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So how does the industry ride these waves of disruption successfully? It starts with telling the right story. Industry media such as World Cement play a part in this, as we highlight best practice and innovation. But it cannot end there. The cement industry must tell its story to a much wider – and younger – audience, if it is to attract the next generation of innovators. As one commentator noted in response to my question on LinkedIn: “Talking with some millennial engineers, they do not like the cement industry [because it] is very old fashioned. It is clear to me that the cement industry could run out of talent if these myths are not destroyed with communication and changes in the way of work at the plants.”
That last point is crucial: the industry must adapt its way of working if it is to appeal to the latest generation of engineers. This is not just change for change’s sake; if the industry cannot attract the talent it requires with traditional working practices, it must become more flexible in how it operates.
A good example comes from the mining industry where mining major, Rio Tinto, has spearheaded the development of the Mine of the Future, pioneering autonomous and remote-controlled operation. From an operations centre in Perth, Australia, it can operate the mines, ports, and rail systems across its vast iron ore operations. CEMEX is trying something similar in the cement industry, developing its Centro de Control Cemento in Monterrey to operate its Mexican cement plants by remote control.
The industry should also be looking to shorten innovation cycles, nurturing quick start-up-style projects that can be rolled out quickly if successful (or dropped without too much pain if not) to complement more traditional CAPEX-intensive research projects. As LafargeHolcim (@LafargeHolcim) recently tweeted: “We want to encourage new thinking and open innovation throughout our sector [...] which can help us to understand and exploit the application of new technologies to the building process.”
This is likely to need an increase in lobbying activities by the industry to develop more innovation-friendly regulatory environments. It will also require a collaborative approach between building materials suppliers and users in order to move past R&D to viable commercialisation.
The cement industry has a crucial role to play in many of the defining trends of today. It is one of the foundations that allows rapid urbanisation; its resiliency can help communities withstand the more extreme weather events brought about by climate change; its sustainability efforts are crucial to limiting global temperature rises. But to play its role, as Matt Devitt (@DevittMatt), Technical Services Director at BWF Envirotec, noted recently, again on Twitter, when faced with a digital-savvy, interconnected, climate-aware generation of talent and ideas, the industry needs to stop answering their questions with: because we’ve always done it this way.
Instead, Devitt – channelling The Cut the Crap podcast host, Ryan Caligiuri (@RyanCaligiuri) – suggests asking: if Amazon or Apple bought a cement plant, how would they run it? In other words: an openness to fresh ideas and talent will attract fresh ideas and talent, while a focus on the future will ensure the future happens and not simply a repeat of the past. It’s a lesson to be learned quickly, because in an age of huge disruption, it is those with the ability to adapt that will thrive.