As a $5.3 billion manufacturer of materials used in roofing, electronics, insulation and other products, Owens Corning is typically one or two links away in the value chain from its ultimate consumer: homeowners. Nonetheless, the company is keen to use mobile technology in its business, perhaps eventually on the consumer end.
“The short answer is that we’re really studying this to determine the best course of action,” says Jim Beilstein, director, information and manufacturing technology for the Toledo, Ohio-based company.
Owens Corning has already been remarkably creative in how it deploys mobile technology for its core customers: building contractors, who install its roofing, insulation and other materials. They are ambassadors for the brand to consumers, of course along with the iconic Pink Panther cartoon character, which the company has used since 1980 to promote its insulation products. The company is also developing a mobile system that helps employees track efficiency and quality at its far-flung manufacturing facilities, with the goal of maintaining consistency and quality for industrial and building contractor customers, as well as consumers.
Pro Connect™, a web portal for contractors, is Owens Corning’s first entry into mobile technology. The insulation and roofing materials that the company sells to contractors and “big box” retailers, such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s, accounted for about two-thirds of its 2011 revenue ($3.5 billion). Introduced over the past year, Pro Connect gives contractors product information, marketing materials, account and rebate information, instruction manuals and other data. Because the site is HTML5-enabled, contractors can access Pro Connect from mobile devices or desktop computers. This means that whether they are on a job site or at an office, contractors can now use their mobile devices to get the information they need to understand and use Owens Corning products.
Contractors have enthusiastically received the mobile-enabled web portal, using it at an even higher rate than the company expected. That’s because the portal lets contractors get the information they need, when they need it — even at a job site or on the run — without the need to call an Owens Corning customer service center or area sales manager.
“They can now serve themselves on as-needed, anywhere basis, which is what I think a lot of contractors are looking for today,” says Beilstein, adding that many contractors are in small to medium-sized businesses without the support personnel that larger companies have to deal with suppliers.
Along with the solid benefits it offers to Owens Corning contractor customers, mobile technology also holds great promise for the company’s 90 manufacturing sites around the world. In 2012 the company launched an initiative to provide mobile web tools largely to the company’s composites business (which this year will account for about 40% of total sales).
“The challenges we’re trying to solve with these tools is to drive productivity in our manufacturing operations,” explains Beilstein. “The concept is that by providing our manufacturing people with information that they need at their fingertips, they won’t necessarily have to jump on an airplane to solve a problem, or wait a long time to get an answer.”
Moreover, large global customers want the composite materials from Owens Corning and other suppliers to be more consistent. “Our products need to have the same characteristics in performance criteria whether they’re made in Brazil or Russia,” Beilstein says. “Having the ability to understand how are platforms are performing around the world is critical to us.”
Mobile technology that enables employees worldwide to track plant performance and troubleshoot issues can increase product quality. It can also reduce the need for manufacturing employees to travel to converse with their peers to get answers.
But first, the company must get its global manufacturing plants to speak the same technical language. Owens Corning operates plants in 28 countries, and many of those factories have different technology platforms. “Our plants have shop-floor technology, data systems and manufacturing IT systems that collect information and performance characteristics on how our lines are operating,” Beilstein says. Those systems are then integrated with other information systems that operate each plant.
The problem is that the technology running the plants can be quite diverse across Owens Corning’s factories. To address this, Owens Corning is creating an integration layer that lets the company connect to all its disparate manufacturing technology platforms, rather than replacing all of the underlying technology, which would be an enormous investment.
Today, Beilstein’s group manages a dozen or more mobile technology solutions, each dedicated to a niche manufacturing issue. He would like to take an approach he calls “the Swiss army knife” method, which would be creating a mobile application that can solve a range of plant issues. “We’re working with our business units to define what they expect first on a mobile device,” he explains. That will probably be building in such mobility functionality as performance dashboards, basic operational and financial reporting, and manufacturing metrics.
The applications are being developed to accommodate an open technology platform, enabling many types of mobile devices to be used in the plants. “I think our employees will like having a choice in what smart phones they use,” Beilstein says.
The biggest concern is security. “Protecting information on a mobile device, particularly in an intellectual property-intensive business like we have, is a challenge,” he says. As a result, the company is proceeding cautiously into the mobile realm to protect its most sensitive information. “We know the threats are out there. We’ve been talking with a lot of peer companies that have actually measured the impact of the threats to their businesses. The security of mobile devices is still evolving, whereas security on laptop computers is now very mature.”
By end of 2012, about 20 Owens Corning factories should be equipped with mobile solutions that provide dashboard and other reporting. Later, after the solutions have been tested and tweaked, the company will roll out these tools to other plants.
And what about Owens Corning mobile solutions for homeowners? Beilstein says the company is thinking about them, but the benefits are not yet clear. As he points out, homeowners can go as long as 15 to 20 years before they buy a new roof; after purchasing a new home they may never buy insulation again.
Unlike food, beauty products and other consumer items, “it’s a one- or two-time event to buy insulation for a home,” he explains. The result is that any Owens Corning consumer mobile website or app might be used just once or twice by a consumer until the product is installed. However, the company is embracing mobile technology that ensures quality and protects its reputation, for both its core users and ultimately for consumers.