AkzoNobel is a global expert in paint and coatings. Its products are used to decorate homes and businesses, protect pipelines and turbines, and to coat aircraft, automotive vehicles and even marine vessels.
Working with Newcastle University’s National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD), AkzoNobel’s representatives built predictive models that would provide customers with vital business insights, as well as a quality product. And – what’s more – they learned some of the skills that would allow them to turn more of their ideas into reality in future.
This is a real transformation for AkzoNobel; to develop from a company that sells paint, to a company that provides APIs and data, and is engaging with start-ups around predicting the performance of its coatings in the future. That's really exciting
AkzoNobel is the international firm behind recognised brands such as Dulux, Sikkens and Interpon powder coatings. As a leader in the field of paint and coatings, it is active in a variety of industries, including aerospace, oil and gas, mining, power and the marine shipping sector. It employs 35,000 people across the world and operates in more than 80 countries.
AkzoNobel has a history going back hundreds of years. But even the most established companies have to keep their eye on what’s coming around the corner. In setting up its Innovation Incubator, the company pledged to back promising ideas, particularly in areas where uncertainty and risk were high. The aim was to develop or support innovations that would make up a substantial proportion of its turnover by 2025.
The company approached the team at NICD with two goals in mind:
- To help it use its data to create models that could benefit customers
- To learn some of the skills that would enable it to do more of this work in-house
With the help of NICD staff, AkzoNobel representatives undertook a six-month project at Newcastle Helix, a North East-based international science and technology hub. In that time, they:
- Cleaned and analysed data from different locations, and in different formats
- Developed a Minimum Viable Product that could offer real value to customers
- Learnt a variety of skills in predictive modelling and machine learning
- Encouraged other AkzoNobel staff to consider how they could develop their own ideas
We want to be a leading digital company as well as a traditional paint company. NICD really helped us to understand the skills we didn't have, some of which we didn't know we needed
From “descriptive” to “predictive” data
AkzoNobel is no stranger to collecting data. As a leading international operation, it collects business intelligence from many different markets and sectors. These go into descriptive analytics dashboards which help teams monitor how much has been sold, and where.
In recent years, it had also worked with consultants on projects that pooled data into “predictive” models, which would help it make smarter decisions. But that arrangement meant that the company was reliant on external skills, or products that could be sold, changed or shut down.
“We were having the ideas internally, but really outsourcing to other people to do that work for us”, says Richie Ramsden, from AkzoNobel’s Data Insight Team. “We decided that a project with NICD that could help us upskill – or at least understand some of the skills we needed – was really vital.”
They even had a project in mind…
Corrosion in motion
When you’re operating a fleet of marine vessels travelling the world, you’ve got to take care of your hulls. AkzoNobel sells anti-corrosive coatings which help to protect hulls from everything from salt water damage to barnacles.
These coatings can last as long as 25 to 30 years, but ships still need to check back into dry dock every five years or so to assess how the vessel is performing in general. Vessel operators want to keep time in dry dock to a minimum, so they can save time, money and fuel. So AkzoNobel needed a solution that would allow customers to predict how their hulls were holding up, without having to wait for a docking or dive inspection.
“If you own a building and you want to know if the paint is still doing what it’s supposed to, you can go and have a look”, says Richie. “But if it’s on the underside of a ship moving around the world, it’s much harder and more expensive to do that.”
Future ideas are born
The collaboration with NICD didn’t just lead to the creation of a new project. It also provided AkzoNobel with more understanding of the skills involved in creating products.
Richie says: “We’ve learned about machine learning and data analytics, so that we know what goes into running this kind of project again. And we also know what abilities are required, so that we can put together a specification to recruit for people with these kinds of skills.”
In January 2019, AkzoNobel launched Paint the Future, a start-up challenge which encourages institutions, teams and experts to work with the company to develop ideas, improve processes and come up with inspiring solutions.
Through working with NICD, Richie says the Data Insight Team now has a more rounded understanding of how to secure and share data, and make the most of these link-ups.
The excitement of the NICD project has also filtered down to other AkzoNobel staff. Other departments are already considering how similar projects would enable them to deliver efficiencies and new products.
“Saying we’re working with the National Innovation Centre for Data is a big thing. And I think that’s borne out by the way that people are exploring other projects as well. This has been successful and we’ve got something out of it. Others in AkzoNobel are seeing those positives and talking about running other projects .
“If you talk to anybody in research, sales and marketing, everybody’s talking about how they can use the data they have better. They’re looking at us, and asking what skills they need to do something like this.
“With NICD’s help, we’ve used a wealth of data to build digital products for the future, and that feels really exciting to me.”