Many people have been adapting to home working over the last few months due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. The digital tools have been present for years but current events were all that was needed to force everyone to try it out en masse, moving much of the back office, supporting and managerial functions to the homes of staff. Some of this communal clerical working may never come back in the views of some commentators. Other functions related to networking, such as sales or knowledge transfer, have moved to different channels like webinars and social networking or have resorted to older methods like using the telephone more. The balance between real world and remote networking may change but a return to some level in favour of the former seems likely.
The core processes of cement manufacture are resistant to this trend as workers need to be on site to mine limestone and maintain production lines. Although, that said, Global Cement Magazine has covered examples of remote commissioning and maintenance of equipment at plants in recent issues. Prior to this there has been steady work on remote monitoring of equipment and plants by both suppliers and producers and moves by cement companies to focus on digital operation such as LafargeHolcim’s ‘Plants of Tomorrow’ Industry 4.0 from 2019 or Cemex’s work on autonomous cement plant operations with Petuum.
Some ways in which cement companies have coped with social distancing recently have been revealed as they have published their best practice guides. Last week, for example, Holcim Philippines was promoting its various online customer interaction tools including its existing sales platform and a new online customer engagement program to ‘provide updates on the company’s directions, share knowledge and best practices on Health and Safety and to bond with business partners while quarantines are in place.’ Other companies have done similar things like the Cemex Go platform. On the supplier side there have been various announcements as companies have pushed their digital offerings. Meanwhile, the companies offering automation or remote operation products have been handed a unique stage to promote their wares.
Another example of cement companies trying something new in digital is the pilot that was announced this week by Siam Cement Group with the Bank of Thailand to test out payment systems using a central bank digital currency (CBDC). This likely has very little to do with the cement industry and much more to do with the sheer size of that conglomerate in Thailand. As the second largest company in the country, it’s an obvious target to try out something new like this at scale. The project will run from July 2020 until the end of the year. It will build on work that the central bank has carried out on Project Inthanon, a project between the bank and the eight financial institutions to study and develop a method for domestic wholesale funds transfer using wholesale CBDC. Any benefits using a CBDC eventually bring to Siam Cement Group and other producers in the country are likely to be limited to finance departments but savings are always welcome wherever they arise.
One cautionary note to consider though is that introducing changes to national currency systems can have impacts upon cement companies through general effects to the economy as a whole. The classic example of this in recent years is that of banknote demonetisation in India in late 2016. Cement production growth declined for about half a year at the time due to the disruption it caused.
The downside of this increased reliance on digital products and platforms is increased exposure to cybercrime. There was a rare good-news story in this area recently when Schmersal Group revealed that it had intercepted a network attack in progress in May 2020. It promptly took its IT network offline and disconnected its various systems, from the telephones, to its business software, to its production processes and automated storage systems, at all of its locations. Systems were then gradually cleansed and restored over the next two weeks. Schmersal’s response is commendable but chillingly it ended its press release by saying that, “the attack demonstrated that standard protection from antivirus programs and a firewall is powerless in the event of a targeted attack with previously unknown malware.” Companies had the same vulnerabilities before the pandemic but the increased reliance on digital platforms has heightened the potential risk. As we mentioned last time we covered this topic companies that admit to large scale malware attacks are hard to find most likely because it looks bad. Although since that article was published, Buzzi Unicem admitted that a ransonware attack on its information systems originating from its Ukrainian operations were delaying its financial disclosures in mid-2017.
In the longer term it will be interesting to see how much of the altered working patterns or methods created by the coronavirus lockdowns remain afterwards. The current situation isn’t quite like the ‘disruptive innovation’ business theory pedalled by Clayton M Christensen that has led in-part to established companies setting up start-up incubators to try and spot the next big new thing. Yet, existing trends are being sped up and this may lead to some surprises that were coming down the road anyway. For example, buying someone shares in video networking tool Zoom would have made a nice Christmas present this year! Hindsight is a wonderful thing.