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New Netflix Pilot: Factories Optimize to Survive

By: Sarah Calkin-Ward Scw
• February 2024
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Following the unprecedented success of the Netflix series ‘F1 Drive to Survive’ documenting the efforts and anxieties of Formula 1 racing teams in their pursuit for top podium, Netflix presents a new TV series to follow the transformational efforts of production teams within factories.

It’s not true. But humor me by sticking with this analogy.

The new F1 season has commenced, and the Netflix show dissecting the 2023 racing season was released 3 days ago. To me, this season’s show stands out from the others.

This season, Netflix has diagnosed the critical traits necessary for a successful Team Principal and how this role impacts the driver, the race decisions, and the car itself. If you played a drinking game to do a shot each time someone says “this is now a data-driven sport” –you would have face-planted by episode 5.

As a lifelong F1 fan, from a lifelong F1 fanatical family, what struck me the most from this season’s show is how similar F1 Team Principal are to factory Plant Managers.

This season highlights the critical role of the Team Principal, and which skills are necessary in this modern era to make their team successful. Much like the role of Plant Managers to keep their team safe and production thriving.

We ran an industry survey earlier this year, which indicated that Plant Managers may be a primary bottleneck holding back true digitization and the equivalent of podium success for their factory.

Let me show you why. But first, back to the racing parallels.

The sound of race cars on TV was the soundtrack to my youth and informative years. My father would never miss a live F1 race. Back in the 70’s and into the early 80’s part of the thrill and anxiety of F1 viewing was knowing that the drivers were essentially racing a highly inflammable bomb on wheels around a winding unsafe course. Even the smallest crash could mean certain death. As such the drivers were the death-defying super heroes of the sport, truly driving to survive in every race.

In contrast to today’s F1 racing, while out on the course they were entirely disconnected from their team and only able to see what was within their current line of vision. Equally, their team was restricted from knowing how their driver was performing while out on the lengthy course. This is no different to the pre-sensor era of manufacturing.

As safety regulations increased in F1 and better technology became available, cars became a highly connected computer on wheels with sensors on all parts of the body and engine. Car development was influenced through the use of digital twins and upgrades were data driven. The cars and the team behind it, became the differentiator.

Toto Wolff (Mercedes F1 Team Principal) said it best when discussing the crucial role of technology in optimizing F1 cars in episode 6.

"Our sport is a data driven sport [shot!], but data doesn't make decisions - it's people that do it. With a single upgrade you can unlock the potential in the car and suddenly fight for podiums."

Toto understands that technology and data help people make better decisions. However, unless people can understand and have confidence in the data to put those decision in action, they leave opportunity on the table.

This also highlights the importance of ensuring that the Team Principal is able to read and interpret the available data about their car, their crew, and their driver’s performance.

This was repeated by numerous past and present team principals and F1 journalists. It was particularly topical as the former Williams Racing team manager (Claire Williams) stepped aside from the role in her family’s business to hand the reins to one of the most experienced Engineers in the industry - James Wowles (formerly Mercedes F1).

The show also suggested that this may be the reason behind the lack of success for the Haas F1 team, under the reins of the fabulously unfiltered Guenther Steiner. Steiner admits himself that he is not from a background to be able to understand everything that the data is showing in order to properly optimize his team or his car. This may be his professional undoing.

Inside a factory, our survey found that the Plant Manager is a highly experienced veteran, like Guenther, typically with 20+ yrs experience under their belt and primarily incentivized to keep production stable. They’re also incentivized to decrease waste, and increase yield and quality - but to a lesser degree from their stability targets which can naturally keep them resistant to change.

When we asked about technology, our survey results mirrored the sentiment of the Netflix show; the plant manager’s knowledge and receptivity of technology is key to getting the most out of their team and their production.

Interestingly, feedback we received from Plant Managers who are not currently optimizing with AI/ML/digital twin, indicated that technology laggards prefer a slow but steady approach to making changes, without deviating too far from what has been done before.

  • "Focus on the basics with an emphasis on taking good care of people...People are more important than technology. Take good care of people and meet them where they are." 
    • Plant Manager, 20+yrs
  • "Human interface into the manufacturing process cannot be replaced by technology. Recent grads lack 'common sense', and over rely on the technology." 
    • Plant Manager, 20+yrs

Although both comments are admirable they show a lack of understanding of the true role that AI/ML plays within production optimization. Optimization technology like Fero Labs does not replace the critical role of experienced factory staff, it augments their knowledge so they can learn about their production faster and how to improve it.

Technology has not ‘replaced’ F1 engineers or other team members, its enhanced their knowledge and abilities, and dramatically increased their speed from insight to activation. Previously, if you started the season with a dud car, you were stuck with it for the entire year. Whereas this past season we saw early upgrades bring teams from the bottom of the standings to the mid-field or podium, yielding high returns from their data-driven [shot!] upgrade risks.

Technology has also enabled greater visibility for the technically savvy F1 Team Principal to understand how each cross-functional team, and each team member, is performing. They can optimize their car, engineers, mechanics, drivers, and pit crews, in order to optimize their race results. This level of team optimization is essential for modern Plant Managers as well.

If Netflix were to make a new show featuring your team and your 2024 results -  [don't worry, they won’t] - Which team principal would you be? Would you reach the podium this year?

Will you choose to embrace the full benefits of technology like the financially refreshed Aston Martin team and repeat winners Red Bull?

Or will you admit your technological blindspots like Haas F1 at the bottom of the standings, with two great veteran drivers, a car that keeps breaking, no real insight into what will fix it (or who should fix it), and a weekly call to ‘Gene’ full of expletives and frustration over your lackluster performance?

Your success in 2024 could come from one small but significant early season upgrade, uncovered by data driven technology. [shot!]

If you want to make a comeback, make a time to set up a free Feasibility Study with our team. Have a great season, we'll see you in the pits!