The brand new factory of the Belgian Procoplast is tucked away in Belgium, yet close to the major German car market. This specialist in delicate plastic parts for the automotive industry is satisfied with its new site at the still vacant Lontzen industrial park. The factory of the future is getting an additional two machines each week. By the end of 2016, 9,500 m2 should be fully utilized … allowing work on a further extension in order to reach 12,500m2 of floor area. And yes, to tap into the Asian and US markets as a result.
That much is obvious, not only does owner and CEO Geoffroy Boonen have big plans for the specialist in small plastic parts in which electronics are integrated, he also carries them out. This explains why he invested 10 million euros in a hyper-automated factory instead of relocating his company to a low-wage country.
Boonen was deservedly nominated ‘Manager of the Year’ in 2015, and was sure to win the award. In 2017, his Belgian company Procoplast will be one of the finalists for the ‘Company of the Year’ award. “It would mean great recognition for the efforts that my staff and I deliver day in and day out. And a reward for the politicians and all the people who believe in and support Procoplast.”
Whatever happens, Geoffroy Boonen is keeping his eye on the ball and makes routine inspections of the plant, checking that brushes are in their place, asking a worker to move the pallets out of sight or a cleaner not to place his white spirit on the red lines. “I always have to police things because there is always something that is not where it’s supposed to be,” laughs or sighs Boonen.
You have just invested 10 million euros in this factory of the future. How did you get to this point?
Geoffroy Boonen: “I acquired the company in 2006. Procoplast was launched in 1989 with a focus on automotive. Today we produce 160 million small parts annually. These include plastic rings, caps, pump holders, trays… with a built-in electronic circuit. They are used for the brakes, airbag, start & stop function, the steering wheel, pedals, and so on. Our parts enhance the safety and comfort in our cars. We don’t supply them directly to the car manufacturers. Rather, our customers are amongst the major automotive suppliers. Think of Bosch, ThyssenKrupp, Hella, Kiekert, ZF, TRW, to name but a few.
Our new plant is hyper automated. 42 machines and 20 robots will operate here. We are currently relocating two machines each week from our former facility in Eupen with the goal of making the whole plant operational by March 2017.”
160 million products a year, which no one knows they are built into our cars. In which car makes will we find Procoplast parts under the bonnet?
Geoffroy Boonen: “You will find our parts primarily in German cars, namely in the start & stop function and airbags fitted in vehicles made by the Volkswagen Group, but also in Renault, Fiat, Peugeot, and in Mercedes steering. It is true that we make parts that nobody will see under the bonnet of a car and that do not interest the public at large. For example, for Mini and others, we produce a pump element to cool off all electronics in a car, and some one-off parts for Landrover. I don’t know about other makes because we deal with suppliers.
However, we can definitely make an educated guess. Considering that 16 million cars are produced in Europe every year, each contains 10 of our parts on average. We export 90.7% of our production.”
What is the strength of Procoplast?
Geoffroy Boonen: “Our strength is that we have invested early and heavily in automation. We did that rather than opt for delocalisation.
Indeed, we have to admit that we cannot survive if we rely on manual labour a lot. We want and need to deliver a premium quality product at competitive prices and with zero errors.
This advanced automation does not mean that we will cut jobs. In fact, do you know what’s happening in our company? At present, we are employing twice as many people as five years ago. We create jobs! We have a total workforce of 116 people, including temporary staff. There were less than 50 people working for the company when I bought it more than 5 years ago.”
Are you finding people to meet this growth?
Geoffroy Boonen: “We are in an economically strong region. There is almost no unemployment here. Finding additional people with a technical background is therefore no easy task. Our education system does not make it easy for companies like ours either, because it lags behind in relation to the digital age. Even though the world is changing at high speed, the education system is still teaching old technologies. If we had resolved this issue by offering more practice-based classes and more internships in high-tech companies, we would have already taken a big step forward. In the company, we are constantly training our staff.”
Do you also owe your success to your own R&D?
Geoffroy Boonen: “There are two types of R&D: fundamental and operational. In our particular case, the suppliers carry out the fundamental research to develop their components. We then make the parts they design and need.
To give you an analogy, it’s like building a house that was designed by your customer. You need to develop a plan to build the house, a plan that, in our case, specifies the shape of the mould, the location of the electrical contacts, the assembly process for the robot, testing to check that everything is functioning well, and subsequent packaging. We make, and carry out, this plan. That’s why we have all the knowledge in house to make a high quality end-product.
It often takes two years to build and coordinate such a production line. And during that time it produces nothing. As soon as it starts running, we make money.“
It is common knowledge that there is tough competition in the automotive sector. What is your solution?
Geoffroy Boonen: “We fully deploy our expertise. Since we have a lot of expertise in house, we manage to attract complex projects and we are capable of creating technical parts that nobody else can make. These are parts with high added value, which we produce in large quantities. Once we win a contract, we run the production line for up to 6 or 7 years for a single car model.
It is great news for us that cars contain more and more high-tech components. Before we had to wind down a window or move a seat manually, for example. Now, everything is electronically controlled. For example, my steering wheel starts vibrating while a warning triangle flashes on my left side mirror if I attempt to move to the left lane to overtake when another car is coming. These are the kind of things that increase safety, comfort and sustainability and we are contributing to their deployment.”
What is it that makes your new plant a factory of the future?
Geoffroy Boonen: “Our geographical situation differs greatly from that of our previous pant, which was in a residential area near the railway station. Here we are outside the residential area, with good access to the motorway. Trucks and cars come to a different location. Our flow of materials is much smoother and we have taken into account as many ecological aspects as possible. For example, the LED lighting automatically adjusts to the daylight; the heating is environmentally friendly; we work with very modern, closed production lines; our cables and plastic granule supplies are distributed from the ceiling of the relevant production halls; we can easily expand; and so on.”
Belgium is an excellent loation to serve suppliers in Western and Eastern Europe. How do you propose to expand further internationally?
Geoffroy Boonen: “If you want to serve the United States and Asia, you can’t do that from Belgium. That’s right. We would not be competitive because currency fluctuations are excessive, transportation costs are too high and taxes weigh too heavily.
However, our plans do include a global expansion. We may achieve this through acquisitions and setting up new plants in other continents where we would replicate our Belgian factory model.
On the one hand, our customers are hoping that we will supply our products on other continents. On the other hand, I myself have the ambition to give Procoplast a global presence within two years. Imagine, for instance, that tomorow we could transpose to another sector, including in the US and Asia, what we are currenty doing for the automotive industry.
The more I travel, the more opportunities I see. It is a matter of duplication.”
Procoplast have grown significantly. How will you keep growing in the future?
Geoffroy Boonen: “The cars that roll off the line today contain more electronic components than ever before. This trend is set to continue at a rapid pace. Self-driving and electric vehicles will also account for the increasing demand for our components. All the electronics must be encased, cooled and protected. Our casings are sturdy, finished with great accuracy and with just as much detail. Not everyone can make that.
We therefore believe in further growth.
We promote ourselves actively by taking part in trade fairs, such as the International Suppliers Fair (IZB) where we are exhibiting with Agoria. Technical people get to meet us there. Since they did not search for a producer of plastic parts on Google, we have to stand out. So, we are presenting our parts like jewels in glass showcases, with elegance and beautiful lighting.”
According to you, how can Belgium strengthen its position in automotive?
Geoffroy Boonen: “Politicians like to quote us as an example that re-industrialization is possible in Belgium. And indeed, if we maximize automation, focus on products with high added value that are difficult to make, and choose to be a supplier, there are opportunities. Especially since Belgians are creative, courageous, hard working and have the right skills. For example, most of my people speak three languages: French, German and English. And with our Flemish suppliers, negotiations are easily done in German.
But let’s not forget that it’s only by investing heavily in our plant that we got where we are today. This is a key element of our success story.”