The interior of 247 Tailor Steel’s factory during a productive day.Click image to enlarge

Companies in Belgium and the Netherlands embrace new technologies to enhance their manufacturing throughput

By Nestor Gula

Sitting in Canada’s Manufacturing heartland, one does not consider Belgium or Holland to be much of a manufacturing hub. Germany, sure. But little Belgium or Holland are more known for their stereotypical chocolates and windmills respectively.

But being small, both in size and population compared to their large neighbours, Germany and France, the manufacturing sectors in these small regions have had to innovate and become lean to stay competitive.

On a recent press tour of several manufacturing facilities organized by Belgian fabricating equipment builder LVD, we visited several manufacturers that have embraced technological advanced to help them stay competitive in the global market.
Many of their gripes about the current state of manufacturing were the same as those heard across Canada and in the US – the preponderance of global/offshore competition that is undercutting the local manufacturers in price, tight margins, short lead times, quality, and the lack of a skilled workforce force. But here in this tiny corner of the Low Countries some manufacturers have taken the technological bull by the horns and are thriving.

Industry 4.0 – Low country style

Industry 4.0 is not a new phenomenon. It originated as a strategy of integrating computerization to manufacturing by the German government. It was presented as a set of recommendations in the fall of 2012. It encourages the use of data and interconnectivity to make manufacturing more efficient.

Tailor Steel’s president Carl van Sorgen, explaining how the company’s ordering system, Sophia, works.Click image to enlarge

Industry 4.0 is frequently bundled with the terms Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, Interconnection and other such terms that are misunderstood, bandied about carelessly, misused and frequently discarded by management in manufacturing shops as mere buzzwords designed to implement costly technological processes to their manufacturing environment.

Matt Fowles, LVD’s director of marketing, succinctly summed up one of the tenants of Industry 4.0.

“When your order processing and job setup take up 70 per cent of a work orders time, and the actual manufacturing process takes up 30 per cent, it makes more sense to make the front end more efficient.”

A fabulous use of all that Industry 4.0 can offer is shown by Tailor Steel 24/7. This is a job shop with a difference. And it is not just that there are great big trees growing inside the spotlessly clean and modern factory. All ordering of parts is completed on-line through the company’s proprietary software called Sophia. Through this software’s interface, the customer can upload a file of the part, in step STEP, DXF or DWG format, specify material type, thickness, quantity delivery among other parameters. The software also allows the user to upload parts lists in CSV or XML file. This process can be done at any time and delivery times can be scheduled for a quick turnaround or a later delivery.

President, Carl van Sorgen, who has many years of experience in the metal industry, started the company in 2007 in Varssevel, Holland. This is a small town just east of Arnhem. He wanted to do metal work a different way.

“I concentrated first on just providing metal cutting,” he said. “Too many companies try to do too much. They need to think about their strategy.” He added bending operations a few years later and now operates an additional plant in Bremen, Germany serving the German market.

He readily admits he does not know what the parts he is making are being used for. All he really cares is that they are to the customers exact specifications and they are delivered when promised. All aspects of the production are monitored on a proprietary electronic board that takes up one wall of the main office. Here, the office staff, can monitor the progress of the myriad of jobs that are being carried out on the shop floor. It also monitors the location of the trucks that are delivering the parts to customers. At any time, the office staff and the customer can know the status of their order.

“The drivers of the trucks are not just there to deliver the orders,” says Sorgen. “They are our ambassadors. They are the public face of the company. Because ordering takes place online, the drivers are usually the only personal interaction that our customers will have with Tailor Steel.”

Another company applying the principles of Industry 4.0 is fireplace manufacturer Barbas Bellfires. This is a 41 year old company that has transformed itself to be competitive into the next century.

Ton Pasnagel in front of Barbas Bellfires’ assembly cell that is dedicated to products destined for Canada.Click image to enlarge

“We do not hold inventory,” says Ton Pasnagel, the company’s director of operations. “Everything is made to order. When we get the order we start to manufacture.”

This is a daunting task as the company has 120 basic models with 17,000 combinations of customization. Each product is unique to the individual customer. “We ship over 17,000 fireplaces a year. Our time from order to shipping is four days. It used to be 6 weeks,” he says adding that this was only possible by redesigning the factory and incorporating Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) concepts to the business model.

“The engineers are not housed in a special section of the building. Their place of work is on the factory floor so they can quickly solve any issues that might arise,” he says. “There is no prototyping. All the designs are made in the regular workflow so that any new model can be tested if it is easy to manufacture.”

One thing that is standardized is the interior parts – the gas jets, the fans and other bits. The most complex part is putting the gas systems into the gas fireplaces. Different countries have different gas pressures and even different types of natural gas that burns with different colours. All this adds to the complexity of the procedures.

The quick turnaround for products is due not only to a host of modern equipment but also to being able to track the status of each order. “We use lean production. All production is done in cells so when one procedure is finished it goes to the next cell’” he explains. “There is no build up of inventory. Everything moves smoothly.”

Progress is tracked by a series of lights that are placed at various points in the factory. Green means that the production is running as it should. “If the colour starts to turn orange, we know that there is a problem and we can fix it immediately,” he says. “If there is no flow, if there is no movement on the factory floor, you know something is wrong.”

Quality control is the responsibility of all the employees. “We do not have people in white lab coats with clipboards monitoring various aspects of production,” he says. “It is the responsibility of all the employees to make good products. We have a saying here – ‘We don’t ship shit.’”

LVD XP Centre

In the spring of 2017, the LVD Company nv opened its Experience Center – dubbed the XP Center. Located next to the company’s corporate Belgian headquarters in Gullegem this sleek 2,500 sq m  (26,910 sq ft) compound is not just a place to showcase LVD’ products, it was built with the aim that existing and potential customers can come in and educate themselves on how incorporating new technologies can help their business.

The interior of LVD Group's XP CentreClick image to enlarge

“We want the customer to come in and say to us, ‘I have a problem. How can you help me,’” explains Fowles, LVD’s director of marketing.

Designed by the Belgian architectural firm Naert bvba in partnership with interior architect Justine Van Strydonck, the XP Center feels like a modern science centre where the machines are the exhibits and there are plenty of areas for private meetings or group sessions. The main atrium has plenty of natural light and the visitor has a sense of welcome in this space. The coffee is very good as well.

LVD Group's XP CentreClick image to enlarge

The days of just showing off new machinery is fading according to Fowls. “More than half the time the customer is talking about software solutions for their business,” he says. “This centre is designed to give the customer a vision of how the machines and software can communicate and work together. The centre was built to help businesses achieve what they can.”

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