A well-known player ... that's the least we can say about the Picanol group. It is the world's largest manufacturer of weaving machines, a forerunner in innovation and firmly rooted in Ypres. We wanted to find out how such an impressive company puts the principles of the Factory of the Future into practice. Geert Ostyn, Senior Vice-President Business Transformation & Strategic Alignment of the company, gave us the answer.

Factory of the Future Award ?

The Picanol Group is a company that operates entirely in the spirit of Factory of the Future. However, it has not yet won a Factory of the Future Award. Geert Ostyn explains why: "I have been active at Agoria in all aspects of manufacturing for a long time. So, I had a front row seat when the 'Made Different' programme was developed. Picanol was even one of the test companies that was audited based on the 7 transformations. We were also a source of inspiration for a number of companies that have since won awards. For us, there are two important conditions that stand in the way of certification: a score of 4 out of 5 must be achieved for each of the 7 transformations, and this for the entire group. This is difficult for us because we are made up of several companies (see box below) and we manage the entire process: development, production and the aftermarket. In addition, there are also the logistics processes with the other companies in the group, such as Proferro and Psicontrol. They too have this complete process in-house. Structurally, it is therefore very difficult to win this award for the entire group.”

"Let's make it together"

“But that doesn't mean that we do not use the Factory of the Future programme. Moreover, the transformations have inspired us to develop our own approach. Our internal programme is called 'Let's make it together'. The aim is to anchor the future of the Picanol Group in Ypres. Wage costs and the shortage of skilled labour are two obstacles for us. With this programme we want to make up for this. We therefore work with three pillars - World Class Manufacturing, Digital Factory and Human-Centred Organisation - which lead to what we call a smart company.”

“We launched this programme three years ago, but we were already working on these transformations before. For example, we had already invested a lot in digitisation and the focus has always been on the human aspect. In the end, we did not really choose these three pillars, they were more a logical consequence of the actual situation.”

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" If we take a close look at these pillars, we see that they are strongly interwoven, with quality as a common thread. For example, we have recently invested heavily in machinery: we have 50 state-of-the-art CNC machines and various robots in the workplace. The digital aspect has also been addressed in this investment cycle: tablets have been introduced, the network has been extended and product configurators have been developed. I would also like to mention the expansion of the MES, EMS and WMS systems. We have also made considerable investments in infrastructure and security. It is difficult to calculate the return on investment of all these measures, but they are important in people's minds. Those who see their employer investing in new toilets or a canteen know that the company is 'here to stay'."

A container to make technology more accessible

Geert Ostyn: “Today we have completed several sub-projects in this area. A good example is our Cube. A survey has shown that our employees have many questions about the technology. For example, 85% didn't know what a 3D printer was. That is why we looked for a way to familiarise them with these innovations. The result was the Cube, a container which contains not only a 3D printer but also a care robot, an AR/VR application, a cobot and an exoskeleton. Everyone can visit the Cube during working hours. For the sake of clarity, this is not a training tool; some of these technologies we do not even use. For example, we have been testing the exoskeletons but the project has been put on hold for the moment because we want to see a few practical adjustments first: for example, the device needs to be easy to remove and be quickly reset when another operator starts using it. In a few years' time, it will probably be usable in our context. Was this process a waste of time? Not at all. First of all, we learned a lot and secondly, our staff feels that we care about their health.”

Technology forums and V-Box

“Our Technology Forums are another example of this commitment. Once the investment is made, operators demonstrate the technology to interested colleagues. Each session attracts around 30 people, including human resources or finance staff, for example. This promotes mutual understanding and indicates that the concepts of 'human-centred' and 'world class manufacturing' are strongly intertwined here. Another good example is the V-box. In this box, employees can discuss all relevant and recent data. This ensures greater mutual interaction and enables the necessary measures to be taken in a considered manner.

This takes place several times a day. Again, the return on investment of this kind of thing is difficult to calculate: in 80% of cases, the box is empty. If the same criteria were used as with machines, the return on investment would be deplorable. But being motivated solely by costs can lead you to neglect some important things.”

Technology roadmap

Picanol often appears in various research projects in collaboration with organisations such as Flanders Make and universities.

“We follow technological innovations with great attention. We want to develop a digital factory and analyse which techniques are best suited for what we want to move towards. In this respect, we are talking internally about a fundamental story or a key story. In a key story, we develop the technology ourselves in-house, that's how we make the difference. With a key story, other organisations are better placed to develop the technology and we look for collaborations, as is the case in the ICON projects.”

How to determine?

“Innovation has two approaches. In the first case, a service experiences a need and looks for solutions. At the time, the technology is only available in that department. Often, the line management of the department does not see it as its responsibility to extend this innovation to other departments in the company. A second approach is to make people aware of the technology, to make them think about how we can use the innovations. We then show them the technology in the Cube. Our staff need to feel that they are allowed to experiment, we want to stimulate them by familiarising them with the technology. The new generations also want this and want to be able to experiment.”

Series production with specific requirements

“It is a question that many companies are struggling with: which technology to use? We try to keep our technological scope as broad as possible so that we can change quickly if necessary. We are also faced with increasingly smaller series. We have been experiencing this since the banking crisis in 2008. At that time, companies were struggling with limited liquidity because stocks were blocked everywhere. The lessons we have learned are that we need to approach our supplier network differently in order to be able to react quickly. We have now adapted to these smaller series. We do not produce anything to stock. Everything that is produced today goes to the customer within three days. Our production is structured in such a way that we only add customer-specific features at the end of the line. This way, the price remains under control and we can offer the necessary added value. The local network is also very important for our anchoring in Belgium. Without the universities, knowledge organisations and local SMEs, it would be very difficult. For example, we are very active in Flanders Make, where we collaborate with other companies. We also have ongoing projects with four of our universities. This interaction enriches the project. You get to know other people and other companies, which leads to immediate results in future collaborations.”