How do you build a production system that not only produces at a high rate, but also has the inherent flexibility to handle all possible variants of a product without issue? Ontex, based in Eeklo, successfully took up this monumental challenge, as evidenced by the Factory of the Future awards it won in 2016 and 2019.

Plant manager Jef Monballyu is one of the architects behind the success of the production facility located in East Flanders. He begins by outlining the market conditions in which they operate:

“As a producer of hygienic solutions, we have 3 major pillars: baby care, incontinence solutions and women's hygiene. We mainly make products from the last category in the factory in Eeklo, although we also produce nappy pants and, since last year, medical mouth masks. The market in which we operate is mainly the Western European retail sector, although some products find their way far beyond these borders, such as Australia and the US. The factory in Eeklo has the great advantage of only being 35 kilometres away from the port of Zeebrugge and 70 kilometres away from that of Antwerp. Transport by sea is much cheaper than by road and that makes a big difference to the price, both for our exports and for the supply of raw materials. That compensates for the more expensive labour costs we are faced with here.”

The main challenge: diversity of products

“In our market, responding to daily changes is paramount. That is typical of the retail market. Every retailer has roughly the same products in their range, but they want to distinguish themselves by giving them their own touch. For us, the challenge is to organise our production lines in such a way that we can make those specific versions for various customers on one and the same line. This is an enormously complex matter. We must constantly ensure that we can guarantee our flexibility in an efficient manner. Part of the solution is -extensive automation. We have been following this philosophy for some time.

First award in 2016

“The first route towards the Factory of the Future award in 2016 went off without a hitch for this reason. It was Fedustria that alerted us to the existence of the process and encouraged us to participate. We scored good to very good on just about all points of the audit. Ontex Eeklo had already developed into a Factory of the Future, and the first award was the logical result of that. Mind you, that doesn't mean we could rest on our laurels back then. By taking part in the programme, we got to know other companies and were able to see how they approached their process and we also discovered other technologies. In that sense, winning the first award was not an end but the start of a new flow. But that doesn't mean we that we can implement just any project, because we are part of the Ontex group with factories on five continents. As a result, we have to operate within certain boundaries. As Ontex is managed from Belgium, we are considered to be one of the pilot plants within our group. Seeing our technology used at the other 18 Ontex plants is a common occurrence.”

22 automated lines

“We have 22 automated production lines. Some are 45 metres long and are operated by just one or two operators. The machines on those lines are mostly existing machines, but we adapt them ourselves according to our needs. This engineering capability is one of our strong suits. Using new technology is one thing, but you also have to keep your existing machinery up-to-date. That is only possible if the in-house technical knowledge is up to scratch.”

Logistical structure

“We are also continuing the automation and digitalisation process in the field of packaging. The warehouse locations of newly-supplied raw materials are automatically assigned so that forklift truck drivers know exactly where to place their loads using barcode scanners. We also work in a similar way in production. When a new batch is started, the production order and the BOM (Bill of Materials) are made available to the operators thanks to the MES (Manufacturing Execution System). They can tell the forklift trucks which raw materials they need, and the driver immediately receives that request on his screen. As soon as the operator scans his pallet and brings it into production, this is registered in the MES. All the steps that happen later in the production process are also communicated via the MES system. This is partly done automatically via information from the PLC, although important human input by the operator is also required. It can be difficult to interpret the root of certain problems or standstills on the basis of simple error codes. Thus, working flexibly does not always mean simply automating tasks. At some points in the packaging department, for example, we consciously opt for human input because workers offer greater flexibility. People are able to react much quicker in case of sudden changes.”

Focus on ecology

“When we design new products, we always carry out a life cycle analysis: which machines do we need, which packaging do we need, how can we use as many recyclable materials as possible, how can we organise transport? In recent years, retailers have been focusing more on sustainability. We have already made good progress in this respect. Packaging that is more easily recycled is a good example of this. For transport, I would like to point out the optimisation of the number of products on a pallet. We do that in two ways: on the one hand, by compressing the products as much as possible and, on the other hand, by adapting the sizes of the boxes and bags so that the maximum amount of space is used in the lorries. This saves a lot of money on transport costs. Also, many retailers today work with automated warehouses, whereby they impose certain requirements on the shape of the supply. This required the necessary adaptations to be made within Ontex, and not just in Eeklo.”

Human capital

“The major challenge relating to the staff was to get everyone on board with the road to automation. I've picked up several pointers from fellow companies in the Factory of the Future group. For example, our communication system for shift handover is grafted on top of that of Veranneman Technical Textiles.”
“Information is so important in the operation of a company. Everyone makes decisions based on the information available. If someone makes a mistake, as a company you always have to ask yourself: how could that mistake have happened? Did they have all the required information? Such a lack of information happens more often than you might think. We are trying to remedy that using this shift transfer system.”

“All that glitters is not gold”

“Automation requires a lot of hard work. I would even dare to use the word 'struggle', because not everything goes smoothly from the start. For example, a project with a WMS (Warehouse Management System) ran aground last year because the supplier stumbled on the complexity involved in the system. Sometimes wall between desire and reality can be high. In any case, 'nice to have' is no longer an issue. Only projects with a given payback period are carried out, and even then it is hard work to actually recoup those investments. Doing so requires some persuasion and creativity. I remember the first robot in Eeklo. The person in charge at the time was not at all enthusiastic about it. Not only was the budget a problem, he also feared that we would lose flexibility. The provider then proposed to lease the robot, which meant that the robot was installed after all. Since then, Ontex has acquired more than a hundred of such robots.”

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