Everyone knows Total, whether it is as a stop on the road to fill up on petrol, or as an energy supplier. However, few people know that this French group’s flagship of lubricant production, logistics and analysis is located on our territory. The French call this site 'La Vitrine' on the Ghent-Terneuzen canal, which reflects the pioneering role that the 'Little Belgians' have played here for 30 years, a history of growth in which not only technology but also people play a leading role. This unbridled desire to always do better is now reflected in the first Factory of the Future award.
A journey through time
Key moments in history
To better understand the history of lubricating oils in Ertvelde, we have to go back to the beginning of the 20th century, a period when the Belgian mechanical engineering industry experienced an unprecedented boom and the demand for lubricating oils and fuel rose sharply. In these favourable market conditions, many entrepreneurs became interested in extraction and/or refining, including Joseph Waterkeyn, an Antwerp-based entrepreneur with ambitious plans to build a refinery in Ertvelde. For evident reasons, it would not be built until 1918. It would become the foundation for the activities that still take place there today. There are several key moments in the history of Total's Ertvelde site - the takeover by Fina in 1923, the Allied bombing in 1945 and Total’s acquisition of Petrofina in 1999 - but the event with the greatest impact on the history and future of the Ertvelde site would take place in 1991 with the launch of the New Factory.
The New Factory
Peter De Jonghe, Director of the Total Ertvelde plant: " The investments and risks involved would be madness in the eyes of today's businessmen. The manufacturer certainly had a huge budget for what was to become the oil company's flagship, and we are still reaping the benefits today. At the start of this New Factory, we were able to anticipate automation in an almost visionary way, among other things by setting up a database from which the factory could be controlled (see below). Such concepts may now seem much more commonplace and no longer quite as novel; in 1991, however, this was really unheard of. It should be noted that in the early 1990s, computers were not really well established, even though the factory was already operating entirely on computer systems.”
" Given the limited computing power at the time, different computers were used which had to communicate with each other, in addition to the old Siemens S5 PLCs”, adds Kristof Vermeire, former Production Manager and deputy of De Jonghe. “It goes without saying that those multiprocessors have now been surpassed in terms of computing power by the new S7s and the MES operating system, which allow the entire site to be controlled from a central server."
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Although the original database was renewed some time ago, its structure has remained the same as before. In fact, it is somewhat to this structure that the factory owes its success. “The structure of the database, set up at the time by the French Courbon company, now better known as Actemium, is the reason why, even today, all the processes are truly interlinked: from the laboratory, to the reception of the products, to the filling itself. Everything is anchored in our production apparatus”, explains Kristof Vermeire. "In this system, it is hardly possible to make human errors because everything is tested by the underlying automation.
This enables us to go very far when it comes to traceability, e.g. everything that has happened or is planned can be tracked perfectly. In addition, there are still fields available today, which will enable us to graft new possibilities onto the original factory system in the future.”
Advanced Manufacturing Technologies
From one batch to the next, always faster
Engine types are changing, as is the complexity of lubricating oils. This evolution of the market also has consequences on the approach of the New Factory.
" There are more components per formula, and smaller quantities per final product," explains Kristof Vermeire. "We therefore need to be able to move more quickly from one small batch to the next in order to supply the customer quickly. The advantage, however, is that we have a very good factory for this. If we want to produce quickly and in large quantities, we use the large mixers. For smaller batches, we use a 5-tonne mixer, but as we are constantly faced with the challenge of transition periods, we are also able to produce up to 35 different high-quality products per day. This, despite the fact that the design and engineering of this concept dates back to the old factory."
De Jonghe: " When you consider that the New Factory was built to produce around 100 different formulas, and that there are now almost three times as many employees, and that the product specifications are also much stricter, you will get an idea of the major improvements we have made. In the area of First Time Right, Total Ertvelde is approaching a rate of 97%, and losses & leaks (production losses) have also been reduced by 1.2 million Euros per year. This was achieved - despite the high frequency of switching between small batches - by rinsing less often but more efficiently between 2 batches.
Focus on automation
When a company is going through a period of innovation, a certain resistance from conservative operators seems inevitable. However, in the New Factory, where automated systems were present from the start, automation is never interrupted, but rather implemented on a regular basis. “Our employees now know that we very often turn to automation when we make investments,” explains Kristof Vermeire. "In line with our investment policy, the task of a technician or operator should focus on quality control, component supply or process monitoring. Since almost all processes, such as pumping fluids or mixing formulas, are already virtually automatic, few manual interventions are required in the end. But they know our track record."
Mini-companies for improved involvement
Given the rapidity with which new technologies are developed, it is understandable that the adaptation of new automatic processes is no easy task. This is why 'mini-companies' have been set up. “As the name suggests, these are types of ‘small companies’ in which we group together different profiles,” explains Kristof Vermeire. "We wanted to invite our employees to think about how we could further automate certain processes, so that human error can be completely eliminated in the long term. – “In the beginning, there was only one-way traffic in these mini-companies, in which the transfer of knowledge was very much one-sided," De Jonghe admits. "Gradually, however, a certain amount of trust was built up, and people began to look at their own workstations. And rightly so, because they have knowledge of the processes, and the operators are in the best position to identify the potential for improvement. In the end, consultation in mini-companies even goes as far as involving our staff in the choice of facilities and suppliers in the case of new investments. The fact that this approach has not only reduced resistance to automation, but also increased involvement and initiative, is of great benefit to our operation”, says De Jonghe. “Just last year we decided to install robotics solutions, and we noticed that both our technical staff and operators wanted to acquire the new skills required to operate this technology. In addition, under the name ‘Better Together’, we also have an optimisation plan to safeguard the skills of our employees and training them for the automatic and digital future. It is also crucial to implement a career plan to profile ourselves more as a human-centred factory.”
Factory of the Future
‘An example of automation and innovative technology’, according to the final comment of the Factory of the Future judges. “Overall, the entire organisation - from management to technical staff - spent 5 years working on the preliminary process of the Factory of the Future programme. Initially, under the heading of ‘operational excellence’, in order to limit losses and leaks and to increase First Time Right,” explains De Jonghe. “From there, we continued the process with Kaizen and SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Die) exercises to refine the investment policy and increase participation via the mini-companies.”
According to the Plant Manager and his deputy, future investments will focus on two areas: digitisation through data and sustainability. The trajectory of the latter was already underway a few years ago, long before the company was considering being recognised as a Factory of the Future.
A total of around 200 people work on the site, most of them - 140 of them - in production, supplemented by 30 people each for ANAC and logistics.
The Ertvelde plant, which produces around 187,189 tonnes of lubricating oil per year, is one of the largest production facilities in Belgium and Europe.
In terms of logistics, Total Ertvelde embodies an indispensable link between the orders of Total's European subsidiaries on the one hand and its Northern European plants on the other. “From Ertvelde, we accompany all these orders to the respective end customer, i.e. to the warehouse of the nearest branch of our group.”
In addition to its production, Total Ertvelde also stands out for its ANAC analyses, the renowned laboratory where oil samples from professional customers are analysed. Every year, some 250,000 lubricant analyses (around 5,000 samples per week) are carried out in Ertvelde, and despite this staggering number, it is always possible to provide customers with feedback on the condition of the engine within three days of receiving the sample. “In this way we try to reduce the annual downtime of the customers' machines considerably. Moreover, this analysis allows us to draw on our experience with all kinds of machines, and thus to suggest to the customer the best solution in our opinion”, explains Peter De Jonghe. “It's a bit like predictive maintenance, in fact!”
“A first energy audit in 2015 served as a basis for us to draw up an action plan. We quickly realised that several points of attention could be optimised, but we had to establish the right schedule first. The first major step was to set up an energy monitoring system, with data coming in from 35 measuring points across the site. This gave us a very accurate picture of the consumption of steam, electricity, compressed air and water,” explains the Plant Manager, and Kristof Vermeire adds: “Replacing mercury bulbs with LEDs is perhaps a classic example, but by combining that with intelligent skylights that optimise light control by means of rotating mirrors (EcoNation LightCatcher), we achieved a staggering 90% saving right from the start. In fact, the warehouses are lit 24 hours a day, making it possible to achieve such savings. We have also extended the use of variable speed drives on our pumps and we have tackled compressed air consumption. To this end, we have commissioned a new, smaller compressor (which runs more continuously), installed leak detection systems and fragmented the compressed air network into zones. Finally, in 2016, we implemented the ENO (Energy No) awareness-raising campaign.”
Sustainability taken into account in every project
In any case, the interventions in the area of sustainability management have already yielded good results, as evidenced, among other things, by the ISO 50001 certificate for 2018, but in the coming years the Ertvelde plant intends to further increase its efforts to optimise its energy efficiency. “Following this first energy audit, and the improvements we have implemented, which have led to a 10% reduction in energy consumption by the end of the year - which is considerable for the industry - we have recently had another energy audit carried out, in order to rediscover further opportunities for improvement,” reports De Jonghe. “In the case of new investments, energy efficiency and sustainability, as well as the return on investment and the safety aspect, will be included in the scope at the start of each project, even more so than at present. This is in line with the thinking that CO2 neutrality is bound to become more important in the future as part of the decision matrix for project approval. One of my big dreams would be to be able to generate 50-60% of the electricity needed on site in the long term using wind power. It’s in the pipeline!”
More and more data
“In addition to sustainability, our energy will also and above all be at the service of the data and its analysis,” explains the Plant Manager. “In this way, we hope not only to improve our processes, but also to be able to act more quickly when something goes wrong. This goal does not come from a decision by the head office, but the Ertvelde site is the ideal candidate to use the data to adjust processes. Because of the high level of automation, nowhere else in the group is as much data available as in the New Factory. Kristof Vermeire: “Indeed, we hope to be able to detect certain process anomalies at an early stage by using artificial intelligence on this data. Running a pump at half capacity for 8 months should not be allowed, and in these cases the data can certainly help us to target this anomaly after 1 or 2 days. And the same should apply to scrapers, ventilation systems, loading and unloading, for instance”. Although Ertvelde will analyse and process the data collected locally, the results will also be shared with the rest of the group. This is typical of the interaction. For example, in Paris they are currently researching the Digital Factory, and in Ertvelde they hope to be able to convince these specialists to start working with their data. “In this context, cyber-security is more than just a point of attention,” adds De Jonghe. “We have planned a strict separation between the office network and the industrial network, which is a major challenge. The data collected from the industrial network is properly transferred and visualised by our office staff, after which they can carry out the necessary analyses, and the potential improvements then become visible.”
Total Ertvelde, Factory of the (ever more distant) Future
You have to live with the times, which is why Total is closely following developments in the industrial, marine and automotive drive sector. It is still a little early to be able to ascertain whether it will be interesting to offer oil as a service, with sensors and remote monitoring as mandatory instruments, even if it is already possible to monitor customer stock down to an IBC or a barrel. “However, if demand increases, remote monitoring of customers - if they are willing to participate - could be a plausible scenario in which we can refine our production and logistics. We hope to get more information from the Agoria contact group,” says De Jonghe. “Unfortunately, the pandemic has made things a bit more complicated by preventing company visits. But in the meantime, I have been able to meet virtually with several like-minded people who share the same ideas about digitisation.”