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INTERVIEW: Factory of the Future - Nuscience's Manufacturing Technology Recognized

wed, 15 feb 2017
14 February 2017 - In October 2015, Nuscience Group opened its plant in Drongen, Belgium, replacing production sites in Drongen and Baasrode, and enabling the firm to double its Belgian production capacity to more than 10,000 tons per month and produce Nuscience Belgium's entire product portfolio at one location.

The Drongen plant's total height is 60 m. A total of 1,600 tons of steel were used as well as 2 km of pipes (reinforced PVC or metal) and 40 km of wiring. Its warehouse is 11 m high and can store up to 4,500 pallets. There are 260 silos, 24 tanks and 76 dust extractors at the site, where 350 kinds of raw materials are used. Thanks to its extensive automation and to the introduction of new processes, the Drongen plant has helped Nuscience significantly improve its internal logistics and has put the company in a prime position to flexibly cater to evolving market demands and changing technologies within the ingredient and premix sector.

A year after the grand opening, the Drongen plant was audited by a team of Belgian industry experts with the objective to receive the prestigious award of “Factory of the Future 4.0”. An award which puts forward-looking manufacturers who systematically take up the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution into the spotlight.

Such manufacturers supply products with high added value and are flexible enough to respond to swiftly changing market demand. This also enables them to continue playing a major role in a dynamic worldwide manufacturing network. Being open-minded about new business models, Factories of the Future fully embrace digitized production processes, by carefully handling energy and materials and exploiting the potential of modern production technologies. Besides technological innovation, social innovation is also high on their agendas, with special attention paid to staff involvement, creativity and autonomy in a human-oriented approach.

On February 2, 2017, Nuscience won the award during a ceremony held in Brussels. On this occasion, Feedinfo News Service was able to interview the team behind the project who were more than happy to provide background. Nuscience Group COO, Chris Mercier, the General Manager of Nuscience Belgium, Dirk De Baets, and Lieselotte Geerts, ‎Innovation Manager at Flanders’ Food and representing the “Factory of the Future” organization also shared their opinions on the significance of such an award for an animal nutrition company.

[Feedinfo News Service] Nuscience claims its plant in Drongen benefits from a major simplification of the production logistics. Can you share some specifics?
[Chris Mercier] Going from two plants to one reduces not only the internal logistic transport costs but also the whole raw material portfolio is available on one site for all the production lines. The stock is reduced by 25%, registrations need to be done for only one location, audits on one location, and customers can collect premixes, starters, prestarters, concentrates, specialties and liquid mixtures from one location. In the past we outsourced some product ranges but now we seldom have toll manufacturing. Internal premixes are skipped, more liquids can be added or blends can be produced.

[Feedinfo News Service] Industry 4.0 is characterized by the fusion of automation and digitalization. In which ways does the Drongen plant showcase modern production techniques for specialty animal nutrition products, and increase Nuscience's flexibility and competitiveness?

[Dirk De Baets] To ensure optimal production, we designed the plant in a way that we have a lot of flexibility towards the customers. Handling a lot of export orders we’ve made sure there was enough capacity and flexibility to cope with the volatility we sometimes encounter. Fusion of business systems is key, since almost all data is needed for different purposes in all systems, fully synchronized and available live. We cannot work with delay in the systems, live data is a key asset. Also our formulation and R&D department is happy with pilot plant possibilities, fast testing and a plant that is ready for future investments. Different types of products are a guarantee for future success.

Nuscience [Lieselotte Geerts] At Flanders Food we already believed that automation as well as digitization are the real backbone of Nuscience’s success. This was confirmed by the industry experts that performed the Factory of the Future Award audit.

[Chris Mercier] Each product dosed in the plant is immediately logged in our MES software and real time in the office ERP software. To replenish the bins, we generate a transfer order from the warehouse towards plant, that is picked via scanners and integrated via the WMS in the ERP. Once picked via Wi-Fi scanning devices in the warehouse we transport the goods automatically towards the correct location in production. Via smart prioritization of tasks we refill the bins and our mini-load warehouse. One mistake and the process stops. This is difficult during start-ups but it forces you to optimize everything, even the software and the procedures. All of this is quite complex but is driven by reliable automation. Automation is good for customer orders and inventory checks, as wall-to-wall stock counting is no longer necessary. Operators no longer need to follow the production process, they only need to intervene if problems occur. Almost all of our staff in the production department were involved in the design of the new plant.

[Feedinfo News Service] Aren't most of Europe's specialty animal nutrition facilities already cyber-factories and fully-automated? What makes the Drongen plant stand out?

[Dirk De Baets] Since the opening, almost every day we have customer or supplier visits. They tell us they are astonished and they dream of what we have, so we believe them. Often they come back with their operators or engineers.

[Chris Mercier] Our customers can tell you that the plant's uniqueness lies in the combination of proven technologies with new never-used concepts such as the mini-load. Via that equipment we are probably the first company that can guarantee there are no mistakes in the hand addition process due to fully automated and double checks at all times. As witnessed by our visitors, the plant's mechanical/equipment design is different due to our micro dosing concept in combination with the mixing lines, check scales all over, and a way of working that gives advantages regarding number of bins and being in control.

[Feedinfo News Service] What "enabling technologies" (Internet of Things, cloud-based application infrastructure, data analytics, smart robotics, integrated product-production simulation, 3D technology...) does the plant use which in general aren't associated with animal nutrition factories?

[Chris Mercier] The plant’s steel construction, equipment, cable trays, floors, etc. was designed in 3D, made by our own project team (5 people). The main production tower was partly still in design phase during building and was accomplished in one year. Also the complex automation, about 7000 input and output signals, called I/O, with 30 km of cable to the motors was connected towards the PLC units in a few months. After dry-run the plant was equipped with the latest software such as video replay, integrated maintenance software with predictive maintenance warnings and tailor made forbidden sequence check, on top of tracking and tracing systems. All this started about six months before we ‘went live’, so most of the bugs were out and improvements were realized. All of this was brainstormed and designed in 2010 and 2011, well before the hype of Industry 4.0.

[Lieselotte Geerts] Making use of a mini-load to pick the ingredients in the warehouse is a proven solution in the logistics sector, but until now was not used in production plants. This system is a combination of a failure-proof weigh system and a huge ergonomic improvement for the operator.

[Feedinfo News Service] Thanks to the technological set-up at the Drongen plant, how have employees' working conditions been improved?

[Chris Mercier] Hard labor is reduced to a minimum. Today we work with an advanced mini-load warehousing system, designed for our business and the ergonomics of our people.

[Dirk De Baets] For example, our operator, Jarich’s work before was mainly manual. He never expected his job would change so much. Jarich is now solving the technical and software problems and is educating new people how to work with the equipment. He is in close contact with our engineering department.

[Feedinfo News Service] What does it take for a production company to get awarded “Factory of the Future”?

[Lieselotte Geerts] The process starts with the writing of an extensive self-assessment report on all 7 Made Different transformations: World Class Production tools, End-to-end engineering, Digital Factory, Human Centered Production, Networked Factory, Eco Factory and Smart Production Systems.
After that a professional expert jury visits the factory for a full day to check the maturity on the shop floor. When a maturity score of 4 – on a scale of 5 – is reached for every transformation, the company is rewarded for a period of 3 years the Factory of the Future Award.

[Feedinfo News Service] Why is the "Factory of the Future 4.0" award important for Nuscience and for the global marketplace in general?

[Chris Mercier] The project was realized with our own project team and with the whole organization. I refused to work with a turnkey contractor because I had been building and revamping plants for many years. Our business, the premix and specialty business, is a niche market. Only one plant is built versus 100 or 200 regular feed plants and the devil is in the detail of what we do.
My job was to lead the project but we involved so many people and implemented so many good ideas that this is now a reward for all our employees and to another extent, our customers. They took the challenge of this project and survived this transition well. They are proud too. Since our start-up many companies have visited us and they are convinced of our high quality and this is not only due to the high automation level. What they saw made sense and they know we spend our money well.

[Dirk De Baets] When discussing the possibility of joining the Factory of The Future award contest, in the early stage, opinions were mixed. Is it really necessary and who will do the work? However, once we divided the pie and a team was identified, things went smoothly. We see the contest as a scoring versus a baseline, just as we did with an external baseline assessment for Quality and Safety in all our factories. We see the award not only as a recognition of being ‘on track’ but even more as an analysis of what can be done better. We feel encouraged having made our decision to make the Drongen plant our base-plant for worldwide export, next to serving our European customers. Nuscience hopes to inspire other companies to take steps to become a Factory of the Future and will open its doors for guided tours.

Flanders’ Food [Feedinfo News Service] Isn't it unusual for an animal nutrition company to receive a "Factory of the Future 4.0" award (usually associated with sectors like the automotive and aerospace industries)? Why did Made Different look at the animal nutrition sector to begin with?

[Lieselotte Geerts] The transformation project Made Different awarded its first four factories of the future in 2015. At that time, it was an award only for the technological sector. In 2016 it was opened to agribusiness companies. The first food company that won the award that year was a bio-bakery. This year Nuscience is the first company of the animal nutrition sector to win the award.

[Feedinfo News Service] How do you see animal nutrition industry production requirements changing in Belgium and Europe moving forward? Will companies like Nuscience face more pressure to manufacture at even more competitive prices?

[Dirk De Baets] There is always competition, there always was and will be. Since we have purchasing power, worldwide sourcing at competitive prices combined with efficient production, we are ready for present and future competition. Our used standards for tracking and tracing, avoidance of cross-contamination, sequence-control of production runs, in-line checking of dosed weights - achieving dosing accuracies above expectations - put us above European standards for years.
[Chris Mercier] We’ve seen a trend towards almost make to order, so you need to be very flexible but there is also the grade of difficulty of what we can offer. We see customer requirements that are very specific, and being able to meet those requirements is a big plus.

[Feedinfo News Service] Will Nuscience upgrade all of its manufacturing facilities to Drongen's level?

[Chris Mercier] Of course our new plants are immediately state-of-the-art regarding automation and constant product output, that’s a given. Regarding acquired plants we immediately revamped their automation levels to meet customer requirements. What’s the point of making high quality formulas but using them in a plant where dosing is not as controlled, mixing is not optimal, and the product is not constant. After an acquisition is carried out the Nuscience project team strives to meet our strict requirements as quickly as possible. Each plant is or will come on a high level, to better cater to customers.
What not a lot of people know is that six months before the Drongen inauguration we opened our plant in Tianjin, China, which was completely different but boasts high automation levels too. It was designed and started-up by our own project team consisting of five people and myself. In my new role as COO of Nuscience I will not have the opportunity anymore to do start-ups but for sure I will push hard to keep ahead of the market, to keep on improving and to implement new insights fast in all of our plants.

[Feedinfo News Service] Factory of the Future is a Belgian award. But does this initiative have potential to be extended and organized at a Benelux or European level?

[Lieselotte Geerts] Indeed, we have the intention to broaden this initiative to our neighboring countries and eventually to the rest of Europe. Discussions with the Netherlands are progressing well and contacts with German and French industry associations are being worked out.

Source: Feedinfo News Service