“A bit faster is always a bit better”

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Audi CIO Mattias Ulbrich says his IT staff will continue to grow (Photo: Claus Dick)

Audi IT has more than doubled its workforce in the last five years and is continuing to grow. And so is its budget. In an interview, CIO Mattias Ulbrich points out the new challenges that his operations have to meet, how he is Audi’s capacity to innovate, and how he has used agile methods to take cooperation between IT and the premium brand’s operating departments to a new level.

Mr. Ulbrich, you have put Audi IT through a major reorganization and are adopting competency networks. In the era of digitization, what are you specifically hoping will result?
On one hand, we have strengthened the focus of certain topics such as digitization on the product and the customer. On the other, we have bundled responsibilities. For example, there is now a unit working exclusively to make Audi employees more productive. We offer all the services for the workplace of the future, including collaboration tools, end devices and document management, from a single source. As the second step, it was important to network the competencies in the IT area more effectively than in the past. We have deliberately adopted a process orientation, which is why we ensure that specialized knowledge about strategically important subjects such as cloud computing, data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and 3D printing can circulate freely in our organization. Every person should share his know-how with colleagues and be able to access experts.

What is the best way to succeed at this?
We have implemented creative methods and established the freedom that allows employees to deal with digitization initiatives in our competency networks in a connected, agile and profitable way. With us, technology and methods go hand-in-hand.
We have become a main partner with the departments, a key shaper of Audi’s digital progress and thus a crucial factor for success. Throughout the company in recent years, there has been a huge and growing appreciation of the active help and support that Audi IT can give to many projects.

Your area currently employs about 1,000 staff at the Audi’s headquarters in  Ingolstadt, Germany, plus another 300 at locations abroad. Are you comfortable with this level of staffing?
We have more than doubled the number of employees since 2012, and our staff will continue to grow in the future. That is only natural. We are taking on more and more tasks and are working in close cooperation with all the departments. For example, working closely with Audi’s individual departments, we have improved processes in manufacturing, logistics and quality assurance, boosting productivity while reducing costs with the help of intelligent IT solutions

Do you use the services of Volkswagen Group subsidiary AutoVision?
On a selective basis. Here in Ingolstadt, our colleagues support IT operations and manufacturing with an operations center. This service was previously divided among various providers. It did make sense to bring the work in-house because the process know-how is very Audi-specific.

Roland Villinger has been the CDO of Audi since the autumn of 2016. On what types of projects do your paths cross the most frequently?
We see each other daily, and I can say with full conviction that Roland Villinger is an asset to Audi. He has brought 25 years of experience at McKinsey to the company and has stimulated us in important ways. To be successful, it takes several players passing the ball precisely to one another. In many areas, we do a beautiful double-pass play and move issues forward together. This works better on a team than it does alone – especially since we have established this high level of cooperation with other areas, such as technical development and sales. It’s important to work as a team and pursue common goals.

What items are at the top of your to-do list at the moment?
The array of assignments is broad and ranges from the digitization of core processes to the configuration of our service and vehicle platform, now with more than 2 million vehicles. Our board of management is directly involved with key decisions. Fortunately, there are no turf battles. In a very pragmatic way, we’ve set the best solution for Audi as the goal.

Who has proven to be a driving force in projects such as Audi connect or Audi City? Is it IT or the operating departments?
I see give-and-take.  Technological stimuli sometimes come from a “hackathon” that we organize, such as the Audi IT Hackathon or the Smart Factory Hackathon. Sometimes an operating department develops a very clear idea of what a solution or process must provide. This is similar to the tried-and-tested interplay between sales and development on the vehicle side.

Is your collective speed fast enough? Or do you occasionally want more pressure in the boiler?
We are moving at a good speed. Agile methods are used in many areas. The days when we would painstakingly assemble all the requirements and create a detailed specifications book are over. Today, right at the first results, we check to see whether the function is heading in the direction that the department wants. But naturally, a bit faster is always a bit better

Do you need to give VW Group issues special consideration?
We have a good, constructive working relationship with our colleagues at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg. Sure, there is the occasional situation where different opinions arise. Then we always mutually coordinate the various priorities. We have a good, constructive working relationship with our colleagues in Wolfsburg.

Market researchers Forrester talks about the dual agenda of tech management. Other analysts call it two-speed IT.  What approach is Audi taking?
Actually, I think the idea of “dual” is too few. That would mean that IT has just a slow and a fast speed. At Audi, this depends on the particular project. We are constantly moving in the magic triangle of speed, quality and costs. That’s why I would rather talk about a multispeed organization that functions at the optimal pace for the particular project. DevOps play an important role for effective and efficient cross-functional cooperation. Throughout the world, Audi development engineers can work with virtualized CAx workstations. To do this, you had to invest heavily in high-performance computing at the Ingolstadt computing center.

How do you justify the significant expense involved here?

Ulbrich believes AI will affect all of Audi’s operations (Photo: Claus Dick)

We use numerous engineering applications today, independently of the end device. It is not just engineers working at high-performance graphics workstations who have access to the applications. There are also normal PC workstations and tablet computers, and, with certain functional restrictions, even smartphones. A remote graphic solution, which our employees use right on their end devices, makes this possible. On the asset side, this is a clear plus for cross-location collaboration, and a reliable and especially a secure integration of our development partners. We don’t push any data back and forth. With a centralized approach, all the files are deposited on our server. The system is running on about 850 workstations, and that number is climbing.

Artificial intelligence is ushering in a new, exciting world of work in factories, people in Audi manufacturing say. What technologies can you use to support this field?
AI is not just important to production but to the entire company. It will bring major changes to our mobility, our world of work and our life. That’s why Audi has formed its “Beyond” initiative, which has built up an interdisciplinary network of AI experts and regularly brings scientists, philosophers, psychologists, software engineers, startup entrepreneurs and legal experts together. An Audi IT innovation team is now grappling exclusively with machine learning in all its facets. Several different use cases have already arisen from it.

Can you give us a specific example?
In early June, we automated component inspection at our Ingolstadt stamping plant. The prototype can identify fine cracks in sheet-metal with high precision and reliably mark the location on its own, using a camera and a complex artificial neuronal network. Defective parts are separated out, and production quality is increasing, reducing costs in the process. We continue to train the AI network on crack detection and plan to use the system in regular production at all Audi manufacturing facilities in the future.

Here in Ingolstadt, 12 parking robots are transporting vehicles fully autonomously from a parking structure for loading onto railway cars. How did you integrate this new technology into your inventory systems?
There is an interface to our central distribution system that tells the parking robot where to park a vehicle. “Ray,” which is what we call the parking robot, captures the location and dimensions of the car using a laser sensor system. The loading onto the train cars takes place when there are enough vehicles heading to the same destination. In this way, up to 2,000 vehicles are transported daily over a distance of 500 km within a 20,000 square-meter sorting and buffering area. All without human intervention.

In the autumn of 2016, you were the sponsor of a hackathon where young programmers tried their hand at software solutions for smart factories. The winner was a new concept for container management…
Yes, those two days were very exciting. We had 72 young data-scientists from 17 countries at the starting line. They worked with our colleagues in manufacturing on very specific problems.  For me personally, it I was very exciting to see how the individual teams approached their task and how they attempted to find a solution. Incidentally, we are going to delve more deeply into about two-thirds of all the ideas that they worked out.

Digitization is changing job descriptions. Not long ago, Audi expanded the education for IT specialists in system integration, adding a continuing education program for electricians. What is the thinking behind this decision?
The combination of hardware and software is valuable. Anyone who knows how to handle both will always have the total picture in view. In my case, I studied electrical engineering with an emphasis on information sciences – and I have benefited from this down to the present in many situations. At Audi, there are a great many scenarios involving the programming of software for electronic control units. It is ideal if I don’t merely know my way around the world of algorithms but also understand how the hardware reacts.

Under a works agreement, Audi employees have the right to work flexibly with regard to their workplace and working hours. What professional groups benefit the most from this, and what are the solutions that Audi IT is contributing?
No question: The workplace of the future is becoming increasingly flexible and, in many areas, more mobile. in practically every company sector, this is resulting in possible configurations that give priority to efficiency and a variety of approaches to work. For example, we are using Skype for Business application across the board. It makes it possible to easily arrange and execute online discussions. Month in and month out, Audi employees carry out hundreds of thousands of Skype conferences. In doing so, they are substantially reducing business travel between their locations while saving time and money. In Audi IT, we are basically designing new applications so that they can be used on mobile end devices.

Interview by Ralf Bretting and Hilmar Dunker

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