Sap Women

Collaboration is the Name of the Game

Dr. Maria Fay, Sustainability and Incubation Director at SAP, is hard at work in one of the biggest partnerships of the time – Catena-X, the first collaborative, open-data ecosystem for the automotive industry of the future. With degrees in Business Informatics and Economics and time spent working and living in various countries (including Russia, Germany, Liechtenstein, and now Switzerland), Maria brings a fresh perspective to the field

by Rachel Johnson | 13 Jul, 2023
Maria Fay SAP

The circular economy has gained a lot of traction in the last few years. When did you first become involved in projects related to the circular economy?

It really started a few years ago and what attracted me was how simple the concept of keeping products in their lifecycles is. At the same time, I realized it is still important to dig deeper and look at what it really means to bring products back after usage since it is necessary to redesign the processes or figure out how to incentivize customers to return more. Also, what role technologies will play in that? The passion began to build up for me when I started working with customers and projects within the circular economy and began to experience this transformation firsthand.

You focused on information and process management during your studies. Did you have any exposure to the circular economy already during this period?

Not directly during my studies, but I did take fantastic online classes by Delft University and University of Cambridge. It’s important to have courses dedicated to the circular economy and sustainability, but I believe the topics should be integrated into each study program – business courses, engineering, architecture, you name it. And not just at the university level – they need to be implemented early in the education system to truly initiate this change.

It’s often not only about learning but also about organizational unlearning. What old practices do you need to forget to start working in a new way?

What is the biggest barrier standing in the way?

Most of the time, it centers around traditional thinking – the way in which many companies are used to working. It’s often not only about learning but also about organizational unlearning. What old practices do you need to forget to start working in a new way? It is key to consider how you can leave aside this traditional reasoning and think of how to tackle the topic together – not just what others can do for you, but what you can do for others. This is very important.

The circular economy is something that certainly cannot be tackled alone. In your experience, how does collaboration benefit us and how can we strengthen it?

Any economy revolves around demand and supply. You always have at least one company that produces or offers a product and then a company or customer that consumes it. In the circular economy, there are two things that come on top. First, there are multiple additional processes that companies need to tackle: quality certification of old products, recycling, and reverse logistics. Therefore, businesses need to partner with other companies that have such complementary expertise and services. Second, you need to know what materials are used in the product, what is the quality and the exact material composition, in order, to take the right decision at the end of the lifecycle. For this, you need to share information with your partners and customers. Ultimately, it’s about joining forces, so the more collaboration, the more impact you have together.

Do you see a generational or cultural division here?

I see the division as not so much generational but habitual. For instance, people with a diesel car have been using it for so long and have become accustomed to it – the noises it makes, the way it drives.

Cultural division is also an excellent point here. The divide doesn’t just lie between east and west, but also if we look to developing countries there is a term called frugal innovation, which is when you are trying to reduce complexity and cost of production simply because you cannot afford to do otherwise. For instance, $1 glasses are now produced and sold in Africa and India. These cultures hold on to possessions for a longer time, are not as dependent on trends and fashion, and get creative in the way they repair items because they cannot just go and buy new ones. This is very different compared with the consumer culture we see in developed countries.

You are currently working on a very important project that promotes collaboration in the automotive industry, Catena-X. In 100 words or fewer, can you explain the purpose and mission of Catena-X?

I can make it in ten: Enabling data-driven value chain collaboration in the automotive industry. But to add to that, if we take the circular economy as an example, it is all about avoiding waste at the end of the day. To do so, you need to know what is in the car, how much aluminum is inside, what is the health state of the battery, and what is the product carbon footprint. Then you can decide how to dismantle a car or if a gearbox can be reused, repaired, or remanufactured. For this, you need data. With Catena-X, component material suppliers, car manufacturers, and dismantlers come together to define certain standards, data models, and services that are needed to share this data. Afterwards, software providers, for instance, can build on these requirements and standards to make sure that their solutions also enable this data exchange.

Catena-X brings a lot of key players together. What is the most difficult aspect of this collaboration?

This would be the organizational aspect because you bring people from different companies together, but still, many of them have other projects and commitments beyond Catena. Prioritization and finding time to get things done is a major challenge. On the other hand, it is also a good thing because, if just the admin stuff is the most difficult, then it means that other aspects such as trust and culture work well, and that is a key to success. Otherwise, as the saying goes, "culture eats strategy for breakfast".

And what is your favorite part of the project?

The people and the purpose. Everybody I've been working with, dozens of people in each company, are intrinsically motivated to make a change in this world. They are not just doing it to make customers happy or to increase revenues. This is, of course, also a goal, but they are also spending their free time with sustainability initiatives. The joy for me is this working towards a common goal mindset.

Do you have a best practice example you can share, where a new approach did bring better results?

A good example was presented at the Hannover Fair this year. It is about achieving material and battery traceability and circularity with the battery pass.

When equipped with the right technologies and data models, cathode active material producers share information with battery and vehicle manufacturers, dismantlers, and recycling companies. This enables analysis of the constituents of the battery, voltage, health state, etc. What we aim for is closing the whole circle, that the materials are found, bought, and recycled in the right way and new cells are produced out of them.

Use sustainability as an opportunity and then identify what you are already doing and do more of it.

What steps can all companies take to become more sustainable?

Use sustainability as an opportunity and then identify what you are already doing and do more of it. Many companies think it is a whole new area to tackle, but often they are already doing this optimization. For instance, maybe they already offer some maintenance service or design their products so that they can be repaired with spare parts. I would advise them, that if they see Mount Everest in front of them, to realize that they are already two kilometers up.

At the end of the day, behind every company are individuals. If each of us starts thinking in a new way and the circular economy is also embedded into school education and the way we behave and raise our children, the next generations will also have these novel habits and state of mind. By default, companies of the future will be more sustainable.


Catena-X – An Overview of Circular Economy



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