Just out of university and still working as an intern, Katharina and her team of other newcomers to Bühler ended up winning the innovation challenge and realising their idea of a flexible production process for chocolate moulding using robots.
I have a background in food technology and development. I just came out of university and was an intern in Bühler when I got invited to join a team in our Innovation Challenge. We were a young team, and all of us were very new to Bühler. All invited by the managing director for our business unit. For him, it was a pure experiment to see if we could come up with some ideas. None of us knew each other. Our work experience combined only counted a couple of years.
We started to brainstorm and came up with a couple of ideas, including the one idea which ended up winning. The idea is to create a more flexible process in chocolate moulding based on robots. It is a new concept that readjusts and changes the focus of the lines to make it more flexible without too many stops in between. It can be applied, e.g. for product development, market trials and in showrooms.
At the moment of being selected for the Innovation Challenge, I was working on my master thesis. Having finished, I immediately started working full time on the project as a product manager. We started working on the project, not knowing all details about the technology or the company we were working for. We thus got a lot of support from different departments. The manager who initiated our team ended up joining us to represent the business side.
We developed the concept and the business plan within the Innovation Challenge and then handed it over to R&D to build together a prototype and to continue with an industrial-scale development. In 2017 it made it to the market, which was very fast compared to regular development cycles. A version 2.0 has now been launched, and I have handed over the role.
My primary role was to bring people together and to bring in the market perspective. It was important that automation, engineers and sales discussed different topics and were aligned. As we were a young and less experienced team, there was a lot of time spent on speaking to experts, bringing together different perspectives and trying to synthesize their input within the team. I also spent time presenting to customers and getting their feedback and input. I analyzed customer needs and translated from the interviews what they would prefer, and what would make their life easier. When your idea proposes a more radical change in processes, it is more complex to make it understandable and brings a change of perspective. Within the industry, the ChocoBotic created the conversation and reflection of the conventional way of processing chocolate.
It was both a challenge and an advantage that we were a young team. I was in a unit with people having an average of 20 years of experience. Some people were surprised that our idea and team got selected. We did not have the experience, and some struggled to understand they chose us. We focused on getting in more customer perspective and feedback by directly contacting customers. We wanted to prove that it could work. And we made sure to create a concept that could work in the context of an actual setting.
We got a lot of different feedback from different people, and we needed this feedback, but we also had to stand firm in our beliefs and select which feedback to incorporate. There are many arguments about why things won’t work – sometimes you need to be brave and try it.
We got a lot of different feedback from different people, and we needed this feedback, but we also had to stand firm in our beliefs and select which feedback to incorporate.
Seeing the machine running now in an industry environment fulfils me with pride. The chocolate tastes great, and visitors of the factory tour can even see the ChocoBotic live in action. I am very proud of what we have created, and I can see how our initial conversations and work paved the way for the new bigger versions.
Believe in yourself! Stand firm, also when it gets tough. Honestly, I was so naive in the beginning, not aware of the size of our project. I was so unknowing of what it meant to present to an executive board, so I was not nervous. I enjoyed the playful and project-like character of the process, and I did not have any doubts and did not see the hurdles. Looking back, I would probably have more doubts.
I had the passion, drive and motivation for it – this was even more important than understanding all the details of the process.
I was 100% allocated and was the front person on the stage. But a good, diverse and supportive team is essential! You must have some visionaries on your team, and some doers as well. Team building is a process, and you need to trust in the process of growing the team. Do not take in disappointments, frustrations and self-doubts, but trust that it is part of the process!