PAID POST BY TOTAL

Total's innovation-boosting production pilots

We've been conducting an open innovation project, dubbed Plant 4.0, to speed up our adaptation to become the plant of the future for a year now. We are learning much more than just the technological innovations needed to make the jump to digital production. Keep reading to get the perspectives of a company, its partner and a start-up.

The other route to innovation

Speed, flexibility, agility and responsiveness are some of the attributes justifiably associated with start-ups, the fledgling companies that lack a fully mature business model but boast the undeniable advantage of being innovative. And nowadays, innovation is a major focus of big industrial operators. César Miguel, project manager for Total's Plant 4.0 incubator, agrees. "Our big challenge is open innovation. We can't do everything internally. So we're looking to the outside world, because it's chock-full of really great ideas, mostly among start-ups. Clearly, they move faster than we ever will. So the question is: how can we implement their ideas at Total quickly?"

They're particularly interesting ideas as they relate to Plant 4.0, or the shift to digital production.

"In terms of automation, we haven't been forced to rethink our processes across the board, like the automotive industry for example," says Miguel. "But we realize we still have room to improve on efficiency and safety. Not to mention the fact that there are new players who could position themselves in our value chain and chip away at our margins. Those are definitely the stakes."

Total responded in the fall of 2015 by launching a project to research and deploy production pilots on site, signing an agreement with Impulse Labs, a consultancy specializing in speeding up innovation. Thibault Lecerf, a strategy consultant for the firm, recalls that "the specifications were to 'create the plant of the future,' based on the notions of operator augmentation and boosting asset value. Our job was to identify start-ups that focused on those ideas and introduce them to Total."

Impulse Labs quickly sourced 250 start-ups, mainly European and North American, and selected 150 of them. Twenty-four had an opportunity to pitch their ideas between March and June 2016, at three selection committee meetings comprised of Total employees. In the end, six front-line projects were picked to move on to the incubation phase.

• For more on the subject: Total at the forefront of transition

Acculturating the company to succeed

There are, of course, technical solutions, or genuine innovations, "Some of which were very or way too futuristic" remembers Miguel. But acculturating Total employees to a world they don't always know very well is a major sticking point. "Start-ups work very differently from us and it's quite stimulating internally," says the Total project manager. "Ultimately, we run the risk of getting used to 'taking it slow,' using processes and methods that are proven, sure, but not always in step with the pace of innovation.

"Teaming up with people and organizations that are agile and quick is a little disconcerting at first; the people we deal with move almost too fast! But we've been able to adapt by taking a leaf from the way start-ups work, doing away with line barriers and customer-supplier relationships. This style of working as a 'tribe' unified teams that were no longer taking the time to talk to one another every day."

Lecerf concurs. "With Total, we very quickly picked up on the desire to succeed at all costs. A good illustration is the decision to appoint a mentor, recruited from the company, to help start-ups navigate Total, identify potential applications and locate the right contacts in the company's umpteen units. As a result, we conducted a project that was more entrepreneurial than consulting-oriented."

Working with small, mobile, responsive organizations also requires a company such as Total to adapt its processes. For instance, standard contracts shrank from 60 to seven pages and payment terms had to be tweaked to accommodate businesses with little cash. Finally, project/pilot mode also means that you have to accept mistakes and failures, which are "another way to progress" says Miguel.

On the start-up side

Thomas Bibette is an export manager at DCBrain, one of the nine start-ups picked last spring whose proof of concept (POC) phase — a full-scale, front-line test — is wrapping up. The fledging business specializes in artificial intelligence, monitoring and modeling for all types of power grids. It demonstrates the many benefits of the incubation project conducted by the Total/Impulse Labs team: "Knocking on the door of a company like Total seemed out of reach for the two-year-old start-up we were at the time. The company's scope and the issue of access to industrial data seemed to disqualify us from the start."

Today, thanks to the accelerator, DCBrain is carrying out a POC launched at the very beginning of the incubation phase at a refinery. It aims to test the technology offered by the start-up under real-world conditions and prove that it can deliver value to production processes and professional fields.

"Having a Total employee mentor us turned out to be key," says Bibette. "We regularly talk with him about what we can do and how to create an action plan and set up effective monitoring. He's an invaluable facilitator." And the partners clicked: DCBrain is now studying two other potential applications.

Next come the phases of analyzing the work done and deciding whether the project is a go or no-go. If it's a go, a proposal will be made to deploy the solution in question at the site, as well as other Total facilities. "This is a tricky phase," warns Miguel, "because you have to 'convert' inside Total. In other words, persuade people and explain how your technological innovation will interface efficiently with the target unit."

• For more on the subject: What if innovation is a state of mind?

A major learning experience

The innovation accelerator project taught us a lot. "The incubator was a gateway into an ecosystem of start-ups specializing in the Plant 4.0 project," says Miguel. "We got massive feedback from employees who knew nothing about that world. It opened up all our eyes to technologies and an innovation process that we didn't know existed. It was a real learning experience!"

Now the priority of the Plant 4.0 project group is to analyze the feedback gained from experience. The start-ups are scheduled to meet Total employees in January 2017. The idea will be to showcase then capitalize on what was achieved, to follow up on one production pilot or another in a concrete way if possible.

In terms of repeating the innovation accelerator, nothing has been settled. "Everything's open, we're giving it a lot of thought at the moment," says Miguel. "We don't know exactly what format we'll use yet for the next round of incubation. Replicate the first campaigns, or plan a steadier stream of projects? We're collectively mulling over our options."

Lecerf is struck by the very open nature of his collaboration with Total. "There was never any question of exclusivity with the start-ups, which allowed us to introduce them to other industrial operators we work with. It's safe to say that every company got something out of participating in the Plant 4.0 incubator project."

At DCBrain, Bibette remains impressed by the "scope of the program and the shakeup going on at Total." He notes that "The company was already doing extensive R&D, but the incubation project sped it up and expanded the scale."

By attempting to broaden our innovation sources and methodologies, we're helping to drive Total's commitment to producing and marketing better energy. The future plant 4.0, or digital plant, enhances energy efficiency — doing more with less — in every instance, by deploying optimized analytical and monitoring tools. The benefits can be reckoned in terms of return on investment, of course, but also environmental protection and operator safety.

The people at Impulse Labs are already eager to work with Total's renewable energies business units, most likely in the next round.

This page was paid for by Total. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.