Izegem, in West Flanders, is the site of the oldest and largest factory operated by Vandemoortele, the European leader in bakery products, margarines, cooking oils and fats. Although its origins date back to 1899, it was this cradle of industry that won a Factory of the Future award in 2020.
“We owe this nice award to the high degree of automation, the involvement of the staff and the sustainable use of energy and materials,” said Nele Union, who is responsible for the site.
Jean Vandemoortele, the family’s fourth generation, now runs the West Flemish family business Vandemoortele, founded in 1899 by his grandfather, Constant. The company currently has 34 factories throughout Europe for two business lines: margarines, cooking oils and frying fats (5) and bakery products (29). All these products are sold to the retail trade, the food service industry, and industrial and craft bakeries all over the world. Izegem is the site of the oldest factory, which may well be the largest margarine factory in Europe according to Site Manager Nele Union. Margarine production started there in 1951.
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“Currently we manufacture no less than 160,000 tonnes of margarine per year, on 20 production lines. In total, there are more than 1,000 different SKUs using some 300 different customer recipes”, said Union. For the many innovations, the R&D department takes social trends, such as health considerations and changes in eating habits, into account to a large extent.
Although it is not really a new construction, the plant meets all current quality, safety and hygiene requirements. In addition, many processes are partially or fully automated.
“Consider the cleaning of the facilities or logistics, for example. After the packing is carried out by robots, the pallets are transported internally fully automatically, via roller conveyors and VGAs. There are no manual handling operations until the pallets are prepared for export. In the actual production process, the operators have convenient dashboards on all the lines. They can monitor the efficiency of the process and make corrections if necessary,” said Ms. Union as she guided us through the production hall.
Human Centred Organisation
The crucial precondition for digitalisation is that the approval of individuals must always be obtained.
“This high level of automation does indeed require our staff to have a certain technical background. That is why we invest heavily as a learning organization in both work-related and non-work-related retraining. Our employees are proud of the Vandemoortele ‘brand’ and give top priority to quality and hygiene. Because we want to increase their involvement, we started a lean project four years ago. This means, among other things, that we expect input from our operators and technicians on new projects and investments, and we even ask employees for suggestions for improvement. This has certainly already borne fruit in that we are recording significantly better results for some important KPIs, such as machine efficiency,” said Ms. Union.
This employee pride is also an advantage in terms of recruitment.
“Here in Izegem we have a high average seniority. Although we are certainly no stranger to the ‘war for talent’, we manage to attract new employees. Only one vacancy for a technical profile sometimes remains vacant for six months, compared to one month before. It is not uncommon for these new recruits to be sent to us by the hired staff via the 'refer a friend' system. They often describe us as a loyal employer because we guarantee a good wage and a fair wage. Sometimes it's all about the little things, like having donuts and fruit on hand at meetings or training days.”
The employees also appreciate that the company assumes its social responsibility, for example with regard to the environment.
Energy and materials
“We are committed to sustainability as long as it is demonstrated to be effective in the company, and we will certainly continue to commit to this. In production, for example, this includes energy savings through high-efficiency motors, or using sustainable palm oil. At product level, we have switched to sustainable cardboard for secondary packaging,” we were told.
Factory of the Future
All these efforts led to Vandemoortele Izegem becoming one of the four new winners of the Factory of the Future award at the beginning of February. These awards have been handed out since 2015 by the Agoria technology federation and the Sirris research centre. Since their inception, the awards have been handed to 38 winners, 8 of them being from the food industry. They all scored high enough on each of the 7 key transformations of the Made Different programme.
“We registered for two reasons. On the one hand, we often hear that we are pioneers and we wanted to verify this with a scan of the company. On the other hand, we saw this from the outset as a nice recognition for our employees. The award has increased their pride even more and has also given us a boost. After all, participation is an incentive to think about the future of the company. The whole journey was more intensive than expected, but this is certainly something that other companies should consider,” said Nele Union.
For the future, therefore, we at Vandemoortele want to continue to focus on this sustainability, but innovation and automation also remain important pillars in the operation of the company.
“Our advice to other companies? Don't be afraid to adopt a new technology. Start small and adjust gradually. You will succeed with a deeper understanding," said Ms. Union.