Q&A: How German and Japanese SMEs can turn their business digital without the risks

Moving to a digital business can be challenging for SMEs. Digitalisation doesn't have to be tough, and certainly is worth the effort, German expert Dr. René Reiners says.

Dr Reiners, you will travel to Japan three times with your project GRANITE over the next 18 months. Your aim is to bring together experts from German and Japanese companies, research institutes, local administration and governments. Why are you doing this?

Both in Germany and Japan, many business owners have reservations about the topic of Industrie 4.0 and are asking themselves 'How can our companies benefit from the opportunities offered by digitalisation?' GRANITE offers companies a science-based engineering method, whereby we first systematically analyse and evaluate the specific challenges for the individual company in terms of digitalisation and then present them with a tailor-made strategy for their own digital transformation.

What fears and hurdles currently stand in the way of widespread industrial digitalisation in Germany and Japan?

All too often we have seen that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in both Germany and Japan are very aware that they need to digitalise their individual processes as quickly as possible, but don’t know how or where to start. Their fear of making the wrong decision or a bad investment is very understandable. Amid the whirl of activities relating to the digital transformation, it is often very difficult to stay on top of all the necessary and relevant measures. As a matter of fact, you can make a lot of mistakes by pursuing digitalization unchecked, introducing digital technologies and new processes haphazardly and forcing them upon workers in training courses with no regard for whether they are actually understood or not.

How does GRANITE’s new, people-focussed engineering method work?

When it comes to digitalisation, the most effective thing to do is to take a thorough look at the actual processes, procedures and facilities within a business. It is also important to consider staff knowledge and workflows and to address employee needs. Only after assessing all this do we design and build an appropriate IT system that covers all aspects of actual operations. This gives us the chance to identify misjudgements and misunderstandings in the system design early on in the process and to make improvements. We can increase the likelihood that the new system can seamlessly be introduced into a company and accepted by all members of staff by gathering feedback from those involved early on and by implementing the development step by step.

What kind of companies stand to benefit from this method? What can they expect?

In principle, our method is suitable for any company. At the outset, we ask members of staff very similar questions, whether they work at a plastics processing plant, a machinery manufacturer, an industrial bakery, garment factory or training provider. But the individual steps and processes – and consequently the customised IT system – are as unique as the company itself.

Our approach to developing individual digitalisation strategies is clearly structured. First of all we sort out everything that is superfluous and then, together with the staff members, we take a very close look at which tasks are done by people, which are done by machines and what steps need to be taken. This means that, in the end, the new system can be used appropriately and profitably, with a low risk factor and high degree of efficiency because it is suitable at a functional level and – even more importantly – is accepted by all members of staff.

What specific services does GRANITE offer?

We offer companies support that is based on scientific findings as well as decades of experience and access to a comprehensive network of experts. For example, we help individual companies to draw up a schedule for their digital transformation. At the same time, as technology service providers, we also offer solutions and contacts from our wide-reaching network of universities and 71 other Fraunhofer institutes for applied research in Germany and Europe. We are an open network and we welcome anyone with an interest in business and science to become part of the GRANITE Ambassadors network.

When exactly will you be in Japan?

The GRANITE tour plan includes three trips to Japan in October 2019 and April and September 2020.  You can find out more on our website and on Twitter: @GRANITE-Ambassadors.

Thank you very much for talking to us, good luck!


Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT
User-Centered Ubiquitous Computing
Dr René Reiners
Schloss Birlinghoven
53754 Sankt Augustin
+49 2241 143715
Twitter: GRANITE-Ambassadors