With “speed” and “smart” as key words, Duracell Aarschot is transforming itself into a factory of the future. Reason enough for Agoria to organise a knowledge-sharing day at the battery plant on Thursday 9 November. This highly successful event attracted no fewer than 130 attendees. Plant Manager Stefaan Boterberg: “The future of the manufacturing industry lies in learning networks.”

Duracell’s production plant in Aarschot is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and is one of the few battery manufacturing facilities left in Europe. “Since production started in October 1967, the technology hasn’t actually changed very much,” says Plant Manager Stefaan Boterberg. “An alkaline battery is still basically a little tube filled with chemicals.” 

He adds: “In terms of capacity, however, we’ve made huge leaps and bounds in the past half century. In 1967 we used to make 50,000 batteries a year. We now produce up to 5 million AA and AAA batteries per day in our current 42,000 m² facility. By way of comparison, around 20 million batteries are sold in Europe every day.”  

Much faster and a lot smarter

Besides the Belgian site, Duracell has three other production plants around the globe: two in the US and one in China. Stefaan Boterberg: “The compactness of batteries makes them easy to transport, which was one of the major factors jeopardising the future of this plant five years ago.” Because although Duracell Aarschot can now hold its head high once again – Berkshire Hathaway, the holding of Warren Buffett, the new owner of the brand, recently announced plans for substantial investment – Duracell’s only European production facility has had to weather stormy seas in the past few years.  

A few years ago the plant management therefore put together a master plan that focused on a single measurable objective: to match the production costs of its Chinese sister company, including the cost of shipping the batteries to the Aarschot plant’s sales markets (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). Stefaan Boterberg: “To achieve that goal, we fully embraced smart manufacturing. Our production system needed to be more efficient and a lot smarter.” 

From paper on the screen to truly digital

Since then, the fourth industrial revolution has swept through the Aarschot site. The smart battery factory of the future must be fully operational by 2020. Site Capability Leader Paul Nuyts: “Until recently Excel and various forms reigned supreme in our plant. Key users in every department were constantly inputting data or transferring data from one software package to another. Quite simply, it was the only way to push information through our value chain. 

“As part of a content analysis exercise, all those documents were systematically identified. It didn’t take the team long to work out the staggering number of hours spent entering and transferring data. Not to mention the risk of human error. To cut a long story short, we thought we had gone digital, but it was just an illusion – we were using paper on a PC screen.” 

To speed up the working processes, Duracell set up a digital integration platform together with innovation partner Ometa and digital transformaker Devoteam. Luc Deleu, CEO of Ometa: “We placed an interface above all existing systems and software applications. Via their digital workstations, the various teams are now in contact with each other and can collect process data in real time from the underlying systems connected to the interface, from ordering and production planning through to quality control and safety.” 

A virtual twin for each battery

But the Aarschot plant’s ambitions go way beyond vertical integration of systems and platforms. Paul Nuyts: “The data we currently actually use is only the tip of the iceberg. All our machines and equipment generate masses of relevant data, which we simply store at the moment. We can learn a lot from that data, and that knowledge can be used to refine the processes. Or, better still, we can make them smarter by predicting quality or other issues in good time.”  

“All our machines and equipment generate masses of relevant data, which we simply store at the moment. We can learn a lot from that data, and that knowledge can be used to refine the processes. Or, better still, we can make them smarter by predicting quality or other issues in good time.”

Within the foreseeable future each battery therefore needs to have a virtual twin: a collection of dozens of data points, captured by cameras and laser scanners on each line. Paul Nuyts: “During the manufacturing process, a battery undergoes nine transformations that are crucial for the quality of the finished product. Let’s suppose that we can use this virtual twin to determine whether each battery meets all the quality criteria, then we wouldn’t need to do any random batch sampling afterwards to test the batteries in the lab. Our operators will even be able to intervene quickly in the process to prevent waste.” 

It’s not every day that Duracell Aarschot opens its doors, and steering such a large group of people through the working production plant was quite a challenge for the team, to say the least. Management is therefore keen to clearly state its intentions. Stefaan Boterberg: “For our metamorphosis, we drew inspiration from visits to Punch Powertrain, which makes automatic transmissions, and aircraft parts manufacturer Fokker. Now we want to do our bit to inform and inspire other manufacturing companies. Because the future of the manufacturing industry lies in learning networks and smart partnerships.”  

What some of the participants had to say: 

“The need to get every department on board if an organisation is to be made industry 4.0-proof is a key takeaway from this event. And as a SharePoint user, one good point I found worth remembering is that each document containing ERP data is just a snapshot of the past. Hence the absolute necessity of working with real-time data via dashboards.” – Sofie Declercq, ASCO Industries. 

“Co-creation is vital to prepare a production facility for industry 4.0. Duracell Aarschot emphasises this by telling its story together with the partners that helped achieve the transformation.” – Leo Van de Loock, Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship. 

“The determination to bring about a transformation is shared by the senior management of Duracell Aarschot. I hope that this knowledge-sharing event will win over many other managers, as there’s still massive room for improvement everywhere.” – Raymond Ravyts, Johnson Controls.


This article is part of a series of blogs on Digitising Manufacturing, one of the Innovative Business Network projects that receive financial support from the Flemish government.

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