PLA is one of the most creative and innovative companies in Argentina, operating in the agricultural machinery sector. With more than $60million in revenue and 400 employees, it is one of the stand-out successes of small and medium sized businesses in the country, designing and building its high quality machinery from its plants located in Santa Fe, Argentina. These machines are exported all around the world, enabling PLA to build operations in numerous countries, including Brazil, USA, Russia, and Australia. Its crowning product is perhaps every child’s idea of a dream toy – the “MAP3 Red Dot” self-propelled sprayer.
The company has a long history of innovation combined with manufacturing excellence. In 1999, for instance, PLA took the industry by storm, by becoming the first company in the world to build a sprayer with an automatic pilot.
The challenge, and opportunity, of digital technologies
Despite being a leader in the agricultural sector, executives at PLA recognized that they were starting to struggle in their interactions with customers, particularly in post-sales, where they would still have regular interactions with customers (for example, for ordering spare parts and training individuals in how to use the machinery). They knew there was opportunity to use technology to improve these encounters and provide better service to their customers.
Starting work with Belatrix – and creating a digital vision
PLA approached Belatrix to help create and deliver its digital vision. How should the company look like in the digital world? From its organization to the services it offers, PLA tasked Belatrix with helping it become a modern, nimble, digital organization. The digital transformation was therefore not just aimed at helping it improve its services to existing customers, but also grow new lines of business.
Executives at PLA already recognized the need to improve the front-end of their business, and how they engaged with their customers. They saw that throughout their value chain, new digital technologies could help them provide better, faster, and more efficient services – and they had various ideas, ranging from providing online quotes for customers, rapidly providing spare parts, improving regulatory compliance, and developing a mobile application so customers could easily pick up orders.
To help identify the priorities, Belatrix put together a project roadmap and a multi-disciplinary team for PLA’s digital transformation. The team consisted of software development experts, user experience professionals, digital transformation consultants, and business integration specialists. Together, these experts created the roadmap to identify the key priorities, and outline the work processes that we would undertake.
The digital transformation roadmap
There were two main phases for PLA’s digital transformation, and we’ll examine each of these in turn:
- Discovery and survey
- Design and development, based on short iterations
Discovery and survey using Design Thinking
In order to examine these issues, together with an external consultant, we put together a 5-week “discovery” roadmap. During this process, we used a Design Thinking approach to understand the needs of the various customers. We wanted to build a 360 degree analysis, so this involved interviewing individuals, ranging from the owners of the machinery who use the machines on their own land, to the machine technicians in charge of customer support, to service providers who rent out the machinery to farmers. This roadmap consisted of 5 key steps:
- Kick-off meeting with all relevant stakeholders.
- Customer interviews.
- Analysis and findings based on the customer interviews – involving customer personas, hypothesis validation, and technical feasibility assessment. We adjusted the digital strategy based on these findings.
- Identifying key initiatives and initial outlines of work processes – involving high level product conceptualization, UX proposal, and prioritizing the most important initiatives.
- The final report presented PLA’s digital strategy that contained the vision, goals, values, key initiatives, and finally a roadmap and plan of action. This included a risk assessment.
The main discovery of the research was that there are two different kinds of customers who think and act very differently. While there are modern and young customers which embrace technology and are open to new digital products and automation, PLA’s main customer base have a more traditional way of thinking. What we discovered was that they have a lot of pride in doing things for themselves and were somehow concerned of the technology replacing their jobs. So it was important that PLA’s digital strategy be based on empowering these people, rather than automating their everyday tasks, leaving them out of the equation. This was a key insight that became a solid pilar in PLA’s digital product vision.
Using digital to deliver value beyond machinery
Together, we identified a core vision for the digital transformation:
PLA will use digital technology to deliver value to its customers beyond its machinery
To achieve this, we helped PLA identify four key elements of its business that it could improve using technology:
- The PLA Group is actually a group of companies which are active in the production of machinery, tools, and services related to agriculture. Via its PLA Network, it has created close ties with farmers that use its machinery, to help them get the best performance from their crops. They do this by improving the relationship between the operator, the equipment, and the environment. PLA offers services ranging from training, to diagnostic laboratories, all with the purpose of providing world-class agricultural services to its customers. These services could be significantly improved via technology.
- To achieve optimal performance farmers need to customize these sophisticated machines – for example, what is the soil type, what crop does the farmer plan to grow? In its post-sales process, PLA can use technology to help farmers and growers with these efforts and making the right decisions.
- PLA sells machines via its dealer network. Currently dealers use an application, to make the order ticket for a machine, once a farmer has decided to make a purchase. However, this application is not connected to the SAP system that handles production orders from the factory. Therefore this load is done manually. This is a slow and inefficient process.
- Improving how growers purchase spare parts for their machines (including for discontinued machines).
Design and development – with Agile development at the core
Having identified these four areas of its business to improve, the initial phase of PLA’s digital transformation involved introducing it to the concept of Agile development. Using Agile meant we could continue the quick, iterative approach that we had used during the discovery phase. Agile is also no longer just a software development methodology. It is a core methodology that helps instill the practices and culture for rapid innovation based on customer feedback.
Based on the discovery phase, and after creating a prototype, we began work on building a mobile application. The purpose of the application was to help customers obtain useful information about their machines, and help improve how they used them. The concept behind the application was to condense, and make easily available, information about the machinery and the environment. These machines contain a lot of sensors, and they use sensor technology to collect information about how they are working, such as oil pressure, water temperature, and gasoline. In addition, we integrated information from an external company (Acronex), which focuses on providing sensor-based data, such as that gathered from barometers and aerometers. All this information helps farmers and growers make accurate decisions about their land and machinery.
Alongside the mobile application we created a web application which worked as the main source for compiling the different data sources. Users could also use the web application to manage the mobile application’s users and profiles.
The technology behind integrating critical information
In order to integrate the various data sources, we used a REST API, which is particularly useful, because it can be accessed by a web and a mobile application. This API accesses a data service belonging to Acronex and then the information is saved in a Microsoft SQL Server database, which the applications can then later consume. We developed everything to be completed using WSO2’s open source Enterprise Integrator, which has various tools for publishing ESB and APIs, and connecting web services with data services. This enabled us to obtain data from the SAP environment, enter it into a database, and then be able to access that information with different levels of permits. It also allows the sending of push and non-push notifications to Android devices through Firebase Cloud Messaging (formerly known as Google Cloud Messaging) which was the selected OS to provide support, that has integration with WSO2 for sending non-push messages.
Positive customer feedback on the mobile application as PLA’s digital journey continues
PLA continues on its digital transformation journey. Initial feedback from its customers on the mobile application has been highly positive, with customers highlighting how it helps them make decisions, because it provides them with relevant and customized information. PLA has therefore achieved its goal of building deeper and closer relationship with its customers, particularly in the post-sales part of its value chain. As the executives at PLA wanted, it is now executing on its vision of using digital technology to deliver value to its customers beyond its machinery.
The technologies involved include:
Find out more about Belatrix’s digital transformation services.