He is the UK CEO of German manufacturing giant Siemens and the man hired by the UK Government to lead the country’s digitisation strategy as the world enters the fourth industrial revolution. Stephen Hall meets charismatic CEO Juergen Maier to find out how the role is changing and how the UK can benefit from this new era of the internet of things.
Over 200 years ago, plumes of smoke billowed from the first coal-powered steam train in South Wales. Vast factories rose up around the country, manned by labourers working gruelling 12 to 14-hour shifts. Traditional manual manufacturing methods were replaced by giant iron machines; this evolution heralded the dawn of the first industrial revolution, the working landscape in the UK changing almost imperceptibly in a few short years.
The second revolution, also known as the technological revolution, followed in 1870 and continued until the outbreak of the First World War, incorporating science-based and engineering innovations such as the telegraph and the radio. The third started in the 1980s with the eruption of digital electronics such as the computer.
We’re now entering the fourth industrial revolution, or industry 4.0. By the end of 2017, there will be 8.7 billion connected devices worldwide, able to communicate with each other at lightning speed. Smaller gadgets are now able to link with much larger machines such as wind turbines. In this time of ultra-interconnectivity, Amazon’s Echo and the iPhone X are eminent examples of a new age of IoT.
The internet is now able to control everything from kettles to the factory floor, providing a massive opportunity for optimisation and automation.
A history of innovation
Engineering giant Siemens produces many of the smaller connected electronics synonymous with the IoT revolution, as well as electric aircraft, power plants and renewable energy facilities, all of which are able to communicate and connect to the internet. The virtual world is merging with reality – and the potential for change is enormous.
The history of Siemens in the UK dates back to 1850 when William Siemens, a 19-year-old engineer, entrepreneur and the brother of the company’s founder, established a successful office in London installing telegraph poles. Siemens subsequently provided the first electric street lighting in England and has been a big player in the UK ever since.
Currently sitting in the UK hot seat is Juergen Maier, having arrived on British shores in 1974. Similar to the young William Siemens, he’s a German native who has made England his home – and, like his distant relative, he has some big ideas about the nation's progression.
“In the UK we want to make sure we're creating more jobs through the use of this IoT technology than we will displace,” he explains. “We're putting out the argument that through artificial intelligence we can create new jobs; new manufacturing roles, the creation of 3D printing roles, all of these new jobs are high value. We believe that this whole journey will be a massive solution to this imbalanced economy.”
One of the consequences of this financial disparity was the country’s decision last year to exit the EU. As the nation is left to ponder the potential implications of the vote, the CEO argues that the costs of the departure could be mitigated by investment in innovative digital advances.
“There are some risks of Brexit, but there are also opportunities as well,” Maier reasons. “There are three epicentres for industry 4.0 going on. One is European, one is Chinese and the other one is the US, and eventually it will come together, a little bit like UK car standards.”
Maier’s association with all things British began after his mother married an Englishman and moved to Leeds when he was ten. It was his first experience of travelling abroad and at the time the fledgeling Maier was unable to speak a word of English. Upon arrival in Yorkshire, he was confronted by a rundown and derelict city, in a period of economic stagnation. The ambitious young man wanted to change things and as he left school, engineering emerged as a clear passion and an avenue for improvement. He decided to complete his first industrial placement in Germany but while away he realised the UK had become his spiritual home.
Leading from the front
The 53-year-old chief executive has now been with Siemens in England for over 30 years; his first placement was in a factory after obtaining an engineering degree at Nottingham Trent. It’s been a varied journey since then and Maier has had to evolve as he’s forged his path.
“I think as a CEO you've got to be constantly reinventing yourself and that's happening more and more,” he acknowledges. “We're just learning at such a pace, and to be with your workforce and to say ‘I’m learning like the rest of you, we're all learning fast’, I think that's really a key thing.”
Maier has been singled out as a leader by multiple organisations. The Digital Economy Council and Digital Economy Advisory Group were set up by the UK Government with the goal of developing a world-leading digital economy. Maier is one of a select group of prominent figures chosen to provide guidance to senior government ministers alongside leaders from tech giants Microsoft, Amazon and Google.
The state recently invested £400 million into a digital infrastructure fund and this year the Department for Culture, Media and Sports was renamed the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, to reflect the importance of technology to the UK. With such significance placed upon the internet, it’s testament to Maier’s influence that the government asked for his expertise and guidance to help develop its strategy.
As well as his responsibilities in terms of the UK’s cyber policy, he heads the North West Business Leadership Team, an initiative set up by the Prince of Wales to boost the region. In his capacity in numerous management roles, Maier has a useful perspective on the country’s struggles.
“We're having difficulties to pay our way,” he admits. “I think we're beginning to see people realise that you can't have these political discussions about how to redistribute money without looking at how you can increase income to create wealth. Sometimes you need a bit of a crisis where you can bring politicians, policymakers and big business a bit closer again and work out how you can generate revenue.”
As was the case after the third industrial revolution, when millions of jobs were created with the introduction of the computer, industry 4.0 has the potential to provide a big boost to create prosperity. As an example, at a recent presentation event of Siemens products, employees of the manufacturing company demonstrated the enormous scope of technologies such as augmented reality, using the equipment to create complex engineering models in minutes.
As the workplace alters dramatically, Maier foresees consequences for the businesses that can’t adapt.
“I would honestly say that if you're in a high-cost, advanced economy, if you don't start to apply technology to your processes, whether it's in manufacturing or engineering, I think you'll struggle to exist,” he explains. “That doesn't matter how basic it is. As an example, there is a movement in Manchester to get textiles back as an industry. You might think that's so low-tech, why would you do it? But they've applied technology in a very simple way. I think every company has now got to think about how they can apply technology.”
Technology is also making inroads into the role of the CEO, and Maier predicts that the position will adapt and transform to incorporate the latest advances. “Probably the biggest thing in ten years’ time won't be robotics, it'll be artificial intelligence,” he predicts. “And you might ask the question, what will it mean for a CEO? But actually, a computer will probably be able to do the analysis quicker than me. Of course, I will be able to apply my experience but it gives me more time to do much more interesting things, such as talking to customers, applying the technology, doing much more value-added activities.”
This hands-on approach is characteristic. The down-to-earth CEO has held various management roles and risen up the ranks to take his position at the pinnacle of Siemens UK operations, but he admits that times have changed for the hot seat holder.
“When I was a factory manager in Congleton in Cheshire, I knew everything,” the CEO pronounces. “Today, I lead an organisation and I might have a vision of where this is taking us, but frankly I don't know. We’re trying to create an organisation for people to be able to thrive in the company.”
As Maier recalls his days in Congleton, one wonders what the factory of the future will look like. An example of a modern workshop operating successfully in the fourth industrial age can be found within Siemens’ plant for industrial controls in the small Bavarian city of Amberg. Inside this building, products and machines communicate with each other, enabling the products themselves to control their own production. It’s thought of as Siemens pièce de résistance; the most advanced workspace in its repertoire.
As well as modernising on the factory floor, Siemens is increasingly working with tech companies, innovation companies and universities to keep up with the rapid pace of industry 4.0.
“I've been taught for 30 years, everything you do can't fail,” Maier professes. “Brand Siemens is quality. We need to be experimenting much more.”
Like Siemens, the UK is a nation of experimenters; from the first industrial revolution and the introduction of the steam engine to the third revolution and Tim Berners-Lee’s launch of the World Wide Web. The fourth industrial revolution is another significant opportunity, a sentiment echoed by Siemens’ lead protagonist.
“The world is going completely digital,” Maier concludes. “This creates more jobs in the UK. We're beginning to create more jobs in manufacturing. We need to be a nation of creators. One of the key conversations we're having, is we need to create a much stronger movement in order to learn the art of the possible.”
For Siemens and the UK’s new wave of inventors, those possibilities could be transformative.