Digitalisation is shaping a faster phase of R&D

Jonathan Hague, Vice President of R&D Homecare Division at Unilever, spoke at the Digital Talks 2019 event in Liverpool.

Unilever is a company with a proud heritage. 

Since it was formed in 1929, from the merger of a Dutch margarine manufacturer and British soap company, it has grown to become an organisation that owns more than 400 brands. Some 2.5 billion people use these brands across the globe, and, altogether, they accumulate a revenue of more than €50 billion. 


There needs to be connectivity

Yet, while we are a huge player in the industry, we are still aware that we need to remain competitive at every level, particularly in our R&D department.

To be competitive in this space, we need to introduce connectivity across our R&D departments, the factory floor, and its enterprise systems. This is how we think digitalisation will make the biggest impact. 

Digitalised workflows help to standardise products

To understand digital systems a bit more, let’s look at how they work in the real world.

At Unilever today, we create a product specification in R&D which then automatically ships into the supply chains. Then we instruct the machine to operate, and it is from here that we are able to provide product information for marketing.

This might sound simple, but we are retrofitting these specifications into the whole of Unilever’s operations, meaning we have thousands of SKUs to consider and many individual raw materials to worry about.

For example, if we want to do a test on a laundry liquid, we need to produce just enough, and we need to put it into a mini washing machine to figure out how well it cleans.

Using a digitalised workflow, however, we can collect masses of data about the laundry liquid, to which we can then build a digital model. This then helps us to standardise the product.

When we start developing digital models, we soon find that, where we used to create 500,000 formulations of a laundry liquid, now we only need to test half a dozen in the real world.

As we have circumvented much of the development time, we are in a better position to swiftly get the approved products to market.

We no longer need to physically prototype new product packaging

Today, nearly all of our packaging is prototyped through a digital simulation, which we can then 3D print. This means we no longer need to physically prototype new product packaging.

We can also use simulations to understand “process flow” through our factories. This helps us to test whether a shampoo’s flow parameters are on spec, for example, rather than doing quality control on the lines. 

Digitalisation allows us to move at a speed we’ve never encountered before

Digitalisation has not only made it possible for us at Unilever to reduce our R&D expenditure and guarantee the same product quality, it has introduced us to smarter ways of working.

For instance, our Materials Innovation Factory is a co-venture with the University of Liverpool which currently has around 300 people working for us. We also work with knowledge transfer networks and Innovate UK to bring new skills and perspectives into our R&D operations.

It is thanks to these collaborations and our new digital systems that we are able to move from idea to formulation to supermarket shelves at a speed we’ve never encountered before. 

We need collaboration across the supply chain

We also now have optimisers in our factories which help us to analyse R&D data. Without this, we run the risk of areas of vital information being missed out as we move along the supply chain.

For example, if a product contains an incorrect ingredient and this fact isn’t communicated to the packaging designers, then it could result in downtime later along the production line.

With the help of digitalisation, we can take the product data found during the R&D stage, and then use it to talk to the other areas of the supply chain. This means that any potential issues are flagged before they make it to the final production line. 

See a digital factory in action

At Siemens, we don’t just talk about the potential of digitalisation – we make it happen. Learn more and register for a Siemens factory tour today.