output, as precisely as possible. An external surveyor, for example, can be called in to determine this allowance, which is sometimes the case for large projects.
However, this is associated with relatively high costs. A surveyor has to be hired and move out, sometimes milling service providers also have their own surveyors who drive around and survey the construction sites. This is already possible for large projects. But usually the allowance is made by the machine operator and the crew itself.
The most common approach today is to walk the site at the end of the day with a wheel and tape measure and record it in relatively simple geometries, so that the area can then be determined. This does not sound particularly complex if you imagine, for example, a highway on which 500 meters have been milled. There you have a fixed width of 12 meters, which you quickly stepped off and quickly measured across. The situation is different in urban areas if you imagine that you have several intersections, so-called fixtures, e.g. manhole covers or a traffic circle. Then, of course, it is no longer as simple. And if you then in the evening after a whole day on the miller still have to cover, for example, 2 km with such a wheel and have to note down all the manhole covers, it may even rain, then of course the motivation drops and the results are correspondingly poor. In addition, there are also special cases, so-called mill and fill construction sites. This means that the milling machine, which removes the material, travels in front, and new asphalt is being paved almost directly behind it, a few meters away. The milling operator of the crew does not have the chance to record this measurement in a reasonable way.
The next step and the next challenge is then, of course, to get that data into the office. There are a wide variety of options, and it also depends a bit on the markets. As Stefan just said, we are operating all over the world. For example, there are large companies that already have their own apps where such things are recorded. However, the majority still use paper. This means that there is a manual measurement, which is recorded on paper. That then has to get to the office somehow, which can take days to weeks, which means until the drivers come back or the job site is completed. This is where the next challenge comes in: the whole thing has to be transferred from the measurement sheet to the IT system, to the invoicing tool, so that there is also a certain amount of work in the office. And that’s where we said, this is where we come in, and with the Performance Tracker we have developed a system that records this data automatically on the machine and also transfers it automatically.
How exactly does this Performance Tracker work?
So the Wirtgen Performance Tracker is a system that allows the actual milling work performed to be documented automatically and precisely on the machine. The whole thing is no longer a manual process. For this purpose, the machines that have this system are equipped with two laser scanners mounted on the machine chassis in front of the milling drum. In principle, these scan the existing milled surface, i.e. the milled cross-section, which is now virtually the next to enter the roller. If you think about it now: The first cut, when the machine lowers and starts milling, is the full cut. We then have the full milling width of mostly two meters up to four meters, which Stefan has already mentioned. The second lane is a bit more difficult. When the machine starts up, we no longer have the full milling width of two meters, but only almost, about 1.95 meters. Then these scanners find the position, determine the height, and with the offsetting of other machine data that we get from the PLC or from our leveling device, the Level Pro System, we are then able to include the feed rate and calculate the area accordingly. The resulting information is played back to the machine operator as so-called live data directly on the machine display, so that he can see and evaluate his progress on the job site. Here, too, he has the option of entering further parameters into the system, such as the material to be milled, which then in turn increases the level of detail of the documentation. At the end of the day, the shift or even at the end of the construction site, the machine operator can complete the so-called job on this display. It effectively resets the live data and thus also triggers the job completion, which ensures that the data is sent up to the server. There they are post-processed, i.e. there is still a post-processing. Then an email report is also generated, which is automatically sent by the system to our customers. The report contains an Excel spreadsheet and also two PDF documents and there he can see exactly where he milled and how deep, what kind of consumption he had, basically all the process data. In addition, for larger customers who have multiple machines, it is also possible to retrieve all this information via an API and import it directly into their own applications. This eliminates that whole manual process I just described of someone having to type out the measurement for invoicing.
Quick question about the API, for those who have never heard of it: This is basically the interface that is created to transfer the data from A to B, correct?
Exactly. We have a wide variance of customers – smaller milling service providers that have few machines and correspondingly few people in the office, all the way to large corporations that have entire fleets of machines. A few reports a day are certainly still manageable. But if you have 20 to 30 aircraft in your fleet and get regular reports from them, it’s much easier to feed the information directly into the final system.
Can you tell us what data was primarily relevant to this case and what information is the interesting one there?
The data can basically be divided into the roles that we find in the companies, i.e. with our customers. First, there is the live data on the machine, which is primarily for the machinist. For example, there is the milled surface over which he can see the progress of the construction site. After all, he knows he has to mill about, say, 10,000 square feet. Then he can estimate how much he still has to do. In addition, the system documents the number of trucks loaded. He can always reset the tonnage of the truck.
He checks the tonnage loaded on the truck. In principle he optimizes the loading – which is also an ever-growing issue – to avoid overloading. But most of the time there are not enough trucks on the construction sites, so of course they should not load too little to make the best use of the truck fleet. In addition, he sees downtime, which is always an issue as well. But he also has the option of making various inputs, such as the material he is milling. That is basically what is happening on the machine.
In addition, the report contains other data that are of interest for construction site documentation, for one thing. This means that maps showing where milling has taken place can be found in the reports. Then, of course, how deep it has been milled. This helps, for example, in disputes afterwards. If one time they milled too deep and damaged a bridge, then our customer can use these reports to prove exactly how deep they milled at that location and didn’t damage the sewer pipe or the pipeline, but that must have happened somehow downstream. In addition, times are also included there. So you can see when he milled where.
We also take information from our machine-side “Mill Assist”, such as the milling pattern quality. In this way, he can prove which quality he has delivered at which point and then compare this accordingly with the requirements. These are the kind of things that affect site documentation.
Then, of course, one point that I mentioned at the beginning, site billing. So he clearly has a listing of the parameters that are critical to his billing. Mostly it is about the milled area, but also the time, the volume or the mass play a role. There are also special cases where invoicing is based on loaded trucks, and until today it was the case that somehow a tally sheet was still kept. Today, the system also does this for the machine construction operator. Then, of course, there is general process data that is important for the management or the head of the company. That would be consumption data. I would like to see, of course: How much diesel did I use on the construction site? Are my employees running the machines at their optimum? Does it run in the Eco mode or in the Power mode? He can see this from the “Mill Assist” data. He gets an insight about logistics. Do I perhaps have relatively high waiting times and have to contact the client again to see if they can send us more trucks so that the machine does what it is supposed to do, namely mill and not stand still. So that’s basically how we divide up the data.
Now there was talk of different data. Roman, there’s also an interface where you come into play. What does such a technical concept look like and what happens to the data that I have collected in the field? And what is your part in the project?
As Bernd has already mentioned, the data is organized into jobs, which are in turn subdivided into the milling sections. This is also the smallest unit of relevance in the system. Such a milling job can take up to several days in extreme cases and of course you want to be informed about the progress of the milling work before the milling job is finished. This means that the associated information is immediately transmitted to the WPT (Wirtgen Performance Tracker) backend after completion of each milling section. The existing Wirtgen IoT system, i.e. the IoT platform that Wirtgen is already using in various projects, will be used for this transfer. As Bernd has already explained, this data also includes billing-relevant information. Therefore, we must ensure that no parts are lost or duplicated during the transmission and processing of this data, and also that the processing is done in the order in which the data was also generated, in order to be able to create a conclusive picture in the evaluation. On the one hand, this is ensured by special features of the Wirtgen system, and on the other hand, there are additional checks of the incoming data in the WPT backend. The messages that belong together, i.e. the sections of a job, are then reassembled in the WPT backend and stored together in the database of this application according to the order in which they properly belong together. Once the system determines that the milling of the entire job is complete and all of these sections have been received on the backend, it will evaluate and determine the recipients of these job reports based on the owner of the machine and the licenses assigned to that machine.
The whole thing is integrated with the SAP system from which this information is obtained. So no one has to enter anything manually anymore; WPT is part of the information landscape of the Wirtgen infrastructure. After the recipients have been determined, automated processing and generation of the report already mentioned several times is performed for the job. This post processing is performed by a separate software component called the post processor. And this post-processor has an extremely large amount of application logic in it. This was and is developed by Wirtgen itself, and our task is, among other things, to integrate this processor into the backend. You can also imagine that there will be further developments, new versions, it’s an ongoing process. On the other hand, this post-processing is also the most computationally intensive step in the entire processing chain. To precisely accommodate the expected increases in user demand, we have provided a flexible and highly scalable runtime for this post-processor as part of this backend system at this point. This means that it is very easy to dynamically provide more computing power and performance for a higher number of jobs to be computed in parallel. This post-processor then creates the job report in all the variations that the recipients need. That’s where I’m essentially addressing the issue of internationalization. One can imagine that the recipients of the reports in a larger company may well have different languages, different unit systems and time formats. This means that this post-processor also creates all required variants of a report in the course of this post-processing. And as a final step, this job report is then sent by the backend to the identified email recipients with the attachments in the correct version, i.e. language and localization.
The Wirtgen colleagues mentioned earlier that some of their customers are already very far along in automation – which is why Wirtgen also offers an automated and automatable queue-based interface via this very WPT system. At this interface, customers can connect directly with their business process systems and also process this determined job data quasi in real time and integrate it into their systems.
This means that they no longer need to open e-mails, download excel files and transfer them to other documents, but can – if the customer has these possibilities – also use this completely automatically. And also this queue-based API and programming interface is part of the system that we have provided.
Another essential component in the system is an administration portal, which was realized web-based. However, this is not for the customers, but for the WPT support team, who can use it to administer, control and, for the most part, monitor the application. WPT is also the first application of its kind to run on a new Wirtgen platform for process applications, which we designed and implemented together with our colleagues from Wirtgen in the course of this project. For Wirtgen, this means that each additional process application can already draw on existing parts of this platform, such as license management, application administration, or even the automated data interface to customer management, and can therefore also be implemented more quickly and cost-effectively with each new application.
Ultimately, that was the part of Digital Enabler that you implemented, and on the other side is Wirtgen’s competence structure. Bernd, what did the cooperation look like here and where did you notice that you might be reaching your limits in terms of competence and that you should seek external advice. How did you get started there?
At the beginning of the project, we took a close look at where our competencies lie – what do we want to do in-house and what do we outsource. It became quite clear that the machine technology and user knowledge should remain in-house and be managed by us.
Roman just mentioned it, this is found in the machine evaluation, i.e. in the evaluation of the scanner data, in the merging of the various machine information to calculate the areas and the data just mentioned. Let’s be clear: Only we can do that and we want to do that. And the second point where that comes back is what’s called the post-processor. Here, too, we have said quite clearly that this should be up to us to drive forward the corresponding further developments and also to retain the know-how here. When we asked the question “What can we hand over to an external party?” it became clear very quickly, so to speak, that topics such as data transport and infrastructure are simply not our core business and that we want to give that to an external party. Digital Enabler was already known to us and was then called in again as a partner at this point.
As Bernd has already said, a central aspect of our cooperation was the clear delineation of what each of the partners can work on well and efficiently. Bernd has already mentioned, Wirtgen has extremely deep expertise in the applications and also in application-oriented software development. We were also able to contribute a great deal of experience in the areas of IoT, efficient storage and the processing of large volumes of data, as well as knowledge of applications in the enterprise environment, i.e. traditional IT. This also includes many non-functional aspects, such as the topic of performance or scalability, but also simple topics such as system monitoring. This clear definition of competencies also made it very easy to define in the project who will implement which components – combined also with clear technical, but also organizational responsibilities and thus also clear interfaces between these components and responsibilities. In concrete terms, this led to Wirtgen contributing the entire software on the machine and implementing the post-processing component for the backend. And we implemented all the other elements: the data transport, the data persistence and validation, the management portal, as well as the postprocessor runtime and the job handling in the backend. These parts were designed and provided by us, and then as part of that we also provided the integration of this so-called post-processor component in the overall system in the scalable form mentioned.
That certainly sounds like a clear definition of competencies and approach. How did the cooperation work in practice, what were your experiences?
In my opinion, working with the Wirtgen team was extremely efficient and also a lot of fun. From my point of view, two aspects were decisive for this:
On the one hand, it is the deep mutual trust that has subsequently made true partnership possible. In a pure supplier-customer relationship, such collaboration and integration would not have been possible. That is the essential aspect.
Secondly, also the mutual recognition of each other’s competencies in their areas and thus automatically not evaluation of issues that are outside of their own area of responsibility in the project. The combination of these two aspects then meant that the cooperation went very nicely, very well and extremely efficiently.
Bernd, the whole thing is ultimately an iterative development of various competencies. What were the success criteria for this project for you from the beginning?
So the top priority is, of course, the availability of this service for our customers. Of course, they have a certain expectation with regard to the reliability of the reports, and that they come with the appropriate quality. In addition, short distances and goal-oriented work are of course important. In the concrete example, this means that in the event of a fault, the problem is solved first and only then is it determined who is responsible for the problem, rather than looking for the culprit first and then having big discussions. Roman just brought it up, such a professional cooperation is simply fun.
Stefan, you are on the road with a broad core portfolio. What about applications in other areas and future developments?
I don’t think it’s a surprise when I say that construction machinery will generally become smarter and more digital in the future. That was already apparent from the whole podcast here. We started with milling machines because that is our main line of business. But we have three other interesting, important divisions and of course we see potential there. It is not yet clear what exactly is coming. But there are certainly interesting approaches in the area of soil stabilization or service mining, for example. Here we are not working on a road in the classic sense, but in mines or on large areas. And here you can think about semi-autonomous driving, that machines intelligently divide up the area themselves, how it would be best to work. There’s also the link to John Deere – that comes from agriculture and how fields can be harvested.
We have another division cold recycling. That’s where it would perhaps make sense to also record all the aggregates that are entered into the mixes and make them available digitally for later quality control. We have a concrete slipform paver division, here one would certainly have an interest in documenting the paved area, the quality, the evennesses, the surface roughness. These are all exciting possibilities for the future.
We will certainly not stop at milling machines, but will also push ahead with developments in the other segments.
If I now put myself in the shoes of our listeners, who may have similar challenges and problems, but in a different environment, for example: Do you think solutions like the Wirtgen Performance Tracker are also transferable to other use cases and areas, Stephan?
So there are two sides to this: On the one hand, the Wirtgen Performance Tracker is an individual digitization solution of a comprehensive IoT platform and technologically very specifically integrated into Wirtgen’s technology and process landscape.
On the other hand, the cooperation model is already very trend-setting when implementing today’s digital solutions and, from our point of view, it is about the very close cooperation mentioned by Bernd with a clear focus on the core competencies. The project planning, methodology and also architecture patterns required for this can be applied very well to other use cases.
What’s the best way to reach Digital Enabler when people want to get in touch with you?
Stefan, how is it with you?
Of course, if someone happens to want to get into the construction machinery business and needs a machine, they are more than welcome to contact us.
Anyone who doesn’t know us yet will certainly reach us best first via our website: www.wirtgen-group.com. There you can also enter which region you come from and you will then be immediately forwarded to the responsible sales or service area, get the contact details of our sales office and can then get in touch with us accordingly.
Thanks for your time – really got some great insights into this IoT project. I think there’s a lot of potential there for the future. Maybe we’ll see or hear from each other again in another round. Thank you to the round!