Strong in times of change On the lookout for new ideas

Innovation is a critical competitive advantage in the age of digital transformation. On the lookout for new ideas, ZF relies on inspiration from within and without.

The whole story began with an accident. After Dr. Malgorzata Wiklinska crashed into a car while riding her bike when she was the head of the ZF‘s Denkfabrik think tank, she came up with the idea of X2Safe, an intelligent algorithm that can warn vulnerable road users such as cyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists about a potential collision via smartphone or smartwatch. A few months later, the ZF Denkfabrik presented the algorithm at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

X2Safe is an example of how an employee’s idea can lead to a new product at ZF at start-up speed. The company isn’t leaving anything to chance as it creates competitive advantage with digitalization. “The transformation is not only affecting our products, services, and technologies, but also our culture,” says Mamatha Chamarthi, Chief Digital Officer at ZF.

In order to usher in this change in culture, the company also seeks inspiration externally through events such as ZF Pitch Night, for example, where more than 50 startups from 15 countries presented their ideas at the company’s headquarters in Friedrichshafen. “At Pitch Night, we brought young, creative minds from the international startup scene directly to the company to share their best ideas,” explains Wiklinska, now Head of Digital Ecosystem and Strategic Partnerships at ZF.

External Ecosystem

Now, the winners of ZF Pitch Night are working alongside ZF engineers to turn their ideas into innovative solutions. The Canadian start-up, Acerta, developed an algorithm using predictive analytics to proactively detect cog failures in wind turbine gearboxes. This solution is spreading virally across the all business units. Another project that emerged from the Pitch Night is being developed in conjunction with Gefasoft. The Bavarian company from Munich, Germany, is digitalizing shop floor management at the ZF plant in Saarbrücken. This solution will likely be deployed at other ZF manufacturing facilities in the near future.

In February the company also announced a cooperation arrangement with the Californian company Plug and Play, a start-up accelerator from Silicon Valley, and a partnership with the growing innovation platform Startup Autobahn, part of ZF’s overall Global Innovation Hub strategy.

Internal Ingenuity

Yet ZF is also making the most of its employees’ potential. The company has established an internal ideas competition for them known as the “Digital Innovation Challenge”. This gives all employees the opportunity to turn their digital ideas into reality outside of any hierarchical levels or departmental restrictions. The aim of the challenge is to further digitalize products and services, business processes, manufacturing and shop floor, and the workplace.

“The challenge has surfaced powerful ideas that we plan to implement in an agile way. We plan for our employees to work closely with our ecosystem to continue to rapidly prove the business benefits of these digital ideas. Then, we will scale the resulting solutions, working closely with divisions and functions to maximize business outcomes for ZF,” says Mamatha Chamarthi.

ZF has also created the “Digital Innovation Space”. In this colorful, creative space, collaborative teams from development, IT, other business units, and external partners can all work together on digital business projects. The Car eWallet project came from the Digital Innovation Space in conjunction with UBS, and it uses blockchain technology to simplify on-the-go charging of electric cars. The concept was unveiled for the first time in January 2017 at the CES. Details on specific features will follow at the IAA. This demonstrates that ZF successfully employs various approaches in its search for digital innovations.

Room for creativity: in the Digital Innovation Space developers and IT specialists work together on new business models.

Further related articles