Throughout my rather brief career I nevertheless managed to work at five aluminium factories of very different sizes: from family-owned businesses all the way to multinational enterprises.

Without exception, each category struggles with leveraging data to reduce costs and improve operations. Whether you want to call this Digital Transformation, Industry 4.0 or AI, building a truly digital factory proves to be non-trivial for anyone.

So who is going to build the aluminium plant of the future? A startup, SME or a large enterprise?

My guess is as good as yours, but it’s interesting to compare the advantages and disadvantages of each category:

  • Large enterprises have the deepest pockets and therefore easier access to talent and technological infrastructure. However, they often became big due to a large number of M&A’s. Creating a digital culture in such a large enterprise is extremely challenging and takes a long time.
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (like the German “Mittelstand”) have trouble attracting and retaining digital talent. However, their business processes and culture are more flexible.
  • Startups don’t have to change anything: they have the luxury of building the correct culture and digital infrastructure from the ground up. However, the only startup I know of that builds a fully digital factory with their own machines is Hadrian, a US manufacturer for the space industry.

My gut-feeling is that the aluminium factory of the future will emerge from an unknown company, that may not even exist today. In my experience, no amount of money and technology can solve the cultural problem. And given that we can continuously create more software with less effort, I see an opportunity for a startup to compete in the asset-heavy industry provided they target a very narrow niche.