The future of manufacturing according to a successful CEO and two young entrepreneurs
He who dares, wins. So goes the catchphrase. In the fast changing manufacturing industry these are anything but empty words. Start-ups have to be innovative and take risks to compete on the market, but existing companies should be just as creative and daring to maintain their position. What can entrepreneurs and established names learn from one another? How do they see the industry’s future? We brought them together to figure it out. On one side: Ann Dhont, Managing director of the well-established Spiromatic. And on the other: Glenn Mathijssen and Philippe Hennin, the young founders of Frulego.
The manufacturing industry is in full swing. Do you feel it will hit stumbling blocks, or will the future mainly bring new opportunities?
Ann Dhont: “I certainly see opportunities, but the challenges are great. High labour costs and a less flexible labour market make it almost impossible to keep repetitive work in Belgium. Automation and robotics are inevitable if we want to remain close to our customers and quickly respond to their needs. Apart from that, I firmly believe in the determination, creativity and courage of our companies. Being innovative is what allows us to keep our edge.”
Glenn Mathijssen: “I think so, too. There are many successful manufacturing companies in Belgium to prove it. For sure, there are major challenges, but we must focus on the solutions. Keep changing and remain flexible, that’s the trick.”
Are today’s Belgian manufacturing companies agile enough to respond to the rapid pace of technological advances?
Philippe Hennin: “As a start-up, we come together with many other Belgian companies and I have noticed that many players work very efficiently and with great flexibility. But there is a difference in what is on offer: in the field of engineering, we can easily find strong partners, but for the production of our product it was quite difficult.”
Ann Dhont: “I can imagine. I know the Belgian manufacturing companies market very well. But for young starters, it seems far from obvious to set up a manufacturing process from scratch.”
Glenn Mathijssen: “That’s right. In addition, you not only know the business, you also have a business. Your name is well known and has a track record. As newcomers, we need to look for experienced players who are willing to partner up with us. In the end, we found the necessary flexibility and expertise at Tecmore, which is part of the Exmore Group. We prepared our production process in collaboration with them.”
Have strong partnerships become essential for the success of manufacturing companies?
Ann Dhont: “No doubt. ‘You usually do better what you do yourself’ was my father’s motto, but today we cannot survive without our network. Customers consolidate and processes become more complex. We therefore need to keep coming up with stronger, more integrated solutions. And you cannot do that on your own. It is impossible to keep all the necessary know-how and expertise in house. But finding good partners is not an easy task. Sometimes, I have to do my best to resist the temptation of living by my father’s motto. Luckily, a federation like Agoria can offer a helping hand in this respect.”
Glenn Mathijssen: “I think that start-ups can be part of the solution here. As a start-up company we know very well where we want to go, but we need experienced players to guide us. We work with very young people who are bursting with creativity, but we must also bring in knowledge and expertise. Even though these experts have their own established businesses, they look for the creative energy that is required to be innovative. Established companies and start-ups therefore have a lot to offer each other.”
Ann Dhont: “I agree. Companies with a track record and starters should actually come in contact with each other more often.”
Philippe Hennin: “If I owned a production line, I’d keep a close eye on start-ups and my doors open to them.”
Do you think that companies are ready for this?
Ann Dhont: “Indeed, that is the question. In any case, it requires a degree of transparency which is not an obvious thing to achieve for the established industry. There will certainly be a tendency to protect knowledge. And start-ups have less to lose, of course.”
Glenn Mathijssen: “It requires mutual trust and a matching culture. And it goes without saying that effective agreements are crucial. Some companies think we are mad, but others quickly understand the benefits of a collaboration. They get a customer and also reap the rewards of the creative momentum we bring to the mix. For our part, we benefit from the voice of experience, somewhat keeping our unbridled enthusiasm in check. In my opinion, more has to be done to exploit this win-win situation. Openness has benefits that you cannot always predict.”
Ann Dhont: “I certainly concur and might add that we are perhaps not open enough to young people who want to undertake within an existing company. On the other hand, even though new ideas are a must for an innovative sector, they will always be a bit threatening for existing companies.”
Philippe Hennin: “That keeps us on our toes.” (he laughs)
Isn’t there a risk that new, young players will be quickly swallowed up by the larger companies?
Glenn Mathijssen: “For sure, and that’s also why we need to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s. Giving up 50% of your idea right away is a killer for motivation.”
“I firmly believe in the determination, creativity and courage of our companies. Being innovative is what allows us to keep our edge.” – Ann Dhont
Ann Dhont: “I do feel that this is changing. You notice that companies are ready to allocate capital to support young entrepreneurs, without asking for that 50% immediately. New start-ups keep popping up, and they are looking for ways to cooperate with the established industry. The rules of the game will undoubtedly change in the coming years. I would mainly like to learn from start-ups, and maybe make a good investment.”
Is it difficult for manufacturing companies to attract young talent to work for them because of that?
Ann Dhont: “Belgian education produces top candidates, but there is a shortage of manpower. The so-called war for talent is a reality: employer branding and the professionalisation of our HR processes are crucial. We’ve dedicated major efforts to the latter over the past five years. And that is bearing fruit.”
How can students be tempted to choose a career in a manufacturing company?
Philippe Hennin: “Most people we graduated with simply don’t want to work in cumbersome structures. They fear that their creativity will be restricted there. So, I think that companies should above all give them space. Allow engineers to present their own ideas and make them responsible for their execution. From time to time, give them carte blanche within a structured framework.”
“Innovations in our industry may not always be visible, yet they have a big impact.” – Ann Dhont
Ann Dhont: “Yes, but that entails a culture change in many companies. For example, we have a group of very young IT and automation engineers in house. If we give them free rein, they’ll certainly create very beautiful things. But, in a company established for more than five decades, transition is also necessary. As management, we must learn to give space and responsibility, but some people are not used to working autonomously. Yet, this is the kind of transition we keep promoting. Only then can we attract talent.”
Shouldn’t this ability to take initiative and work independently already be learnt in school?
Philippe Hennin: “Absolutely, but this is not always done the right way at present. During our training, a lot of big companies in the sector introduced themselves, but I think students should really be immersed in that world. The manufacturing industry is apparently not sexy enough, so we should allow students to experience first hand what an exciting and innovative sector it can be.”
“As a start-up company we know very well where we want to go, but we need experienced players to guide us.” – Glenn Mathijssen
Glenn Mathijssen: “Look at the Shell Eco Marathon during which student teams worldwide are challenged to design and build energy-efficient vehicles. Belgian manufacturing companies could do that too. Organise a contest, give students a basic budget and let them create something. In my opinion, that money is much better spent than on a trade fair stand.”
Is the manufacturing industry too modest, then?
Ann Dhont: “I think so. I visit many other companies and discover a lot of great, successful players in our country. Even though they may be reviewed in magazines on occasion, they don’t get a lot of mainstream attention. Unfairly, I think. Innovations in our industry may not always be visible, yet they have a big impact.”
“If we embrace new technologies and learn to think outside traditional business models, a lot more can happen in Belgium.”
Glenn Mathijssen: “I think so, too. You notice it even within the start-up culture, the focus is mainly on trendy digital platforms. Few companies within start-up networks make machines that have the size and complexity of our ‘smoothie factories’. In any case, I think it cannot hurt to put the makers more in the spotlight.”
Philippe Hennin: “Look at Elon Musk: in the US, he is a superstar.”
Finally, according to you, what will the future of the manufacturing industry in Belgium be like?
Glenn Mathijssen: “Rosy. That answer is probably partly influenced by my young age; yet, if we embrace new technologies and learn to think outside traditional business models, we can expect a lot more.”
“Allow engineers to present their own ideas and make them responsible for their implementation. From time to time, give them carte blanche within a structured framework.” – Philippe Hennin
Ann Dhont: “We definitely need to embrace technology, but creativity and courage should certainly be our motto. I think our industry is very resilient today, but will undoubtedly still need the young generation.”
Ann Dhont, Managing Director of Spiromatic
Spiromatic is a second-generation family business from Nazareth (Belgium), which was founded in 1963. Today the company is led by owner and managing director Ann Dhont. Spiromatic develops durable total solutions for automated storage, conveying, weighing and dosing of dry and liquid raw materials for the food industry. By participating in the planning of their customers’ production processes, the technical specialists seek tailored solutions designed to improve production lines. Together with sister company Inkonox, Spiromatic employs about 115 people.
Glenn Mathijssen and Philippe Hennin, co-founders of Frulego
Frulego believes that, even though people want to eat healthier, they don’t always have the time and opportunity to prepare good food. So, the start-up developed a machine that makes ‘on the spot’ smoothies with frozen fruits and vegetables: it’s fast and healthy. Users can select their smoothie with an app and share it with the community. Based on their lifestyle, they also receive personalised health advice. In partnership with engineering firm Voxdale, Frulego developed a fully automated prototype. Supported by VLAIOand seed funding, the start-up finalised its production process. With 3 employees on the payroll, the company is negotiating with the first customers.