Focus on Innovation
Sibelco’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Georg Wießmeier, discusses our approach to innovation and its central role in our vision.
What does innovation mean for Sibelco today?
Innovation goes way beyond what you might traditionally refer to as research and development. It is about harnessing the know-how gained from R&D and turning it into value in the form of a successful new or improved process, material solution or business model. This doesn’t happen overnight – innovation is a long-term, continuous process which demands ambition and commitment.
What is the key to successful innovation?
Customer centricity is at the heart of innovation. You need to gain a rich understanding of your customers’ needs within the context of their short, medium and long-term goals. This means building relationships over years, resulting in trust and mutual respect. This is key in gaining insights into a customer’s day-to-day business and also their future needs and roadmap.
At Sibelco we need to build even closer relationships with our customers so that we can gain a thorough understanding of the role that existing and new material solutions can play in their success.
How is Sibelco’s approach to technology and innovation structured?
Our approach is based around three innovation domains. The first is Process Innovation, which is about securing and improving Sibelco’s traditional minerals business through the most efficient and effective exploration, processing and plant technologies. This supports the ‘operationally excellent’ element of our Vision 2020.
The second domain is Material Innovation, through which we are extending our traditional minerals business in line with our Vision to become a leading material solutions provider, for example in polymers, coatings, construction and electronics.
Our third domain is Business Innovation – this is about creating new business models utilising both internal and external know-how. ‘Intrapreneurship’ is important within this third platform, which means supporting small teams of employees with entrepreneurial ideas and talent to turn concepts into new business streams within what we call the Technology & Innovation Business Incubator. Through the Incubator we are also leveraging external know-how with corporate venturing focused on innovative start-ups that fit with our business strategies, and new technology platforms.
How has Sibelco’s innovation strategy changed in recent years?
Traditionally we have focused heavily on providing technical support for our raw material customers. We will continue to provide this important, shorter-term aspect of our service, whilst at the same time devoting additional resources to developing our medium and long-term horizons, both of which focus on disruptive, step-change innovation.
To support this, we have established a new group looking at global megatrends and how they translate into opportunities and threats for new and existing business and materials.
In short, our innovation strategy is now more customer-centric with a longer-term view.
Who gets involved in technology and innovation and how is the team organised?
T&I isn’t a stand-alone department within Sibelco. We have developed an innovation community made up of over 350 people from different business functions, connected via a dedicated web-based innovation portal through which we share ideas, information and resources.
A focus on recruitment in collaboration with universities will help us to further expand our ‘knowledge pool’. Selected people are developing new skills through the two-year Sibelco Innovation Development Program which supports participants in delivering an innovation project which spans multiple business domains and locations.
We are currently in the process of consolidating our network of laboratories and technical centres in order to achieve critical mass. Our plan is to have a central Innovation Hub in each of our operating regions which will provide an interface between different business functions such as engineering, geology, strategic marketing, sales and operations, thereby facilitating the cross-fertilisation of ideas. It is at these interfaces where innovation really happens. The Innovation Hubs will be supported by smaller application satellite labs close to our customers.
What do you feel will be the big game changers in the minerals industry over the next twenty years?
Access to resources will become more and more difficult. We therefore need to engage in new technologies to support resource exploration, the circular economy, the valorising of waste streams and the development of secondary raw materials.
We need to develop more efficient mineral processes that use less energy, thereby reducing costs and CO2 emissions. Automation and digitalisation will help to reduce operational and maintenance costs whilst also improving safety in mines and processing plants.