14 January 2021

Tech that Suits – Traditional versus smart tech in tanneries

By Laura Martin

When it comes to innovation, manufacturers show vast diversity in their approach to strategy. From having little to no knowledge, to not only embracing and planning for, but embedding innovation within operations in revolutionary ways – the varying speeds of adoption are remarkable. But is it really essential for any manufacturer to innovate, and what does this actually mean? Where do tanneries fit in when it comes to adopting new technology?

Don’t get me wrong, ‘innovation’ is a great word. A word that holds an answer to many professional environments, and is in that context powerful and sometimes even essential. But often, the word ‘innovation’ is used without substance, a word that will hopefully impress peers without linking it to any relevant meaning.

‘Innovation is the creation, development and implementation of a new product, process or service, with the aim of improving efficiency, effectiveness or competitive advantage.’

Two words stand out in the above definition (as defined by the New Zealand government): ‘new’ and ‘improving’. ‘New’ speaks of newly available technology, a product, process or service that has not yet been adopted by the majority of your competitors. For example: replacing a sammying machine with a new model is technology, but isn’t innovation. However, if the new sammying machine has a revolutionary set of pressure rollers, or is able to detect the exact level of moisture or grease and adjust accordingly, and you are one of the first tanneries to adopt this new equipment – then yes, I’d categorise it as being innovation. Even though the core of the product looks to be existing, the process has improved significantly through innovation.

The second word that stands out in the definition of innovation is ‘improving’. The requisite for improvement in any environment is relevance. The new product, process or service may be amazing, an eye-opening new something that is said to change the world. But is it relevant to your operations? Tanneries are known to have operational processes that are longer, more complex and susceptible to error than any average, straightforward manufacturing plant. Tanneries battle with a number of challenges, both internally as well as in the global community. It is up to them to determine how they seek to solve these challenges, and if innovation can play a part in doing so.

Tannery challenges

To start with, tanneries are at the mercy of nature when it comes to quality. Hides coming in, even from the same supplier, show different levels of quality and different defects every time. The cow’s life has been influenced by many factors, whether they may be seasonal, regional, genetic or simply incidental. Top this with fluctuating levels of hide supply, as well as demand, means the price of hides is a bit like a game of ping-pong. It certainly keeps things interesting.

As anyone involved in tannery operations knows, the tanning process is a tough, yet delicately complex process that involves many stages to bring a raw hide to beautifully finished leather. Personally, I was blown away the first time I stepped inside a tannery and witnessed the sheer size of operations. The range of (often large and expensive) equipment required, even if a tannery takes the hide from its raw state through to Wet Blue or Wet White, rather than through to finished leather, is phenomenal. Drums, fleshing, splitting, sammying, shaving, staking, dryers, roller coating, dyeing, polishing, buffing, measuring and cutting: it is no surprise that tanneries review machine investments carefully. Not only are there so many, they all run day in, day out in some pretty challenging conditions. So even without looking at real innovation just yet, the basic machine park of any tannery already requires for tough, yet essential, decisions to be made.

If the tannery does manage to spend time looking at what innovation is out there, they may have a number of problems they are looking to solve. These could be problems that traditional machines cannot solve, as they are designed to do a single job. They could be problems that humans cannot solve either, because humans aren’t capable to perform any complex task consistently for an extended period – even the best of us. So the problems these tanneries look to solve could be as a result of ‘shortcomings’ of people or traditional technology, limiting the business to further improve its operations.

Tada! Data.

Automating a process, and capturing information that is then translated into valuable insights… it really is about data. Or, simply put, smart software that is able to distil critical intel and inform your staff, or existing machines, what to do with that information. I look at the right innovation a bit like hiring a digital superman, able to deliver the solutions to those problems you have formulated, while having a positive impact on several other processes. Note: this means there is a ‘measurable’ element to innovation, but also an area where you may be positively surprised as the impact reaches parts of the operation you hadn’t foreseen. The ability to make connections changes everything: the software becomes the glue between machines, between processes, and streams of information can suddenly flow freely – adding value elsewhere in the operation as well as giving management new insights. What is important to understand about smart tech, is where traditional technology, the tannery machine, depreciates in value year after year, smart tech increases in value.

Access to Advantage

When compared with traditional technology, integrating smart tech into existing operations has a number of benefits: a lower cost of ownership, transparency, a more motivated workforce, accelerated productivity, greater continuity, optimised use of materials and resources and improved customer experience are some straightforward examples. It also means that you will look at a different type of engagement with the innovation supplier; through its sheer offering – continuous improvement – smart tech is typically offered on a ‘service / subscription’ basis. This means you, as tannery owner, can access highly customised, AI-trained software quickly, without the need for a massive upfront capital expenditure. It means you are able to be an early adopter of innovation that otherwise only the multinational, large enterprises would be able to deploy. And it enables for an optimal competitive advantage.

PwC did an interesting survey several years ago. The outcome was that the manufacturing sector’s most innovative companies grew 38% over three years—nearly 12% per year—while the least innovative managed just 10% growth over the same period. That is nearly a fourfold of growth between least, and most innovative manufacturers! But for a business to innovate, the right innovation must be available. Ben Milner, Allied Manager at AFFCO, looks after the equipment and innovation for several business units, including the tannery and rendering: ‘We definitely count ourselves as early adopters of innovation. The business has an efficient management structure, enabling fast decision-making, and a high focus on improvement through innovation. We embrace a significant amount of technology as it is released. However, it is noticeable that I have seen substantial innovation come out for the meat side of our business, yet limited innovation for the tannery side.’

Questions to ask in developing an innovation strategy

If you are thinking of taking the next step in developing an innovation strategy, the following questions could possibly help you in the right direction:

  • What is our current market position and where do we want to go?
  • What type of innovation do we need? What problems would we like to solve with the innovation? (Product quality? Efficiency? Transparency for decision-making?)
  • Do we have enough innovation talent, or can we attract this type of talent?
  • Are we keen on a strategic partnership with a smart tech supplier to identify new opportunities for optimisation?
  • How are we going to measure innovation?

Ben is crystal clear about the need for innovative talent: ‘We have invested in young, innovative thinking people, Continuous Improvement Managers and others who are able to think outside the square. We regularly sit together and brainstorm with the team, and learn from business examples outside of the tannery industry as well. The need for innovation is a must for tanneries who want to survive and Covid has only further strengthened that urgency. We as tanneries are going to see a huge shift in the next 10 years and we are determined to stay ahead.’

Read more on tannery innovations by Mindhive.

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