Anchoring a future-proof and sustainable manufacturing industry in Belgium. This is the objective of the Factories of the Future transformation processes. Do you want to transform all manufacturing companies in Belgium into Factories of the Future? "That would be wonderful", says Paul Peeters, Lead Expert Innovation at Agoria. "Not so much for us, but for the companies themselves." Ben Van Roose (Head Manufacturing Industries) and Paul Peeters provide current data on Factories of the Future.


Belgium currently has 32 Factories of the Future. Since 2015, companies that complete the transformation have been up for awards. Made Different started with a scan of seven transformation domains, to provide a company with their current status and be able to compare their status with that of other companies. The transformation phase starts after this scan. Companies successfully completing the seven transformation domains can register for the Factory of the Future award. When a company wins the award, they are entitled to use the 'Factory of the Future' title for three years.

Around 800 Belgian companies are currently implementing this transformation. These companies include both Agoria members and an increasing number of players in the food, textile, biotech and carpentry industries. The programme's success has not gone unnoticed in Europe. A pilot project is currently underway in eight other European countries (France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Poland and Slovenia).

Even so, many companies are adopting a wait-and-see approach. In total, Belgium has 3000 manufacturers. 2000 companies have therefore not started work on the transformation. These companies consider the process either as out of their league or as unachievable. This could not be further from the truth. "They cannot afford to miss the boat", he says. "Not all ships have sailed, although many are not even mooring here any more." Agoria is therefore organising four inspiration sessions in Dutch and five in French, to convince companies to join others on the transformation journey and to provide more information on the Made Different methodology.

What is so special about a Factory of the Future?

Ben: It's the ultimate reward for a company that completes the process successfully. The process equips companies to face the challenges of the future and get on board with technology to anchor sustainability within the company. The main point is that the methodology consists of seven transformation domains to assist the company in terms of competitiveness, skills, talent, etc.

Paul: The award is optional. Some companies make a conscious decision not to go up for the award, because some of the transformation processes are not a high priority at that time. Postponing some aspects of transformation can be a very sensible decision. But if you want to anchor sustainability within the company, changes do have to be implemented in all seven transformation domains. The process is incomplete until the last piece of the jigsaw is in place. If one piece is missing, the company remains vulnerable in that domain.

"If you want to anchor sustainability within the company, changes do have to be implemented in all seven transformation domains. The process is incomplete until the last piece of the jigsaw is in place. If one piece is missing, the company remains vulnerable in that domain."

Paul Peeters, Lead Expert Innovation, Agoria

Ben: The European pilot project is based on our transformation domains, minimal adjustments have been made, if any. This demonstrates that Europe and the eight countries running pilot projects are convinced this is the right approach. We are all on the same page when discussing the process, from the inspiration sessions through to the awards. Whether a company enters the process via the inspiration sessions or through apprenticeship networks, or is in the final stages of assessment for the award or European accreditation, the domains are the same for everyone.

Some companies think this is out of their league. Are they right?

Paul: Absolutely not! The programme is not just for larger manufacturers. Two small-scale SMEs took part in the very first Factory of the Future programme, Provan and Newtec. We know many companies are not taking action because they prefer to wait and see. This is unfortunate. We do not believe in that approach. We state this clearly at the inspiration sessions.

Ben: We are still experiencing an economic boom. Even though growth is not as strong as a few years ago, we are still in a period of economic growth. The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining, not when it rains. The process must therefore be started now. We do not want to frighten companies, but now is the time to get started.

"We are still experiencing an economic boom. The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining, not when it rains. The process must therefore be started now."

Ben Van Roose, Head Manufacturing Industries, Agoria

Paul: The transformation of many current Factories of the Future was triggered by visits to other companies. We showcase a few interesting examples at the inspiration sessions. The roadshows (visiting Factories of the Future) continue to form part of the programme. We do not tell companies what they should or should not do. Instead we suggest they plan to visit companies in their area or attend an inspiration session.

Ben: The inspiration sessions are ideal for companies that don't know where to start and want to learn the basics. A company tour at Stas is scheduled between the first two sessions. Touring a company that has completed the programme is highly recommended. During the tour, participants see and hear all about Stas' hands-on approach. They then join the inspiration session and have made a good start. Four of the twelve award winners are members of the apprenticeships network, which is quite impressive. Expertise is shared and people learn from each other.

What factors determine whether a programme is successful or unsuccessful?

Paul: It takes time for the idea to mature, to be able to determine whether the 'vision-ambition' feels right. Do you want to transform your company? Is there sufficient support within the company to make it happen? Would the CEO like the transformation to be based on a group effort? Does the company already have an innovation mindset?

Ben: The success of the transformation process depends on management support. All the success stories have had management buy-in from the start. The chance of success is greater when the leader is convinced this is what should be done.

"All the success stories have had management buy-in from the start. The success of the transformation process depends on management support."

Ben Van Roose, Head Manufacturing Industries, Agoria

Paul: People have to be ready to change. Not just to improve the current way of doing things, but to change how things are done. The world is changing at a rapid pace. You have to rethink how you do things, retrain employees and even question your own position within the company.

"People have to be ready to change. The world is changing at a rapid pace. You have to rethink how you do things, retrain employees and even question your own position within the company."

Paul Peeters, Lead Expert Innovation, Agoria

It is no longer just about Belgium. Europe has joined in too. Could the Factory of the Future be considered a 'Champions League' for companies?

Paul: The method has proven itself in Belgium and Europe is now recognising that this approach should be adopted elsewhere. International recognition should not discourage Belgian companies. On the contrary. Knowing that they are starting on a process that will exist for many years to come should be an additional incentive.

The European programme consists of two tracks. On the first track, we help 60 companies in 15 countries through the whole process, from inspiration, the scan, transformation and implementation. This is the most relevant part of the project. We also want to make sure the best of the best are in contact with each other, a bit like a Champions League of the manufacturing industry. Experience shows that apprenticeships networks work well. We intend to roll out 15 apprenticeship initiatives based on specific topics, and will invite the top companies. Our aim is to make the best companies even better!

Further down the line, we also intend to test a Factory of the Future award at a European level. It is currently a pilot project, so the companies taking part will act as showcases. But on this basis Europe can already build awareness of the programme.

"International recognition should not discourage Belgian companies. On the contrary. Knowing that they are starting on a process that will exist for many years to come should be an additional incentive."

Paul Peeters, Lead Expert Innovation, Agoria

Ben: The solution providers are an important element in the Factory of the Future process. Agoria is in the unique position of being able to include some of its members on the other side of the table. We will put these companies in the spotlight. We will provide information on the solution providers, to guide others through specific transformation domain processes.

Paul: These companies will expressly be included in the European follow-up programme. I have never encountered a federation in any other country that represents both the supply- and demand-side the way Agoria does. This brings enormous added value.

Ben: The core message is that companies should get ready for the future and anchor long-term, stronger sustainability in the Belgian manufacturing industry.

Paul: We use an image of a mountain in our long-term plan. The plan is to climb a very steep high mountain. It will not be easy and expectations are high. But there will be a few Sherpas to help along the way. They show the way, sometimes provide supplies, pitch your tent and set up the base camp. We are not a government institution that provides money and lets you work out how to invest it. Or a research institution that lets you join in but will take the results to attain their own objectives. We are a different kind of organisation. We help you reach the top of the mountain.

Would you like to know more about how to become a Factory of the Future? Participate in the information sessions (Dutch or French)!