Deep in the heart of Shanghai’s business district is a new Unilever hub that is set to transform the speed with which we bring products to market for Chinese consumers.

It’s the brainchild of a small group of Unilever’s R&D experts including Senior R&D Manager for Skin Care Jason Wei and Global Skin Care Digital Processing Manager Jake Onyett, who currently manage the space.

Known as the AI hub, it shares its name with the Chinese character for love 爱. The name reflects its status as a centre for artificial intelligence and acknowledges the agility and innovation expected to go on inside the building’s four walls.

“There’s room for three to four teams to work in parallel, as well as space for consumers and stakeholders during workshops,” says Jake. “But the aim is to keep the space and the number of people who work here is entirely agile.”

The facility has been designed to ramp up the speed of product innovation ‘in China and for China’, from several months to a matter of minutes.

State-of-the-art hardware helps to make this happen. High-performance computers are equipped with modelling software to develop product concepts, create 3D packaging designs and ready prototypes to test with consumers. And Unilever can call on a global talent pool of data analysts, modellers and engineers who can work remotely or in the hub to bring project ideas to life.

Man presenting data to two colleagues. Agile teams are drastically reducing the time it takes to bring ideas to market

Live-stream local market and consumer data are helping fast-track ideas into products that deliver long-term value

Using live data to find new product ideas

Impressive stuff, but the real magic happens when real-time local market and consumer data are added to the mix. The facility can live-stream seven-screen projections at the same time. “In China live-streaming has become a huge sensation in e-commerce,” says Jake. The information these streams provide will be used to turn ideas into products that deliver long-term superior value for both consumers and the business.

“The idea is to link real-time consumer/market data to capture and predict trends, identify opportunities and leverage digital tools to rapidly create prototypes to help us launch faster and smarter,” explains Jason. “For example, if we find by listening to social media that a face mask for acne is a sizeable business opportunity for skin care, we could use R&D simulation tools to decide how we proceed with this project.”

And that’s not the most exciting part. “We can then engage with consumers to design products with them, not just for them,” he says. Teams can run consumer workshops to test products before launch, with the AI hub acting like a digitally enabled ‘lounge’ where consumers can experience new concepts, using tools such as augmented and virtual reality and then share their thoughts on these products instantly.

Add this insight and understanding to the hub’s R&D capabilities to produce a customised demo and it becomes clear that Jason’s vision to “to create new end-to-end products in minutes” is more than just blue-sky thinking.

Virtual tools will become a ‘new normal’ for innovation

The AI hub was officially opened on 17 June by CEO Alan Jope and Head of R&D Richard Slater alongside North Asia R&D VP Peter Schrooyen and North Asia EVP Rohit Jawa.

While Covid-19 has thrown up a lot of challenges, it has also shown the need for the ability to run things virtually. “The AI hub workflow doesn’t have to be restricted to the physical hub,” says Jake.

The fact that much of the centre’s capabilities can be accessed remotely has meant a semblance of business as usual even when restrictions around the world resulting from Covid-19 are still in place.

Having the ability to share prototypes and concepts instantly through virtual tools will drastically reduce our innovation timelines,” Jake says. “It’ll be a key part of the process, even more so in the post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’.”

“I genuinely believe this is the future so I’m incredibly excited to be a part of it,” he adds. “The AI hub takes the best of both scenarios, working as small agile teams with full autonomy but fully equipped with the resources of Unilever. It’s a recipe for the next generation of amazing product development.”

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