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A car is built by rotobics

Like mother and daughter

Catena-X is becoming the digital ecosystem for Europe's automakers. In the process, another major project is providing welcome obstetrics.

GAIA-X. The name of the project, whose formal founding brought together 22 German and French companies in Brussels earlier this year, derives from “Γαῖα,” one of the first Greek deities to emerge from chaos. In mythology, she stands — literally spelled as Gaia — the Earth personified as a woman giving birth.

The father of the idea is quite pragmatic

GAIA-X is intended to promote a high-performance, competitive, secure, and trustworthy data infrastructure for Europe, based on an attitude of openness and transparency. Similarly — with uniform standards and common principles — Catena-X aims to increase the productivity of the automotive industry through the secure and sovereign sharing of data and enhance the transparency of automotive supply chains in concrete terms.

Particularly, the automotive industry is considered as one of the prime movers of the European economy, because it generates about 7% of the European Union’s (or EU’s) total GDP and provides skilled employment with its nearly 12 million employees. To put it bluntly, the car is one of the most powerful engines of the European economy. But as the industry evolves from a car maker and seller to a “mobility service provider,” its business model is fundamentally changing. This is because “service”, in the context of mobility, is primarily based on subscription on the one hand and data centricity on the other. This means that the revenue promise lies more with the data than just with vehicles. And this makes the storage and transfer of data within their transcontinental value chains a major concern for companies in terms of compliance and security.

At the same time, however, it requires not only better networking to meet the challenges of digitalization and exploit its benefits across the entire value chain. But above all, a harmonization of the different ways and means that the players have identified as suitable for them.

Data exchange without loss of trust

Yet, of all things, the lack of data continuity — not just between companies but also across the product lifecycle — is an almost traditional problem in many industries. For a variety of reasons: individual data formats and different protocols that result in a lack of standardization and increased complexity. This, in turn, can make the whole process error-prone and inefficient. Furthermore, different authentication and authorization mechanisms hamper the supply chain-wide networking. And if the companies involved use dissimilar algorithms, the effective use of data is once again restricted.

A loss of trust is even imminent if companies cannot be absolutely certain that the data they share will subsequently only be used for the intended purposes. Among other things, the handling of particularly sensitive data, which regularly affects planned R&D projects in addition to the market launch of new products, also has antitrust significance.  

To bring about reliable security at all these points, the founding members developed the GAIA-X initiative as early as 2019. To build protected data spaces, based on a European data infrastructure, and to protect all critical industrial sectors in Europe.

Chairman of the Board of Directors of the GAIA-X initiative.

In this sense, we want to build a European data ecosystem in close cooperation with our partners and thus ensure European data sovereignty.

Maximillian Ahrens, Chief Technology Officer, T-Systems 

Hyperscalers on board

Conceptualized as a European data ecosystem, GAIA-X is nevertheless intended to remain an open cloud network at the outset and not a closed, purely European operation. Since then, the initiators have also opened up to non-European hyperscalers that recognize the potential of the project and respect its rules and regulations. Just one example is Google Cloud, whose flexible provision of enormous computing power can thus be combined with the guarantee of European data sovereignty. To ensure the necessary and required protection for GAIA-X customers and users, T-Systems has developed the necessary security architecture and made it the dedicated subject of a partnership agreement with Google. 

With GAIA-X, high-performance data centers are freely selectable in terms of location, performance, quality and price, and services can be transferred from one center to another, giving users data sovereignty again.

For Maximilian Ahrens, “this freedom of choice” is the first important step toward sovereignty. Above all, the customer can choose whom to share data with, and retains full control over the location, processing, and access to this data. These are the European values that Deutsche Telekom and T-Systems share and contribute to.

On these lines, first new partnerships are emerging on the horizon. For example, T-Systems is now working with the French cloud provider OVHCloud on a purely European, sovereign cloud. It is based on the OpenStack architecture and addresses the specific needs of the public sector as well as key infrastructure operators and companies operating in strategic or sensitive areas of public interest.

While GAIA-X is essentially a general, open-source, sovereign digital infrastructure for Europe, Catena-X builds on it and represents a specific use case for the automotive industry. In a further development of the GAIA-X reference architecture, the industry is primarily concerned with standards for the digital exchange of relevant vehicle, equipment, logistics, and mobility data. The aim is to build secure, interoperable, and neutral corporate networks with network-based industry solutions on this foundation.

Therefore, the members have agreed on an IDS (International Data Spaces) standard, among other things, which makes a federated design for data exchange possible. This strengthens trust between the partners, provides equal access options and the essential level of security and data protection. Data sovereignty makes Catena-X an extensible ecosystem for all kinds of players beyond OEMs including: suppliers, dealers, and logistics providers. 

Catena-X as a logical step

Consortium of partners of Catena-X as of May 2021

The Automotive Alliance will use the data ecosystem to concretely ensure digital sovereignty for players in the automotive industry. In doing so, the industry is not only looking at the future requirements of the sustainability of its products and the safety of its processes. It has long been looking at the future of production as well as services beyond that, from the dealership to sales. One of the most important decisions and promises made by the members of Catena-X concerns the entire automotive value chain, in which “joint cooperation and collaboration in an open network should accelerate the exchange of data across companies”. 

But what does this look like in practice? One tangible example of this is continuously connected data chains to create digital twins of automobiles.

The benefits are clear: a system that creates standardization and access to data would indeed increase the competitiveness of the participants, improve overall efficiency, and contribute to sustainability goals. Standardizing data spaces will also allow companies to tightly combine advanced AI and automation technology and their results with real-life demands of business. Time to market, for example, from the development of a product to its placement in the market.

Linking across the world

World map showing the Catena-X data rooms for European automotive manufacturer

The adjacent example illustrates this: quite a few European car manufacturers are represented on all continents and have production units, manufacturing plants, supply chains, and dealership networks across several countries. As a member of Catena-X, each OEM can be sure that its own engineers, who work worldwide on the same project, have access to the same data in their country, while at the same time ensuring European data sovereignty. 

And since it is an extendable ecosystem, it is expected that other European carmakers from Italy, France or Sweden will join and benefit from Catena-X.

Integration of SMEs

For the automotive industry, with its tendency to lean towards low vertical integration, it is also important to make it possible for the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in its supplier landscape to join the open network with very little IT investment. Thus, their own logistics and supply chain management — in addition to the topics of sustainability, maintenance, and quality management — are also defined focus projects of the Catena-X members.

Networked data infrastructures are already making productivity increases, and advances in product sustainability and automotive supply chain resilience seem within reach. Future applications will include supporting production and development. In the second step, Catena-X will focus on supporting production and development. And then, once again, secure data spaces and networks will be critical in ensuring that Europe's automotive industry meets the demands of the data economy, while safeguarding its data sovereignty.

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About the author

Shreesh Tongaonkar is a content strategist with T-Systems. He has 16 years' experience in B2B Marketing Communications and Technical Content Writing for enterprise products and services in ITES, Manufacturing, Tourism & Hospitality as well as SME sectors.

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