The Challenge

Build a customer-centered culture of innovation and lay the groundwork for a new generation of digital products and services.


A dedicated, internal design thinking team to lead culture change across the organization, a suite of digital products and services, and a mindset shift from a supplier of products to a partner in innovation.

For factory operators, a smart valve is a game-changer. It gathers data on how smoothly the system is running and feeds it to an app, making it easier to troubleshoot from anywhere. And when things get overheated, it can automatically shut down the machinery, avoiding a meltdown.

Georg Fischer (GF), the Swiss-based, B-to-B industrial manufacturer collaborated with IDEO to design that valve, along with a system that adds value for generations of engineers to come.

And there were some surprises along the way. When the team set out to interview customers, they learned a lot about their real needs. “We showed a customer a sacrificial concept of a smart valve and asked, what do you think about this?” says Laura Barrabia, GF’s Head of Corporate Design Thinking. “The customer answered, we don’t want your valve to be smart, we want to be smart. If GF is providing a smart valve, where is my value?”

For GF Piping Systems, these insights helped shape initial prototypes and guided the direction of the design to something that would tie parts together into smart systems and more efficient industrial facilities—a competitive advantage.

Yves Serra, GF’s CEO, recognized early on that his company needed to strengthen its customer-centricity and digital capacity, so he approached IDEO to begin shifting GF’s culture from engineering-led and procedural to customer-focused, multidisciplinary, collaborative, and flexible. That kicked off a decade-long relationship that would help GF take a design-based approach.

Learn what it means to move from being technology-driven to being truly customer-centric.

To help GF identify clients’ pain points and address them with new digital offers, IDEO proposed three “lighthouse” projects, one for each of GF’s divisions: Piping Systems, Casting Solutions, and Machining Solutions. Lighthouse projects (also called “Beacons”) are proofs of concept that light the way for an organization and help it shift its way of working.

For example, GF Machining Solutions built a prototype for an application that uses real-time data to help customers identify and fix problems in the machines, laying the foundation for truly predictive maintenance. Making data streams more transparent for customers also simplified life for the GF service engineers, who keep the machines running.

Learn how Georg Fischer is moving from hardware offerings to digital solutions.

For GF Piping Systems, the design team developed the GF Digital Line, a set of products, apps, dashboards, and other services that help customers plan, install, and maintain water and chemical piping systems. GF teams went back to customers to test several prototypes and gather feedback on the Digital Line and make sure it addressed current and future needs. They also built internal capabilities to support product development, laying the groundwork for future innovation.

Lastly, IDEO helped GF Casting Solutions escape the “commodity trap” of competing with foreign automotive suppliers. To better understand the pressures car manufacturers face, the design team explored the development cycles of two car manufacturers. They learned how challenging it is to implement solutions to reduce vehicle weight—essential for cutting fuel consumption. As an expert in aluminum die casting, GF was well positioned to help manufacturers meet that challenge, not just with quality parts, but also with digital engineering to deliver cutting-edge lightweight casting solutions, which are harder to replicate.

By the end of these lighthouse projects, GF had rolled out a global design thinking training program that had touched more than 1000 employees. After the training, employees throughout the organization adopted a new way of working and became passionate ambassadors. The enthusiasm spread from the R&D department to HR to finance and many other departments.

Today, GF has permanent design thinking and digital teams to continue this work. All three divisions aim to launch the first releases of their lighthouse projects by early 2019. And with every project, GF’s business—and solutions—get smarter about how to meet the needs of a fast changing world.

Industrial Goods and Services