Report - Flanders Make Symposium
On 25 October, we organised the annual Flanders Make Symposium in the Brabanthal in Leuven. The theme of this edition "Towards a sustainable, digital and competitive industry", covered by interesting keynote speakers and live demonstrations of our top technology research results, attracted more than 600 participants. The annual Symposium is also the perfect opportunity to network with CEOs, CTOs and R&D managers of SMEs and large companies.
After having set everything up on Monday, the doors of the Brabanthal opened at 9am on Tuesday. Upon entering the hall, the large number of demos immediately caught the eye, and most importantly, people caught up with (old) acquaintances. At 10am, Flanders Make CEO Dirk Torfs kicked off the programme with his keynote speech on "Driving innovation for a sustainable future of the industry". He stressed that sustainability will be the key word for the coming years, for Flanders Make and for the economy as a whole.
Digitalisation at scale: Vision on successful implementation of Industry 4.0, focusing on technology and corporate culture
Then Biba Visnjicki, Tembo Group’s global head of digitalisation, delivered her keynote speech on Digitalisation at scale: Vision of a successful implementation of Industry 4.0, focusing on technology and corporate culture. In her presentation, she took Max Verstappen's Digital Twin of his champion car and his team's approach as example and, in the end, came to the conclusion that a company's digital transformation should be achieved in 3 areas:
- At the production level, by ensuring a customer-oriented production system.
- At the organisational level, by achieving an agile, flexible organisation through good communication, flexible teams and trust in employees.
- At the business model level, by thinking carefully about your product and supply chain and participating in innovative ecosystems.
Smart scheduling of production
After the coffee break, Johannes Cottyn from FlandersMake@UGent delivered his keynote speech on "Smart scheduling of production". The Covid-19 crisis made a number of (globalisation) problems painfully visible and this, in turn, created quite a few new challenges for companies. Still, according to Johannes, companies can ensure the continuity of their business through a smart organisation of their production.
Through such smart organisation, they can coordinate and align all elements of their production – raw materials, labour, capital and energy – much more efficiently, while also including factors such as time and context in their decision-making processes, supported by technology and data. In addition, Johannes again stressed the importance of joining forces and setting up innovative ecosystems – like that of Flanders Make – not only to increase the resilience of companies, but also to broaden their view of the future.
Digital Twins for active houses
After Johannes, Koen Maertens from Duco took over the pointer and presented the topic "Digital Twins for active houses". Koen explained the role of digital twins for dwellings of the future. Active houses are the future. They put the occupants first, offering a healthier and more comfortable indoor environment without a negative impact on the climate in terms of energy and water consumption and using sustainable materials. Active houses can be either large or small, but they can no longer be constructed from traditional building materials such as brick and concrete as the carbon footprint of these materials is far too large. For active houses, timber structures such as HSB or CLT are used in combination with renewable energy facilities.
To make housing construction as sustainable as possible, a shift to the industrial production of affordable, bio-based houses is needed (and underway). “But this also brings challenges. How do we realise this? How do we design such houses? And, how can we monitor the residents' behaviour throughout the house’s entire life cycle? A digital twin offers the solution. By using a digital twin, Duco can create a conceptual design at an early stage, focusing on manufacturability, durability and circularity. The occupants are central, and Duco therefore adapts the house to their needs. The digital twin is set up together with the designer and installers of electricity, plumbing, etc., and forms the backbone throughout the house’s entire life cycle. From design to recycling.
Autonomous working vehicles in the industry
From active to autonomous. From houses to vehicles. Our colleague Ellen van Nunen spoke in her keynote speech "Autonomous working vehicles in the industry” about SLAM, or Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping. Through this existing technology, the environment of autonomous vehicles can be mapped while taking into account space and static as well as moving objects. However, this technology isn’t yet sufficiently robust. To tackle this, Flanders Make has developed the following solutions:
- We merge SLAM with alternative localisation solutions such as markers, Wi-Fi and camera images.
- We ‘understand’ the environment in which the autonomous vehicle is driving by using AI to divide sensor data into "known object classes".
- We actively learn and avoid the places where localisation does not work. Once stuck, the vehicle travels the same way backwards via back track and will, in future, remember that this route is not possible.
The combination of these solutions provides a robust indoor localisation technology that can be deployed on the business floor.
Flanders Make innovations
As the last speaker before lunch, Flanders Make's COO Marc Engels spoke with moderator Indra Dewitte about the demos that had been set up. At the Symposium, we had set up no fewer than 27 demos, showing the results of our high-tech research live in action. Divided according to the new research clusters – Production, Motion Products and End-to-End design operation – participants could discover autonomous vehicles, robots, an industrial DC network with off-the-shelve components, VR robot programming, etc. The demos could be visited throughout the day and the people who had developed the technology were on hand to answer all questions.
Bekaert & Duracell
After a tasty lunch, demo tour and networking moment, the stage was set for Veerle van Wassenhove, VP Innovation at Bekaert. In her keynote speech "From smart processes to smart solutions" , she talked about Bekaert's digital future, where innovation, digitalisation and sustainability are inextricably linked. These 3 pillars came together nicely in the tool that they’ve developed for condition monitoring the steel cables of cable-ways.
Next to speak was Jan Casteels of Duracell. Duracell, the world's largest producer of alkaline batteries, faced a major reorganisation of the company's Belgian branch in 2013. They asked themselves the question "How do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors?”. Increasing production speed appeared to be the answer, and they did this through digitalisation and automation. In this process, Duracell implemented:
- Laser cleaning for automatic battery cleaning. This allowed to deploy operators with a cleaning cloth elsewhere.
- AGVs for internal transport of (semi-)manufactured goods in the warehouses.
- On-line cameras monitoring all manufactured battery cells, this is in contrast with the manual random checks from before.
Predictive maintenance also became increasingly important. By carrying out less but better maintenance (supported by AI), Duracell was able to further boost productivity while lowering the cost per manufactured cell. In addition, Duracell has also participated, since 2016, in – at least 1 – fundamental basic research project per year. This way, they keep in touch with the latest developments. Finally, people management was cited as a key pillar in the company's success.
Creating value with AI
Then came Wouter Denayer, Innovation Magician at Briteflo, with his keynote "Creating value with AI".
"Do something with data," Wouter was once told by one of his clients. Simply put, but that's not how it works. Data and AI require full commitment from a company and involve all its processes. Stories such as Tesla's autonomous driving that is about to be launched every year since 2016, the Google employee who thought the AI robot had feelings, the Facebook chatbot that didn't like Zuckerberg's policies, etc. show that AI in itself is already quite advanced, but also that there is certainly room for improvement. Data, for example, cannot convey emotions. Yet, they could be interpreted that way (see Google's story), but this is due to the emotional note that we humans give to those data. Finally, Wouter gave the following tip: "Do not approve projects without ticking off an AI checklist". By which he wants to show that AI & data really need to be embedded in your business processes.
Manufacturing medicines in 2030
After the coffee break, Janssen's Yves Vancleemput had the floor. His topic: "Manufacturing medicines in 2030". The year 2020, due to the Covid crisis, brought a lot of challenges. To be better prepared for this in future, a plan was set up internally named "Geel 2030", a factory of the future that is to be adaptive, connected and sustainable. Given that current production does not meet these criteria, there is work to be done. Yves talked about the project's roadmap and explained its 3 major pillars. In a nutshell:
- Plug & produce: new production components must be immediately deployable.
- Technology must be modular, scalable and reconfigurable.
- Seamless technology transfer from pilot company to commercial company, by working with the same systems in both companies.
- Fully digital value chain from meso to macro level via digital twins.
- "Product digital thread" with end-to-end data availability and visibility.
- Setting up digital value chains so as to be able to respond quickly when facing small or big changes.
- In terms of sustainability, Janssen aims to be 100% carbon neutral by 2030.
A particularly inspiring project, the results of which we will be able to see within a few years.
The human-centric approach to drive innovation
The honour of taking the stage as final keynote speaker was for Ank De Wilde, CEO of Absolem, with her keynote on "The human-centric approach to drive innovation". It immediately became apparent that Ank's style was completely different from that of the other keynote speakers. Based on her personal life story, she explored the answer to the question: "Is technology the real driver of growth and innovation?" “No, people are,” appeared to be the correct answer. It’s the people in your business who create innovation. So the real driver for innovation is a corporate culture that values people and allows them to excel with their qualities. Soft skills are vital for innovation. But changing a corporate culture and shifting focus is often a difficult process. When asked "How do you get this on track?", Ank gave the following answers:
- Create meaningful experiences
- Embrace the human and you will meet the professional (identify talents)
- Allow feelings. People feel, they have emotions. Don't let feelings be a problem but embrace them.
- Companies need leadership, not hierarchy. Lead by example.
- Set goals.
O&J Péters Award
Before Urbain Vandeurzen, chairman of Flanders Make's board of directors, started on the conclusions of the event, the O&J Péters Prize was awarded to Prof. Dr. engineer Michael Schmidt from the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg for his outstanding cutting-edge research into photonics, optics and laser technology for production engineering.
The business transformation of the manufacturing industry, stopped or accelerated by the multi-crisis?
Urbain Vandeurzen, chairman of the board of Flanders Make, was last on the programme with "The business transformation of the manufacturing industry, stopped or accelerated by the multi-crisis?"
It will not come as a surprise that we are currently facing a multi-crisis situation. There is the aftermath of the corona crisis, the geopolitical crisis with the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, the struggle for dominance between the United States and China, the climate crisis, etc. Fortunately, there are also positive evolutions, with new technologies such as digital transformation, Industry 4.0 & 5.0, sustainability, smart products, etc.
Yet Europe's business model is now fundamentally under pressure: we can no longer import cheap energy from Russia and we’re confronted with supply problems from China while defence spending is on the up. This is very likely to send Europe's prosperity into a downward spiral. Yet we can break this spiral, by focusing in the short term on:
- Accelerating digitalisation;
- Adjusting budgets and supply strategies in line with the recession;
- Achieving energy independence without compromising continuity & sustainability.
Tomorrow's winners will combine short-term flexibility and agility with long-term strategic investments. As such, the future of the industry remains sustainable, digital and competitive.
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