Expect the Unexpected
How the pandemic is affecting business and processes within ANDRITZ Nonwoven
Tobias Schäfer, General Manager, Andritz Nonwoven (Germany) and Alexandre Butte, Director of Business Development, ANDRITZ Nonwoven (France), joined Haydn Davis for the latest SNW webinar, PPE Snapshots from Around Europe.
Haydn Davis: Would like to quickly introduce ANDRITZ Nonwoven to anyone who doesn't know the company?
Tobias Schäfer: ANDRITZ Nonwoven is a manufacturer of processing equipment and solutions for the nonwovens industry, in particular the roll goods producers. We have a number of different processes for different nonwoven processes such as air-through bonding, needlepunch, spunlace,
spunbond, wetlaid and finishing process, as well as converting machinery, such as facemask machines, through our subsidiary ANDRITZ Diatec.
HD: Alexandre: you're located in France, when did you first become aware that Covid-19 might become a problem in Europe?
Alexandre Butte: We first heard about it in December and became really aware in January. We actually learned of it internally rather than through the news. ANDRITZ has a number of locations in China and I was traveling there in mid January when we started to hear about Covid-19 and the lockdown in Wuhan. At this point we began to discuss and implement strict company policies for travel and health and safety.
HD: How do you think it was handled in France?
AB: Here at ANDRITZ France, we pre-organised ourselves to work in a more digital way. Over the last two years our Nonwovens division has been taking steps to be more digital and we so we simply implemented what we had been preparing for over the last two years and the home office became the standard set up within 48 hours. We were able to successfully continue with customer meetings and everybody adapted very quickly to remote learning.
HD: Tobias: you're in Germany, was the experience pretty similar?
TS: Yes, it was very similar here. As we also have manufacturing, we implemented a number of measures to mitigate the risks, moving to a two-shift system. Our IT team had the most challenging time but this was also a driver for all of us. Systems such as MS teams, which was not previously a widely used tool became standard, but this was something that fit very well with the new generation of people who like to work remotely and have more freedom and flexibility.
HD: What was the initial impact on the company in terms of the lockdowns?
TS: We have a large supply chain in terms of metals, most of the manufacturing of which takes place in Northern Italy. As we know, this area was hit quite hard so we had concerns that materials that were ordered were going to be late. We were in contact on a daily basis with our suppliers from there and all over other areas in Europe. As a shareholder company, there were also a lot of measures that needed to be taken from a financial side so there was lots of internal reporting to keep things under control.
We initiated risk and special task force groups to carry out daily reviews in important areas and there was an extremely high level of communication. The result is that we were able to manage everything and keep delivery times for customers. This was our promise. If you cannot travel to customer sites, then you are obliged to do it somewhere else, and we managed to do that. We could carry on our business.
You can also imagine the challenges faced when you have to put a line in operation without the technical staff on site. We were not able to send technicians so we carried out remote installations with our field service technicians sitting in their offices, perhaps using Google glasses or on computers helping our technicians in China to put the lines into operation. It was new for all and a very steep learning curve.
HD: Can you tell us a little about the solutions you've developed specifically in response to the shortages of PPE and facemasks?
TS: The initiative started in February and March as the Covid challenge hit Europe. We were thinking about how best to contribute. We had a lot of different machines and solutions but for the facemask business, most of the machines were made in China with most of the production taking place there too. It quickly became apparent there were shortcomings in Europe and that we were overly dependent on supply chains from China so we had to reinitiate a lot of production and converting processes here.
Our converting technology specialists said, 'we can build a diaper machine, so why not a facemask machine' . Remarkably, the idea and design process took less than two weeks and we had the machines in our workshop being tested and ready to be delivered by the end of June. There was a lot of confidence from our customers who relied on our expertise and we have had multiple orders across Europe.
The first results from test plant have been very good enabling us to open a new chapter in our offer with this facemask technology.
HD: How are digital innovations from ANDRITZ now making an impact?
AB: ANDRITZ Nonwoven began looking at digitalization a couple of years ago although as Group, ANDRITZ has been looking at a digitalization program for over 10 years, initially in the pulp and paper sector. We have now acquired those tools and have been implementing those programmes so that digitalisation can be used for the benefit of our nonwovens customers.
In January we opened the first Metris Performance Centre dedicated for nonwovens - Metris being the umbrella name for the ANDRITZ digitalization program. Here we have two main activities. Firstly, is the Metris remote assistance system. Lockdown provided a wonderful stress test for this in terms of quality inspection and training. We had delivered a machine to Ukraine from Italy just as lockdown began but obviously we could not send technicians. So we had only one solution and that was to use the Metris Remote System.
We managed the full installation without technicians on site, we kept to the delivery schedule and we started the machine on time. Metris meant that we could successfully carry out immediate testing and the customer is now running the machine - an example of how digitalization has helped us support and keep customers for our customers.
The second aspect is the asset performances and predictive maintenance, the success of which has led to an increase in demand for digitalization processes. Customers that may be based in Europe but have line operating in the US or perhaps elsewhere in the world have a tool that can collect data, carry out automatic reporting, and then share the information between different factories and people. If travel is restricted, having a tool that allows you to share and discuss the same data wherever you are in the world is a great way to increase production efficiency and help you make decisions must faster. Access to the data means you can see what is happening and easily get support from our teams of experts.
HD: Is the company now back to operating as normal?
AB: The question is will it ever be completely back to normal? More employees are now used to working remotely but everyone has adapted quickly and there are no concerns about losing efficiency. We will need to reestablish personal contacts as fast as possible with our customers, to show innovations and discuss new developments and new contract opportunities. And we also need to see the machines; we deliver entire processes and we will still need to go on site. There will be a mix now between doing this remotely to increase efficiency and so less travel, but we will still sometimes need to see customers lines and how they are operating. Normal will be a mixture of how things used to be and what we have experienced over the last few months.
HD: What lessons will be learned for the future?
TS: Coivd-19 showed us that nothing is impossible. People thought it was impossible to start a machine remotely, and people said we do not have the right competences elsewhere in the world to install a line. People felt they had to travel in order to carry out installations and get the business. But we have a different picture today. We miss the face to face and the customer relationships. It will come back, but I don't see us flying as much in the next few months as things keep changing.
We will see how things develop. Home working will become standard and we know now that we can do it very efficiently. One of big takeaways is that the nonwovens industry has always been a hidden champion business and as a result of this crisis, our products are now in the mainstream - masks, wipes etc. We have come out of this hidden area and now, we are also seeing governments helping to establish local nonwovens industries, which should be good for all of us.
AB: I agree. As an industry, we have become known and this is a big difference. We have changed from a hidden industry to one that can now support everyone in a situation that nobody had faced in the past. It's pushing the knowledge about nonwovens to be spread everywhere. Most of the machinery suppliers are based in Europe and with Covid-19 we are seeing that we can sustain our activities all over the world. It does not have to be concentrated in a few experts in Europe as nonwovens are necessary everywhere - there is a need for local support and local production.