Now it’s personal: Unilever’s digital journey leads to real results for consumers and employees

What does “digital transformation” mean for an established global manufacturing enterprise like Unilever, maker of iconic brands such as Dove, Vaseline and Ben & Jerry’s?

For Unilever CIO Jane Moran, it means empowering employees to carry out the company’s mission of meeting consumers’ rising expectations.

Unilever CIO Jane Moran
Unilever CIO Jane Moran. (Photo courtesy of Unilever)

“What’s transformative is the way we’re connecting people, making data accessible to a broader employee base and giving them the skills to analyze the data to make better informed decisions,” Moran says. “That can have obvious benefits, like increasing efficiency, but also an impact on topics that are central to our business, such as sustainability.”

From project to platform

One of Unilever’s major goals in its digital journey is to become driven by data insights to predict the future — no mean feat for a global giant worth $55 billion, operating in 190 countries.

To realize this change, Unilever shifted from a project-based approach to a platform strategy, supported by Microsoft technology and hands-on support. Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing service, provides the architectural backbone for the company’s digital transformation.

“That has allowed us to be much more agile and much more scalable,” says Moran. “We can’t deliver unless we have a platform-based approach and it’s very powerful. We’re really exploiting that now at Unilever.”

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Digitally rewiring the supply chain

For Unilever, the capabilities of digital technology offer an opportunity to transform its supply chain to meet the needs of customers who “expect customization, on-demand products and brands with purpose,” Moran says.

“We are digitally rewiring our supply chain, focusing on generating real-time, democratized information, artificial intelligence planning, capitalizing on robotics and building digitally connected factories. All this will allow us to readily predict and respond to whatever the future throws at us,” adds Dave Penrith, Unilever chief engineer.

Dave Penrith, Unilever chief engineer.
Unilever chief engineer Dave Penrith. (Photo courtesy of Unilever)

Unilever is using IoT (Internet of Things) and intelligent edge services in the Azure IoT platform to enable its digital twin, which is a next-generation digital model of a physical environment — in this case, a Unilever factory. The machines and equipment in the factory are connected so that they can send a mass of data — everything from temperatures to production cycle times — into the model.

This creates a representation of every machine and process, offering visibility across all levels of the plant. The collected data is mined for insights and patterns using advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms, which can predict outcomes based on historical data.

“The more data it gets, the more it learns. The more it learns, the faster it learns, and it starts to learn at an increasingly exponential rate,” Penrith says.

The algorithm can reach a level of accuracy where it can be allowed to directly control part of a machine or process. This allows operators to make better-informed decisions and frees them up from repetitive manual tasks for more value-added functions.

The digital twin has already had an impact on operations. Once Unilever switched control of moisture levels in a soap-making machine to the digital twin algorithm, operators did not want it switched off because it gave them so much control over consistency.

In another instance, the digital twin has used data on how long it takes to produce one batch of liquid, such as shampoo or detergent, to predict the correct order of processes in order to get the most efficient batch time. The less time each batch takes, the higher the production capacity of the plant, fully utilizing the asset and avoiding having to invest in capability elsewhere.

The digital twin solution was custom-built by Unilever’s engineering team in partnership with The Marsden Group, a Microsoft partner, and is hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform.

Right now, Unilever is operating eight digital twins across North America, South America, Europe and Asia. The company is streaming data from 15 of its 300 global plants, with plans to connect 70 factories by the end of the year and another 100 or so in 2020 – “everything from soap to soup,” Penrith says.

Unilever factory workers view dashboards on a variety of computer screens.
Digital tools allow employees to easily visualize and interpret data.

Diving into data

In its mission to become data-insights driven, Unilever is using Power BI, a business analytics tool, to help employees access the data they need. Employees can use Power BI to visualize data in whatever way works for them to solve the problem they’re facing, and it also allows them to create their own reports, rather than relying on a technology team.

Being able to uncover data and visualize it in Power BI has allowed Unilever to increase productivity by eliminating false or unimportant alerts on production lines. Previously, operators were responding to 3,000 alerts every day in this complex site, each of which took a few minutes to assess, acknowledge and clear. This put operators into constant reactive mode and slowed down production lines. Unilever has been able to reduce the number of alerts requiring action by 90% per day, ensuring far fewer interruptions and more timely interventions.

Power BI is just one tool in an interconnected system that cultivates the “democratization of data,” says Penrith. “With Power BI connected to all our historical data, live data, analytics and models, our people get real-time intelligence, all sitting in Microsoft Teams, with conversation happening all the time so our employees and factories can support and collaborate with each other.”

Empowering with PowerApps

A big part of that interconnected system is finding ways to help people fix their own issues. One tool the company is using to achieve this is Microsoft PowerApps, which allows employees to build custom apps themselves, without a developer.

For example, one Unilever factory quality assurance employee saw a demo for PowerApps — and then created a quality assurance PowerApp herself.

The app is now available in all of Unilever’s factories, a vast upgrade from the manual process that was previous used for quality checks. The app enables real-time adjustment to the manufacturing process and saves time, freeing up employees for more valuable tasks. It also saves paper, contributing to Unilever’s sustainability mission.

A Unilever factory in Valinhos, Brazil.
A Unilever factory in Valinhos, Brazil.

 Connecting a global team

Unilever also wanted to offer its people — nearly 155,000 employees worldwide — the tools to further connect with one another and share lessons and ideas. Unilever uses Microsoft 365, a bundle of services that includes Windows 10, as well as productivity apps such as SharePoint, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and collaboration and communication tools such as Teams and Yammer.

This suite of tools has made a big impact on productivity and collaboration, according to Moran.

“Using digital tools like Teams and Yammer have really helped our organization to collaborate and share, and you can’t appreciate how great that is,” she says. “It’s taken off at the top of our company, and now everyone is using this to share wonderful stories about what they’re doing every day. It has allowed everyone to have a voice.”

For Penrith, Microsoft Teams has had a major impact on communication. The company created a global Teams environment for all Unilever engineers that allows them to connect and share knowledge.

“That’s been a real game changer,” he says. “Overnight, we connected 2,000 engineers, most of whom may never really have spoken to each other before … it takes away any false boundaries that people may have, and it links colleagues from around the whole world.”

Penrith has a blog area within Teams where everyone can reply to everyone else, and they can also contact him directly on the platform. Penrith now spends more time on Teams than on email and has seen a 60% to 70% drop in the number of emails arriving to his inbox.

A Unilever factory worker.
Unilever’s digital transformation empowers employees to carry out the company’s mission of meeting consumers’ rising expectations.

Digital enables sustainability, too

Unilever’s digital conversion has also helped to support the company’s commitment to sustainability, particularly in terms of energy efficiency.

One example is the amount of energy used at factories that make Dove soap. Unilever has used Teams to set up a community for Dove factories where they can access energy usage data for all factories, as well as share best practices for conserving energy. Everyone in the community can see how much energy each factory uses per batch of Dove soap and work together on reducing that usage.

Data-driven decisions

Unilever’s technological transformation has already resulted in substantial success across the organization, from the supply chain to research and development, human resources, sales, finance, logistics and more, supporting the company’s ultimate goal of serving consumers.

“We are creating a culture and organization which is data-intelligent across our end-to-end supply chain, supported with the data, analytics and insights to make smarter, faster decisions to understand, anticipate and exceed consumer expectations,” says Penrith.

Microsoft's Judson Althoff at a Unilever factory

At the Microsoft Inspire 2019 conference, Microsoft’s executive vice-president of Worldwide Commercial Business, Judson Althoff, spoke to Unilever executives about how Microsoft technology is fueling Unilever’s digital transformation. Above, Althoff greets employees at a Unilever factory in Valinhos, Brazil .