Highly innovative Duracell factory: “Sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith.” | Agoria

Highly innovative Duracell factory: “Sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith.”

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Published on 05/07/21 by Geert Jacobs
Duracell barely needs an introduction. The group's most innovative site is located in Aarschot. From eliminating a mountain of paperwork to making virtual batteries, the factory has gone through an impressive innovation process in just two years.
Higher wage costs and a global supply chain are making it increasingly difficult for manufacturing companies in Belgium to compete with their Asian counterparts. Duracell was no exception: their Asian sister companies could produce more cheaply. As a result, the battery manufacturer in Aarschot had to digitise at a rapid pace in order to remain competitive. The transformation to a digital factory triggered a series of innovations that earned it the Factory of the Future label in just two years. 

Globally, Duracell has four factories that produce batteries. In Europe, there is only one: Aarschot, where the brand's standard AA and AAA alkaline batteries are produced. The distribution centre in Heist-op-den-Berg then exports the batteries to Europe and Africa. Jan Casteels is the plant manager in Aarschot. He is a pioneer of the Factory of the Future process, which began in 2018. 

In two years to a Factory of the Future

Today, Duracell is a fully-fledged Factory of the Future. No mean feat in just two years! Jan Casteels: “In 2018, we started the process with some very specific challenges. The main one was our giant mountain of paperwork. We wanted to eliminate this by increasing the connectivity between departments and roles.”

Competition is another reason why digitisation was a top priority. “Internally, we compete for production volume with our predominantly Asian sister companies,” explains Jan Casteels. “In Belgium, the cost structure of wages is a disadvantage that we need to compensate for. Although it is offset to some extent by our central position, this is gradually becoming less relevant. Non-perishable products such as batteries can now be exported cheaply all over the world. We therefore had to eliminate the efficiency losses caused by the mountain of paperwork in order to stay competitive.” 

Best-in-class

What’s the great advantage of the Belgian factory over the other sites? “The fact that we could digitise so quickly,” says Jan Casteels. “Thanks to our highly trained staff and our innovative market, we hit the ground running. We identified a few loss-making factors and were able to quickly eliminate them.”

For example, we have to change how we deal with product specifications for our European market. “We used to monitor these instructions on paper during both production and quality control,” explains Jan Casteels. “It was hugely time-consuming with a high risk of errors. The entire specification procedure is now collected centrally on a single digital platform. This allows us to handle more complexity than the other factories and, above all, intervene more easily if quality issues arise.” 

“We combined information from all corners of the factory and from different systems into a single platform,” continues Jan Casteels. “We can now display all the data from the production lines, the Manufacturing Execution System, the quality control and the ERP system in a single visual overview.” The result? The factory in Aarschot is the most innovative in the entire group

“The Duracell factory in Aarschot is the most innovative in the entire group”.

Digital twins

Consolidating all the data in real time and presenting it clearly to the employees was just one of the innovations. Jan Casteels: “A second innovation was the implementation of machine learning in our production systems. We wanted to improve quality management by predicting the performance of our batteries before the production phase. We did so by means of a ‘digital twin’.”

A digital twin is a virtual representation of the production process. “By bringing different process parameters together digitally, we can produce a digital battery that is the exact mirror image of the physical battery. We can experiment with this twin in order to produce the best possible battery. The biggest challenge is finding the right process parameters to feed the digital twin. There are hundreds of parameters, but it isn’t easy to define the impact of each parameter and how they relate to each other. This is a continuous process of improvement that is still ongoing today.” 

“By bringing different process parameters together digitally, we can produce a digital battery that is the exact mirror image of the physical battery.”

Five-year plan

Jan Casteels is also keen to maintain the head start achieved by the Duracell plant in Aarschot. “We have mapped a path for the next five years. In the first instance, we will be further developing our existing data platform. This is currently only used by the production department, but we want to extend this to our support services. The R&D and engineering departments in particular would benefit from it.” 

The ongoing development of the digital twin is also on the agenda. “There is still room for improvement in terms of the quality of the batteries,” says Jan Casteels. “We would also like to fully digitise quality control based on a prediction model. This involves collecting more data and feeding the machine learning algorithm more and more.” 

Finally, there is also a pilot project that aims to extend connectivity beyond the factory walls. “We are planning to expand our platform so that we can also exchange information with clients and suppliers. In this way, we would not only be connected within the factory but throughout the entire supply chain.” 

“We are planning to expand our platform so that we can also exchange information with clients and suppliers.”

Change in culture

So what is needed to make this five-year plan a success? Jan Casteels: “In the first place, we need a change in attitude. In our previous innovations, we focused on change management in order to get all the employees on board. We did this using innovation teams staffed by volunteers. Not necessarily people with an IT background, but everyone who was interested in collaborating on the project in question. This kind of core team inspires the rest of the employees and creates enthusiasm within the company.”

In order to innovate outside the factory, this same shift in attitude is needed in the supply chain. “It starts with a relationship of trust,” says Jan Casteels. “We are constantly looking for innovation partners who share our vision and are keen to participate in our process. Today, too many service providers take the view that their only role is to solve problems put forward by clients. We need partners who drive innovations themselves and show us what is possible.”

“We need partners who show us what is possible.”

Duracell test bunny

“These innovations don’t even need to be relevant or demonstrable at this point,” says Jan Casteels. “We are always willing to go along with innovations, so any parties that inspire us in this regard are welcome. For example, the plan to create connectivity outside the factory was not something we requested ourselves, but was suggested by a partner. We are happy to take a leap of faith when it comes to innovation, knowing that there is always a risk of failure.” 

“We are happy to take a leap of faith when it comes to innovation, knowing that there is always a risk of failure.”

“’Dare to jump in at the deep end’ is something I recommend to other manufacturing companies,” concludes Jan Casteels. “It involves a process of trial and error. Don’t try to define and engineer your entire vision in advance, just start with a single project. Identify where your losses lie. Once you go through a demonstrable and successful evolution, you end up in a positive spiral of innovation. And then the sky’s the limit!”  

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