Ontex digital factory: never satisfied with status quo

Published on 20/07/2021 in Inspire

Ontex digital factory: never satisfied with status quo

Ontex has been transforming its production into digital factories of the future for over a decade. Jef Monballyu, plant manager at the Eeklo site, looks back and ahead: “The availability of more digital technologies has accelerated our development.”

Ontex is Europe's largest manufacturer of sanitary towels, nappies and incontinence pads. Alongside its head office in Aalst, the company has branches in Eeklo and Buggenhout in Belgium. The company is keeping pace with the technological revolution to make its production more efficient and – above all – smarter.

A single integrated process from order to warehouse: that was the aim of the automation process that Ontex Eeklo started years ago. However, according to the plant manager there wasn’t really a specific starting point: “We fell into it more or less unknowingly, using technology to resolve operational and other issues.”

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The first hurdle: Manufacturing Execution System

The implementation of a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) was the first major hurdle for Ontex Eeklo. Jef Monballyu: “Production orders had been rolling out of our ERP software for years. Reference lists were printed out and passed to the production floor. Long story short: it was a manual, labour-intensive and above all error-prone process with zero added value.”

“With MES, this process is now fully automated,” continues Jef. “By each production line, there is a screen showing information about the current reference and the subsequent one that will go into production. This allows our operators to work proactively instead of just reference by reference.”

The correct quantities of each raw material are also automatically requested from the stock. The MES also suggests a sufficiently large location in the warehouse to the forklift truck driver for the finished order.

The MES allows our operators to work much more proactively.

Jef Monballyu, plant manager at the Eeklo site of Ontex

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Second phase: digitisation of quality control

Jef: “Not only did we switch from paper to digital checklists, we also introduced a camera system for the visual quality control. At strategic locations on the production line, each product is photographed and compared with a digital template. Huge progress compared to the samples we had been taking every five minutes until that point.”

Ontex also continuously monitors the machinery itself, both in terms of technical performance and maintenance as well as in terms of energy consumption. All these processes generate a great deal of data. It’s a massive task to draw the right conclusions from it all.

Jef: “Which machine occasionally produces deviating products? Why do we get more error messages and downtimes on one production line than on another? But also: are we checking the products for the right parameters? After all, you can only be a smart factory when you base your decisions on information from all these data streams.”

You can only be a smart factory when you base your decisions on information from all these data streams.

Jef Monballyu, plant manager at the Eeklo site of Ontex

From intuitive to data-driven decisions

The plant manager admits that the switch from intuitive to data-driven actions was the most difficult in the entire transformation process. “Firstly, we struggled a bit in the early days to get all the data out of the systems correctly. This sometimes led to heated discussions about its reliability.”

Secondly, the data also provided some unexpected insights. So-called ‘microstops’ – machine downtimes of less than five minutes – did not have to be reported manually by the operators. Jef: “But as soon as we went digital, we did register them all. And it turned out that all these short stops combined led to a gigantic standstill. Conclusion: this is what we need to focus on in order to improve our efficiency.”

Training important, communication essential

From efficiency to a lower error margin to a self-learning work environment: the smart factory offers unmistakable advantages. “As long as you properly guide your people before, during and after the transformation,” emphasises Jef. “We seriously underestimated this a few times.”

“It seemed logical that everyone would support this whole transformation story, but that isn’t the case at all. More than training, communication proved to be the key to success. Not only about how we will tackle things in the future, but above all why.”

It seemed logical that everyone would support this whole transformation story, but that isn’t the case at all.

Jef Monballyu, plant manager at the Eeklo site of Ontex

Making systems even more self-learning

So what will the production at Ontex Eeklo look like in five years' time? Jef: “We can become even more efficient using our current technologies alone. We are already learning a lot from our process data these days, but the adjustments still take place manually. Our systems need to become even more self-learning.”

“All the same, my crystal ball has gone rather cloudy,” concludes the plant manager. “The availability of more and more digital technologies has accelerated our development, but what will the future hold? In any case, we must keep looking out for new things, also beyond the walls of our own business. ‘We've already come this far and the results are excellent, I hear from time to time. But although it’s very tempting sometimes, we should never be satisfied with the status quo.”

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