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How USG's Innovation Philosophy Helps Sustain Its Inventive Culture

In this month's "Trailblazers" interview, we speak with Dr. Srinivas Veeramasuneni, senior vice president and chief technology officer at USG Corporation.

Veeramasuneni discusses his career and how USG is addressing the mega trends driving innovation in the construction industry.

He also shares how USG fosters a culture of innovation by focusing on people, processes, and the environment, as well as exploring which emerging technologies are poised to deliver the most value in the building industry.

Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer at Oracle Construction and Engineering, leads the conversation.

BK: Tell us about your current role and how your career has evolved since you started in the industry.

SV: My current role is senior vice president and chief technology officer for USG. I support the current business units while also assembling the plans and vision for the future of our company.

I joined USG 20 years ago after getting my PhD in metallurgical engineering at the University of Utah. I started as a scientist in the lab and spent a few years developing products and understanding the technologies before I moved into research and technology management.

I’ve been in various roles throughout my time at USG, managing research, innovation, and other areas. I’ve been an officer of the company for the past five years.

BK: What is the state of innovation in our industry?

SV: The building and construction industry is very conservative compared to industries like consumer goods or technology. Our customers—whether they’re contractors, builders or architects—are looking for proven solutions that will improve their bottom line without adding risk.

A building’s lifespan—whether it's residential or commercial—typically is about 40 to 50 years. That's why adopting change is slower and more complicated in the construction industry.

It takes time to adopt and use our end products because they’re supposed to last a long time.

Mega trends in construction

However, the winds of change are starting to blow stronger in the construction industry. The mega trends driving the industry include urbanization, digital technologies, sustainability, and a shortage of skilled labor.

Innovations are being explored and adopted more quickly in all three phases of a building’s lifecycle: design, build, and occupy. 

USG is focused on addressing these trends and meeting the needs of contractors, builders, and architects by providing sustainable and high-performance materials, enabling faster construction, and adopting digital tools to enhance productivity and customer experience.

Here are some examples:

  1. Sustainable materials: USG was the first manufacturer to accept the Architecture 2030 Challenge for Products. We innovated and introduced a wallboard product called USG Sheetrock® Brand EcoSmart Panels that dramatically reduced the global warming impact of wallboard by 25%.

EcoSmart Panels are also 25% lighter than any other product on the market and provide productivity improvement to contractors. We believe this is the most sustainable and lightest wallboard in the world. 

  1. Speed of construction: USG has provided products and systems that address our customers’ desire to speed up construction for over 100 years, beginning with our invention of Sheetrock® wallboard. For example, in the 1960s, there was a limit to a building’s height. USG created a lighter shaft wall system to make it easier to build tall buildings - not only in this country, but throughout the world.

A few years back, we also introduced an air and water barrier system called Securock® ExoAir® 430, in which the barrier is pre-applied during manufacturing. The product eliminates a time-consuming step on the jobsite and accelerates installation times by up to 40%.

We also introduced USG Structural Panels, which can be used for floors, roofing applications, and pouring. In the past, you poured concrete and waited for several days for it to cure. Now, once you have a steel framing structure built, you simply lay down panels and immediately cover it with carpet, wood flooring, or whatever product is required.

  1. High-Performance Materials:  We continue to invest in our pre-existing and industry-leading product lines while also adding new products that better address the needs of our customers. In our newly formed Performance Materials division, we still offer our industry-leading brands such as USG Durock® cement board, USG Fiberock® tile backerboard, and Levelrock® poured floors, but we also added new products like our waterproofing systems.
  1. Digital technologies: Lastly, USG is committed to investing in advanced manufacturing technologies to help encourage innovation in our plants and on the job site, including drones, machine learning, AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality), robots, and 3D printing. 

BK: What are the biggest challenges you see in terms of technology adoption?

SV: From an operations perspective, employers must provide workforce training and development to empower employees as new technology is introduced. For example, Industry 4.0. not only increased connectivity, but more sophisticated analytical capabilities have disrupted the manufacturing and construction sectors as well.

There’s more opportunity than ever to make operations safer and more efficient.

From a customer perspective, the construction industry wants proven solutions to address their pain points and emerging needs.

How USG is addressing proven solutions head-on

Traditionally, proven solutions have been in the market for years and work seamlessly. Obviously, a proven solution conflicts with the rapid adoption of technologies.

USG is addressing proven solutions head-on by conducting sophisticated modeling and simulation of material and system performance, identifying beachhead market segments, and conducting market pilots with early adopters who are willing to try new products.

BK: It’s clear that innovation is part of your culture. How can organizations foster a culture of innovation? 

SV: Innovation is part our company’s core values and strategy. We have fostered a strong culture of innovation by focusing on people, processes, and the environment.

  1. People: We’re focused on recruiting talent and subject matter experts. For example, for several decades, we used a lot of starch in our products.

But in the last eight years, we hired a subject matter expert with a PhD in grain technology to research starch. This hire helped us to design our own starch molecule, adding tremendous value to the business.

While we have very talented employees at USG, we created a philosophy called “open innovation” to address the scores of talented people outside of our organization.

We’re working with universities, national labs, vendors—as well as other companies—to co-develop and co-market products pertaining to our open innovation methodology.

Talent is all about the diversity, including educational backgrounds. Different perspectives help us innovate. We’re fortunate to have a diverse workforce that thinks very differently.

  1. Processes: You must have the right processes in place to eliminate any roadblocks or constraints. We implement specific processes depending upon the type of initiatives at hand—whether they’re incremental, business-unit related, or big ideas that address industry challenges—while also instilling accountability among our employees.
  1. Environment: USG increased team collaboration by making innovation everyone’s responsibility, regardless of whether you’re in operations, sales, or marketing, etc. People can always come up with new ideas and add value to the company.

We have created an open, transparent organization that encourages experimentation. Experimenting, failing, and making mistakes is the only way to learn.

Innovation should start at the top—beginning with the CEO—and be integral to a company’s strategy. We’re fortunate to have a CEO who embraces innovative practices.

BK: What emerging technologies represent the best opportunities? What technology do you see offering the best value?

SV: Our company has relied on natural materials for our sustainable growth for more than 115 years. A lot of material technologies are being developed, including green and sustainable materials.

We’re also working on advanced manufacturing technologies, including things like augmented reality/virtual reality, robots, drones, machine learning, and 3D printing. Over the last few years, we’ve started using drones to map and monitor our mines.

In the past, consultants spent weeks— sometimes months—to map everything in our mines in various operations. We can map mines quickly for mineral deposits using drones, adding tremendous value and convenience to our operations.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs)

USG has also implemented automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to replace our forklifts that transport products in our plants, improving our operational efficiency and safety.

In addition, we’re collaborating with outside partners to explore how we can incorporate robots in construction practices, whether it's installing or finishing wallboard.

Similarly, we’re using machine learning and artificial intelligence to help improve our operations as well as piloting several virtual reality apps to help our customers better understand our products.

Our customers can try different products to determine which will best address their specific business case, whether it’s for a hospital, school, or office.

BK: What are the short and long-term benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to your line of business?

SV: USG is exploring machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to improve our operations and customer experience to drive efficiencies and unparalleled customer loyalty.

In the past, we’d test different materials and formulations and often say: “Okay, we need to go back and adjust things because we didn’t meet the quality requirements.” Now, we can use predictive analytics in our manufacturing plants to improve quality, efficiency, safety, and reduce cost of our products.

Machine learning and almost 50 years of data

We're building machine learning models to leverage our 40 to 50 years of test data on performance of walls, floors, and ceilings to provide advanced digital tools for architects who design and specify our products. 

We also use web and social media analytics to continuously improve our website and provide the right information to the customers quickly. As a leader in the materials sector of the building industry, incorporating these innovative technologies will lead to better things in the future.

Read our eBook: "Innovation in Construction, Perspectives from AEC Innovation Leaders"

Related posts:

Explore innovation in action at the Oracle Construction and Engineering Innovation Lab, a simulated worksite with integrated technologies, including Reconstruct.

 

 

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