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Information technology will radically change business models in many industries. Small and medium-sized companies are now receiving support from specialized start-ups.
In the beginning, small and medium-sized enterprises had missed the opportunity to enter the digital age. Then came "digitisation knights" who analysed neither production processes nor the needs of the companies. Now, at last, the "right" digitisation has arrived at the SME sector. One that links machines and processes, shortens procedures, supports employees and - increases output.
In a survey conducted by the Bundesverband mittelständische Wirtschaft (BVMW), the German Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, two thirds of medium-sized companies stated that digital processes were helping them to overcome the corona crisis. And just as many are planning to make greater use of digital instruments.
Capital-strong sectors such as banks and insurance companies have so far been more digitalised than, for example, the construction or hospitality industries. "But I am convinced that the other sectors will follow suit," says Mario Ohoven, President of the BVMW. In retail, the growing market pressure of e-commerce will radically change business models. The Internet of Things and 5G promise rapid digitalisation in the industry, and in the field of artificial intelligence I see logistics as a pioneering industry.
Help is now available to SMEs from specialised start-ups, for example Actyx AG. Founder Maximilian Fischer explains: "We must not think digitisation too complicated. A boss in a factory is interested in delivery times, machine capacity utilisation, downtime, costs".
What has been around in the office and business world for a long time, Actyx has been developing for factories for over four years. The computer scientists have developed the "Actyx OS" platform and programmed suitable apps. This enables data to be read from the machines and the machines and their processes to be linked.
A steel trading and processing company, for example, wanted better utilisation of its machinery. Lasers and saws were equipped with digital technology. This means that it is possible to read out when the machines are switched on and off, what faults there are, the control system and controlling.
Employees have a tablet where they have an overview of order status, material quantities and much more in real time. This data is constantly synchronised with the SAP system. This enables improved post-calculation, prices can be increased or decreased.
However, the Actyx system is not completely similar to the system used in the office world. It does not store the data in a cloud and does not need to access a server. The storage takes place on site in the factory, in the machines, in its own computer system. This means that operation is completely independent of an Internet failure, it remains flexible, data secure and scalable.
Another example shows a company for chemical-technical filling. Various silicones, adhesives and others have to be filled into tubes, cartridges and bags. The material has to be on the machine in time and also away again before the next batch comes.
Until now, forklift drivers have done this "on instinct". Now every driver has a tablet with an app that shows What is ready when, what is requested, plus all order and warehouse information. Whether a driver constantly drives in or out of the WLAN with the forklift is of no interest.
The system is independent, the effect is huge: the company saves a good five-figure sum a year. Solutions for the maintenance of underground railways are also currently being developed on this basis.
The lack of digital infrastructure (broadband) is often still a problem for entrepreneurs. "Moreover, the political framework conditions make it difficult to invest more in digitisation. Bureaucracy, especially the basic data protection regulation, is another obstacle," says Ohoven.
And: "The Achilles' heel of the SME sector is the lack of skilled workers. Large companies often have their own innovation departments, which are equipped with appropriate human and financial resources. In contrast, medium-sized companies have to free up time for themselves and their team in their day-to-day business in order to develop their business model digitally".
Some SMEs are also unaware of the potential that digitisation offers for their own business. The Federal Ministry of Economics has launched support programmes such as "Mittelstand digital" or "Digital jetzt". The latter runs until the end of 2023. 203 million euros are available. Applications can be submitted by small and medium-sized enterprises from all sectors (including craft enterprises and the liberal professions) with three to 499 employees.
Besides money, there is also practical help. The SME 4.0 Competence Centre accompanies companies on their way into the digital future. So far, 56,000 medium-sized companies have been reached here.
One example is the long-established company Gebrüder Runde, which has been offering occupational safety and workwear for almost 100 years. With Corona, the aviation industry as a bulk buyer was eliminated 100 percent, customers with smaller and less regular orders became more relevant.
The concept: new products and services, new digital distribution channels. The company focuses on sustainable textiles. Two new webshops were developed to tap into new customer groups online. Targeted search engine ads increased the reach. The success: after a very short time, the company was able to record a noticeable increase in customers.
All industries are represented in the SME 4.0 competence centre. One of them is "Textile Networked". "Our task is to support small and medium-sized companies in the textile industry, textile machine construction and related sectors in the digital transformation and introduction of AI-based applications," reports managing director Anja Merker. The companies are specifically concerned with the question: How can the data generated in the production lines be made available in a bundled form?
There is also increasing demand from medium-sized textile companies for artificial intelligence (AI) applications. AI trainers show in free training courses how AI can be introduced in a small company.
Example: the clothing falcon. This family-owned company comprehensively and promptly records data that are generated during the production of knitted socks. These are used to introduce AI-based applications to improve the production of knitted goods.
While agriculture has long been at the forefront of digitisation, telemedicine is booming in the healthcare industry. More than 25,000 medical practices already offer video consultation hours. In clinics and medical practices, data is fed in centrally; photos for wound healing, for example, land in the system directly from the patient's bed.
Many clinics also already offer an "online check-in". New technologies will change the everyday life of patients and the treatment options for diseases.
Back in mechanical engineering, Philipp Krenkel, speaker at the Digital SME Industry Forum, gives some food for thought: "You can digitise anything. But I also have to earn money with it. Highly sophisticated solutions do not always get you further. That is why small and medium-sized businesses are approaching digitisation in a much more pragmatic way".
Krenkel is technical director and member of the management board at Hoffmann Maschinen und Apparatebau. Up to the light-controlled assembly process, he has implemented everything here, and has always taken the 250 employees with him.
Mario Ohoven is convinced: "The same applies to digitisation: if you don't keep up with the times, you'll keep up with the times. Artificial intelligence acts as an accelerator, it is the key to tomorrow's competitiveness".
According to an association survey, one third of small and medium-sized enterprises are already using AI in individual projects, and 25 percent are planning to use AI.