Steeling yourself for the future: Five lessons on digital transformation with Watkins Steel

Watkins Steel, a Brisbane-based family business that’s been operating for more than 50 years, might not have seemed like a likely candidate for a large-scale digital transformation. But by investing in technology, education, and research and development, they’ve delivered exceptional results for their clients and forge new pathways to growth. 

Since 2015, Watkins Steel has invested more than $6 million in robotic and extended reality technologies, automating their steel processing, fabrication and installation operations and augmenting them with additional revenue streams. 

For their efforts, Watkins Steel was acknowledged with the ISPT Award for Investment in Brisbane and the Optus Enterprise Platinum Award at the Lord Mayor’s Business Awards 2021. 

Director Des Watkins took over the business from his father in 2004. He’s passionate about innovation, and has spearheaded Watkins Steel’s ongoing investment in transformation. Here, he shares five lessons he’s learned about embarking on a successful digital transformation. 

Focus on your pain points

For businesses looking to shake up how they do things and embrace the potential of the digital economy, knowing where to start can be the biggest hurdle. After all, the opportunities for digitalisation are virtually limitless. 

But Des says a simple motivation has driven Watkins Steel’s innovations. 

“It all starts with trying to solve, or minimise, the business’ existing pain points,” he says. “For example, site measurements are a big part of what we do. We were going out to sites with a tape measure and notepad and jotting down measurements every day. Now, instead of doing that, we’ve invested in laser scanning and point cloud technology.” 

The company now uses a laser scanner to capture the full external or internal detail of any building, site or environment, and then uses data from the scanner to create a digital ‘point cloud’ model of the scanned site. 

“It’s utilising virtual reality for an industrial application,” Des explains. “We import the point cloud model of the job site into virtual reality, and you can then put on a headset and walk around it from your own office, your lounge room, or wherever you like. Better yet, we can pair you with someone else with their own headset, so you can walk through the job site together, even though you’re in two different locations.

“Now, when we have our design meetings, rather than rolling out a thousand plans on paper, we’ll turn the data into a point cloud model and walk through it in virtual reality.” 

In other words, don’t go digital just for the sake of it – start by identifying a problem and investigating how you can use digital technologies to solve it. 

Be open to new opportunities 

Your digital transformation may start as a way to solve problems and address weaknesses that are causing headaches for your business. But if those solutions lead to additional opportunities, don’t be afraid to embrace them. 

“What we’ve found is that by investing in automation, robotics and digitalisation, we’ve become a different business,” Des says. 

He doesn’t just mean that metaphorically. Watkins Steel has spun a whole new business called Holovision, specialising in spatial services and 3D digital solutions, out of their investment in laser scanning and modelling. 

“We started by applying the technology to steel fabrication, but we soon realised how we could apply it to other industries as well,” Des says. “We created Holovision, and now it’s growing even faster than Watkins Steel – we’re scanning a theatre production in Melbourne, we’re scanning boats in Darwin, we’re scanning a waste facility in Sydney. It’s amazing… I never would have thought we’d be doing this.”

Hire smart people and get out of their way 

“If you’re the smartest person in your company, then you need to hire smarter people,” Des says.

“Your staff are your greatest asset. We invest in our staff and offer them whatever training they want. Before COVID, we were sending them away to conferences and courses all over the world, so they could learn more about what other industries and other countries were doing that we could incorporate into what we do.

“The funny thing about all of this is that, years ago, I wasn’t sure digital transformation was the right path for us. I didn’t think you could ‘disrupt’ steel fabrication. We cut steel and weld steel – how do you do that differently? So one thing our success has taught me is that if you’re the business owner, you need to know when to get out of the way and let your staff do what they do best.” 

Collaboration is key 

“It’s important to partner up and collaborate wherever possible,” Des says. “Whether that’s with other companies, educational institutions, or all levels of government – the more you talk to other people, the more you can acquire knowledge and information that’s going to help you.”

Des says Watkins Steel has benefited greatly from attending events and meeting with other local businesses at the Brisbane Business Hub, and from attending networking events held by Councillor Adam Allan in the Northgate Ward. 

Watkins Steel R&D Innovation Centre also collaborates with tertiary and vocation (VET) providers through its Work Integrated Learning Program, which gives Australian students their first working experience in civil engineering and mechatronics. 

“We give these young people whatever hardware they want, whatever software they want, and their position description is to surprise and delight,” Des says. “Sometimes they’ll come up with an idea that they don’t have a practical application for. That’s when we’ll pair them with our boilermakers to figure out how their ideas can solve our pain points. 

“It’s about tapping into their passion, and channelling it in a way that provides value – taking their amazing ideas and being able to commercialise, commoditise and monetise them for a very traditional industry like steel fabrication. That’s really where the magic sauce is.” 

Your digital transformation will never be complete 

Des says he’s proud Watkins Steel was recognised at the Lord Mayor’s Business Awards – “it’s a tangible endorsement that the path we’re on is the correct path” – but is quick to add the company hasn’t finished innovating and evolving. 

“It’s all about growth,” he says. “The growth of the company, the growth of the wider steel industry, the growth of the local economy – when you’re on that path of growth, of innovation, it does lead to new opportunities and to success. 

“The next great opportunities for us are in workplace health and safety and risk mitigation. There are some terrific opportunities there, and that’s a whole new industry for us. We’re continually finding new revenue streams, and looking at ways to disrupt what we’re doing and evolve, because that’s the right path for us. 

“We’re just at the start of our journey. And I think that in five years, I’ll probably still be saying, ‘We’re just at the start of our journey’. Things are changing so fast – the robotics will just become more advanced, and the opportunities for machine learning will be greater. So you’re continually at the start of your digital transformation journey.”

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