Jim Ingrassia is vice president of the solutions support division at Konica Minolta Business Solutions.
Jim Ingrassia of Konica Minolta shares how digitizing the use of its products set the stage for competitive advantage across R&D, product design, marketing, and customer support.
Interview conducted by Vinod Baya, Bo Parker, and Brett Hertzig
PwC: For some time now, Konica Minolta has been active in the Internet of Things via the remote monitoring features in many of its products. Jim, can you share what was the genesis of this capability?
JI: Sure. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, before the merger, both Konica and Minolta were working on ways of gathering information from devices— via phone lines at that time—to provide feedback for product engineering and R&D. The purpose was to collect information about device operation and its use to understand issues that arose in the field and potentially what was causing them. Our teams created the ability to remotely see every signal in the machine. We can detect low voltages, internal jams, faulty signals on PCBs [printed circuit boards], and everything happening in the machine—periodically or on demand.
Although developed for engineering and design purposes, that capability has led us to find other ways to use it. Today we use remote monitoring to enhance our services and our support for our products to our channel partners and end customers. We have been able to build significant value-added capabilities with the remote monitoring feature. My division offers these capabilities to empower about 7,000 to 8,000 technicians in the US. We call this system vCare.
PwC: How many products do you monitor this way?
JI: In the US, we monitor equipment locally within our own territories to see what’s happening with the machine, how healthy it is, and whether it has a problem. In our direct channel, we have more than 120,000 units in the system and more than 106,000 of them are connected with the remote monitoring feature. Globally we have about 550,000 to 600,000 systems that are hooked up this way.
PwC: What are some examples of information you are collecting, and what is the granularity of the information?
JI: What we collect is highly configurable. We can have the machine report the tiniest and most insignificant problem up to or including the major problems for any error codes, such as low toners, paper jams, and so on. We can configure it for each customer, for each machine individually, and as appropriate for the environment where the machine is placed.
The information we collect is very granular. What the machine reports is a raw data packet, varying in size from 15k to 30k, that captures the machine’s state. The data literally can be translated into thousands of readings that describe machine behavior. We translate the signal to a more understandable format, such as the voltages in the various boards, the speed of the fans and if they’re slowing down or malfunctioning, and so on. We can also tell how many 8.5 × 11 sheets or 8.5 × 14 sheets are printed and whether they were landscape or portrait, or color or black and white.
PwC: How have things changed for you from the days when such connectivity did not exist?
JI: There have been many changes and improvements. First is getting insights that you cannot have unless you look across a large population of devices. For example, customers generally don’t report a jam. They just straighten it out and move on. But when we see it happening across 50,000 or 60,000 machines during a period of 30 days, then we look at the data from a different perspective. We start seeing patterns and realize that perhaps we have a design issue.
In one instance, tracking data told us that certain machines had a higher frequency of jams in a particular area of the machine. After analyzing the data from the machines, our teams determined that the jams were caused by a slight deformation of one of our plates. So the issue was taken back to engineering, which redesigned the plate to put a slightly different bend on it, and the problem went away.
As a result of this real-time feedback, a very limited amount of machines were actually manufactured with the original design and for years the rest of them are manufactured with a corrected design.
We can also look at usage and predict features for future products. If we see machines being run more and more for sizes 11 × 17, or 12 × 18, or 13 × 19, for example, it tells us what to optimize the future designs for.
PwC: What are some of the business benefits you are reaping?
JI: One of our key operational benefits is better use of our resources in multiple areas. Most of our machines are on a pay-per-copy contract, so based on usage. To track usage, the old method was to have a team of people call customers at the end of every month and request them to read the meter to the caller. Each meter read probably cost the company between $5 and $8. Today the readings come in automatically from the machine every day.
Going back 10 years, if a customer called, he already had a problem. Over the phone, you would try and ascertain what might be the cause and then send a technician with your best guess as to what to take to fix the problem. Today, we see the problems occurring before or at the same time the customer sees them. With the granularity of the information we collect, we have a much richer understanding of the health of the machine and can diagnose much more accurately. We only make trips that are necessary, we fix multiple issues in one visit, and overall we make fewer trips.
As a result, our service profitability improves. Service profitability goes down every time you get into the car and go to work on a machine that does not require service. Our technicians can service a larger pool of machines than before. Today a technician can handle about 275 to 300 machines. Of course, a lot depends on the size and speed of the machines and the geographical concentration of the machines.
We gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace, because this capability is a strong marketing tool. We are able to know and do things very well, and we continue to innovate to bring new value adds.
PwC: What about the end customer? What benefits are they experiencing?
JI: There are new benefits for customers, too. We can call customers and tell them that they’re having issues with a machine—even before they are aware of it—and that we will send someone within the next several hours or day to address it.
For simple problems, we get customers up and running quicker. If we know that all we’re going to do is drive 25 miles to clear a jam in a certain area and maybe take a rag and wipe clean a piece of glass, we can actually tell the customer the remedy, “Hi, if you want to, just wipe this area and see if that fixes the problem. I’ll call you back in an hour.” Generally, the customers say, “Really, that was it.” They have the machine back without having to wait for us.
We can also help customers by advising them how to use the equipment more optimally. We can let them know that perhaps the machine they have is being driven very hard and a different machine would be a better fit, even more inexpensive for them based on their usage.
When we understand their environment, their workflow, and how they are using the machine, we can create a win-win situation by making things better for them and us.
PwC: The technicians are the key audience you serve. What are some of the benefits they receive from the information collected?
JI: Technicians see benefits in two areas. The first is in optimizing their trips. We actively use the connectivity to detect impending problems. Before a technician goes out, he can use our mobile applications to look into that machine, so to speak, and inspect all the other components to see if any other parts or consumables are in need of maintenance during the call. For example, are rollers close to life or is any component close to needing replacement? Now, they can gather together all the necessary components and tools and handle everything in one visit, instead of realizing that they may need two other components and then making another trip.
The other benefit is that we have transformed the overall experience by taking advantage of tracking information generated by the sensors and creating a seamless end-to-end experience for the technicians to do what they need to do. They can get a message on their smartphone from a machine that needs attention. They look at the machine’s health and diagnose the problem. For certain error codes, they can switch directly to our knowledge database through that smartphone. In the knowledge database, they can find modifications or fixes to correct the situation, including diagrams, parts required, and instructions. From there, they can seamlessly make warranty claims, order parts, schedule visits, and be on their way—all with our mobile applications on the smartphone. This capability has surely boosted their productivity and overall service experience.
PwC: What roles do IT and the CIO play in enabling what you do?
JI: IT is fully involved in enabling us. The communication method with the machines is either one-way e-mail or direct IP transmissions. The foundation is what we call a communication server that collects data from the machines in the field. We have about 35 servers running right now to collect all the information, and that number increases every month as we put 3,000 to 4,000 more units in the field. IT manages and maintains these. The IT department is also integral in load balancing and maintaining our domains to keep things secure and make sure our databases are fully indexed and provide the necessary peak performance. The data we use comes through our SAP system. IT maintains the SAP systems and the integrity of our database servers. The IT department creates a foundation by integrating the machine data with various other sources to enable a wide range of use cases. They take the machine data, massage the data, and integrate it with the service call system, dispatch system, warranty system, consumable replenishment systems, and others.
We use this enabling foundation to power the applications that my organization develops to support the technicians and their support experience.
PwC: What is your advice to others who have not embraced connected device initiatives yet and are curious about it?
JI: The main thing is to never forget the main purpose or the goal of your customers. For us, the goal is to inspire customer passion by providing support and answers for the technicians when they’re trying to repair or modify a machine. Customer satisfaction is always our top priority.