Banner Engineering’s Fuel for Digital Growth

As vice president of information technology at Banner Engineering, Kellie Christensen has been leading a manufacturing company through a journey to unlock its product data.

In 2011, Kellie Christensen and the then-director of marketing for Banner Engineering made a declaration. They promised their sales channel that they would make significant improvements in the speed at which Banner’s customers and sales channel had access to information, provide better information across all products, and make every customer touchpoint significantly easier to use. This ambitious declaration at the Minneapolis-based global company, which is a leader in the field of process and industrial automation, kicked off the start of a transformation from a print-focused sales and marketing culture to a digitally centered one.

Up until this declaration six years ago, Banner’s product literature and websites were dynamically updated and controlled by a content management system, but that wasn’t enough. With more than 40,000 devices and hundreds of product families across five divisions, most of the product data was still locked up in static data sheets and catalogs. “Since data is the fuel for digital business, we needed to unlock the data from those static formats so that we can use it across any platform and any application and give our customers the ability to select what they need through product data attributes,” Christensen says. “There was a five-year journey of learning how customers evaluated our products and pulling static product data from data sheets and catalogs to database the information.”

With the majority of this work being done in the past year to prepare for a new website, Banner digitized more than three million product attributes. Thousands of CAD files and product images were also created to assist customers with selecting product on the new website.

Christensen also added an enterprise data quality business analyst to her staff to lead the majority of the data effort and help identify and change internal processes for data governance. “If the proper data governance isn’t put in place, the data cleanup is a moving target because we release thousands of parts a year,” she explains.

One of the driving factors that Christensen attributes to the success of these initiatives and to her own personal victories is the company’s rather unique and collaborative culture. “I don’t believe that this job can be successful without strong collaboration in a company,” she says. “For example, our IT and marketing departments have worked very collaboratively together for the past ten to fifteen years, which I’ve read is somewhat uncommon but ultimately makes a huge difference when undertaking an initiative of this size.”

The effort to digitize the data was collaborative across the company. That also meant including many resources from engineering to sales departments. “Egos don’t fit in at Banner, so all employees are working to grow the company for the benefit of everyone rather than just themselves,” Christensen says. “There was a lot of passion and ownership across the departments involved to organize and present the information in a manner that was meaningful to customers.”

It’s no surprise that a project of this magnitude can be disruptive to the business and responsibilities of team members, but there was never an issue with employee participation or support from management to ensure the success of the project as resources were needed. “We had a relatively short timeline to get this enormous effort done while the website was being developed,” she says. “Since the data was going to drive much of the website’s design, the new website couldn’t be released without it.”

As a part of the declaration in 2011, Banner was the first in its industry to offer a tablet app that presented easy access to thousands of documents, presentations, and videos—both online and offline—that could also be forwarded and shared with customers and colleagues. “When we developed our API for product information, this was also on the leading edge of what manufacturers like us were doing,” Christensen says. “Our distributors carry multiple product lines, and we are always trying to reinforce and grow that mindshare. Being able to offer information that they need and to deliver it quickly is always one of our goals.”

The new website was the culmination of this digital transformation. The previous site was built before smartphones or tablets were commonplace, and video had not yet become a crucial component of Internet presence. Over the years, Banner developed other applications and platforms to address those gaps. The problem, however, was it gave customers and the sales channel separate avenues to find information and it all appeared and operated differently. It was also difficult for the marketing and IT departments to keep up with maintaining all of the applications. “We wanted to combine the functionality of all of these into one website that provided a consistent experience across devices that was easy to use,” she says. “It was such a large project that our marketing department named it Project Eclipse. It was also a great opportunity to reinforce our brand as a leader in our industry.”

Other opportunities that came with the project included reexamining what information was important to Banner’s customers and how they wanted to find and evaluate the products. “We were able to fill information gaps that existed on our previous website and focus on product solutions for our customers rather than just our products by themselves,” she says. “Ultimately, our customers are trying to solve a problem, and we want to help them solve that problem as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Christensen understands that, as a company with a wide range of automation technologies, Banner Engineering needs to reinforce its status as a technology leader at every customer touchpoint because its customers are experiencing a digital transformation, as well. “Internet of Things (IoT), or industry 4.0, is thrusting our manufacturing customer base into higher levels of automation and adding in new opportunities for predictive maintenance,” she says. “IoT in general is giving us access to new markets and opportunities. This evolution has given me a unique opportunity to be even more engaged in our business strategy because IoT begins with sensors and incorporates network communication, data access, and data management. Understanding what unprecedented access to data can do for companies is still evolving. As a sensor manufacturer, we are in a great position for IoT, and it’s very exciting.”