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Building a demonstrator

The SKF Insight® Story

On a Tuesday afternoon in November, I got a call from Rob Hendrikx, Head of the System & Product Development group at SKF Engineering Research Centre in Nieuwegein. He asked me if we would be interested in developing and building an interactive demonstrator for the new SKF Insight project: a real-time, cloud-based monitoring system for multiple bearings in a mechanical system that combines sensors, wireless technology and a micro generator inside a bearing. The demonstrator would be needed fast, for the Hannover Fair in just four months’ time.

We had been working for SKF on and off over the last seven years, so Rob knew of the experience and expertise of our Employeneurs, but taking on a time-critical project in-house with our own resources and infrastructure would be something new and not part of the strategy of TMC. Also, he told me, we would be up against two other companies and would have to pitch our concept to a group of other SKF managers.

Intrigued by the challenge and keen to see if we could beat the competition, I accepted the offer to do the pitch.

Questions and challenges

A week later, Peter Klein Meuleman and I went to SKF to meet some of the people involved with the development of SKF Insight. The first thing we realized at that start-up meeting, was that the people involved at SKF where not all in agreement about what the demonstrator should look like and which functionality was key. Should there be one or multiple bearings running? Should they all run at the same speed? What kind of a disturbance should we be able to induce in the bearing and how? Another challenge was that the type of bearing needed for the launch was not production ready at the time. So there were a lot of unknowns for us to deal with. But by the end of the meeting, we did have some ideas in mind for a concept.

First concepts

Driven as always, Peter Klein Meuleman started that same evening making the first sketches. And over the next few days, he met up with colleagues Peter van der Krieken, Niels Loos, Rob Veltman and Edo Aneke to develop some initial concepts, which we presented to SKF two weeks later.

We used these concepts in another interactive session with SKF, to get the requirements for the project clear. Because without that, you end up with problems and discussions later on. The session went well, and it was great to see this group of enthusiastic professionals win over the trust of the customer. After this session, the group, with the help of other Employeneurs Rob Vos, Paulus Potter and Thijs Nijpjes, came up with the final concepts that we would pitch to SKF.

Of course a pitch is not only about the technical workings, functionality and looks of the product, but also about the costs involved. This project was especially challenging because there was a fixed price and the hard deadline of the Hannover Fair for us to meet. Confident that we could do it with this team, we pitched our concept two weeks later. SKF made us wait another two weeks before giving us their answer, but it was a yes. We got the gig!

Racing to meet the deadline

By that time, it was mid-December. We had several meetings with SKF over the next few weeks to get the design details right – not only from a mechanical point of view, but also the mechatronics, electronics and user interface, which we had to develop from scratch. And finally, the demonstrator had to look good and be consistent with the rest of the SKF stand.

The team selected suppliers to help us with the design and put in a lot of energy to get it finalized by the deadline. To gain time, we carried out different processes concurrently, accepting the risk of errors that this created. We had to deal with setbacks, delays at our suppliers and last-minute changes that arose from new insights along the way. This meant we didn’t have much time to deal with any unforeseen problems. It was the end of January by the time we were ready to send orders to suppliers, and with lead times of two-to-six weeks, we were only able to start actually building the hardware around the second week of March.

Before shipping the demonstrator to Hannover for the Fair, SKF wanted to have it in Nieuwegein, to test the final production-ready versions of the bearing and the cloud-based system, including an SKF Insight app. That gave us about two weeks to assemble everything and test it in our TMC lab. Also, before shipment we needed to write a shipment and a user manual. Nick Keijzer from Field Service joined the team and wrote these documents for the project.

Along the way some errors were made, by us and by our suppliers, and SKF kept trying to change the requirements, but in the end we met the deadline, on time and on budget.

A winning team

But why did we win the pitch in the first place? It was not because of our quotation, because we were not the cheapest. And it was not because of our track record in doing these types of projects for SKF. It was because SKF knew we are experts at running multidisciplinary projects, and because they saw the drive and passion of our people in the initial meetings, and because they knew that this demonstrator would need to be a fully functional test rig to better understand the dynamic behavior of their sensors and not just a static display. Therefore they needed a company they could trust, who had all the necessary expertise under one roof – and TMC is unique in that way.

I went to the Hannover Fair to see the unit on the stand and to talk to the actual customer: the sales people of SKF, who were using the demonstrator to present to the world their new technology. Their reactions were all very positive, and the unit looked great and performed well. It made me very proud to see what we had managed to pull off together.

Yes, we were ‘lucky’ that some key team members were without an assignment at the time we started the project and others were able to shift hours at their current customer. It took us around 1,000 hours and a team of 12 to get this demonstrator designed, developed, built and delivered. It was a great show of employeneurship and the collective strength of a multidisciplinary team. So let me finish by thanking them all one last time and congratulating them on a great achievement!

Edwin de Zeeuw – TMC Mechatronics

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