EP19: Maurits Vandeputte, Valvan, Innovation, the fuel for your organization’s future

Innovation / To Innovate. 

We all know the word “innovation”, but how many of us really know how to “innovate”? How do you put the word into practice or more often, how do you convince your company of the importance of innovation? 

When asked Maurits Vandeputte, Innovation Manager at Valvan, he is very clear: you plan, you allocate resources and, importantly, you stick to the plan. Innovation is the fuel for your organisation’s future. For Valvan this has led to promising new technologies such as the Fibersort, the automatic book sorter, or the just-released Trimclean, Maurits’ most promising innovation. One that will play a key role in the circular textile transition.

A highly recommended episode, for anyone who dares to dream and got NO when presenting yet another (crazy) new idea. This episode will not only inspire you to keep going but also give concrete advice on how to approach innovation.

Listen to the podcast here:

Key takeaways:

  • Start innovation from your customer’s demand, and do that little extra, each time.
  • It’s not about creating opportunities, it’s about seeing them and capturing them.
  • Plan – Allocate – Stick to the Plan.
  • Focus is good, but too much focus can prevent the creation of new innovative ideas.
  • Never make the mistake that innovation is not urgent, it is the fuel for your organization’s future.

Meet Maurits

After studying engineering in Leuven, Maurits joined the family company Valvan, specialised into baling systems and sorting solutions for textiles. Valvan was originally founded by his grandfather. Starting as a commissioning engineer, he traveled around the world, taking him to Thailand, China, Turkey,… to oversee the launch of new machines with a special focus on automation software. The perfect learning experience, which led him to his current position as Innovation Manager, combining engineering and innovation on a daily basis. As an Innovation Manager, Maurits main responsibility is to promote new technologies and optimize processes to develop new machines.

About Valvan

Valvan is in fact part of the Valtech group, which includes 15 small and medium-sized companies with a technical staff of about 450 people.

Valvan has always fostered a culture of innovation, with each project being customized for a customer and therefore innovative in itself. As a project-oriented company, all development-related tasks that are not part of the day-to-day business are assigned to the innovation team.

As Valvan is still a small company, Maurits explains that there is no average day. Many commercial projects are tied to the innovation team, which puts them under pressure, and as certain priorities arise, it can be difficult to follow a long-term plan, which means that the team has to be agile and adapt every day.

Transforming textiles sorting: the Fibersort

Valvan is specialised in baling systems and sorting solutions for textiles. These solutions for the reuse of textiles were initially focussed on manual sorting, but with the Fibersort, Valvan is taking sorting to the next level.

The goal of the Fibersort technology is to sort textiles based on fiber and color composition. As Maurits explains, to determine the composition of a garment, you could read the labels, but very often they have been removed. In European countries, labour is expensive, and reading the labels one by one takes a lot of time so it’s impossible to sort textiles according to fiber composition by hand. That’s why the need arose to develop a sorting technology that can automatically sort the fibers.

Initially, the Fibersort was still partially a manual process in which an operator placed an item on the scanner for processing, but today, robots feed the system and special machines are developed to pre-process all textiles, allowing many textiles to be sorted 24/7.

Today, the Fibersort technology is primarily focused on the non-wearable, non-reusable fraction, the fraction that in the past was often incinerated or downcycled. The dream for Fibersort is to enable recycling into new textiles again.

No for focus, yes for innovation

Valvan has a very customer-driven approach to innovation, focussing on developing what is requested by the market. They try to meet customer needs by reusing existing technologies in the market and putting them all together to make them work.

‘We want to avoid that we develop for the sake of developing.’

To illustrate his point, Maurits gives the example of the Fibersort: ‘we did not invent AI and we are using existing technology, tools, scanners, and cameras,… but we make it all work together for our customers.’

It is quite often said that ‘You have to say no to keep your focus’, but Maurits does not agree with this. Focus is good, but too much focus, and saying ‘no’ too often can make it harder to innovate as the opposite can help create innovative ideas. ‘If we had said no more often, many of our promising technologies would not have been developed today’.

From textiles to book sorting

In textiles, many people know Valvan from their textile sorting machines but a great example of how Innovation can spread and create totally new opportunities is the automated book sorting machines.

Valvan’s experience with camera technologies and algorithms used for textile sorting led to the creation of a new type of sorter.

Automated book sorting machine

One of Valvan’s clients in the US focuses on second-hand textiles but also has a large flow of second-hand books sold in stores. The process of evaluating and sorting these books was initially manual, meaning an operator would Google each book to determine a good resale price.

One day, during a call with the company, Maurits explained that several actions could be taken to improve the process:

  • The process could be automated;
  • Data could be accessed online to determine prices using online databases;
  • The same camera system of the Fibersort could also be used in this venture;
  • A robot could be used to put a sticker on the book and automatically sort them into several different bins.

The conversation resulted in the development of a new machine and now this company can now process 2000 books per hour instead of just a few dozen, which is a huge improvement. This innovation has also allowed them to digitilize all of their knowledge, and the algorithm is able to place the books correctly in the database, to sort them better.

This example shows that one innovation can easily lead to another! This brings us to an interesting point: innovation requires identifying opportunities and seizing them rather than creating them. And as Maurits says, the ability to recognize opportunities improves with practice.

Maurits’ dream: the Trimclean

When asked about what his dream innovation would be, Maurits mentions the just-launched Trimclean, a new machine that can play a crucial role in textiles recycling.

‘It’s the project I’m the most enthusiastic about, being about to sort complex streams of materials.’

To recycle textiles, labels, buttons, and zippers must be removed, which is a very expensive process if done manually. At Valvan, they wanted to automate this step in order to reduce the process and the cost of recycling textiles. So two or three years ago, they came up with the idea of cutting the textiles into small pieces and then, with the help of camera technology, recognizing the buttons and zippers and automatically removing them to get a pure fraction that can be recycled.

Today, the Trimclean is already operational at a first customer in the Netherlands, and Maurits hopes that this technology will be taken up in the future. The Trimclean and the Fibersort form a strong duo, a necessary set-up for textile recycling according to Maurits.

Do that extra step, each time

As explained, Valvan’s approach to innovation starts with a customer request and they see that demand as an opportunity to innovate. Every time a customer wants something new, they develop it and do that little extra. By doing that, the risk of implementing something totally new is greatly reduced.

Next to that, it should be seen as an opportunity; participation in EU-funded projects has also helped Valvan to realise new developments. In the beginning, there is always a lot of skepticism about new technologies: people think that they will never work and that they will never be accurate enough. But as Maurits says, nowadays, a lot of processes are not perfect, and neither are people.

Its Is also important to know that innovation does not always have to cost a lot of money. Some manual processes can be automated, resulting in big efficiency gains as technology is never sick or tired.

Not taking no for an answer

When it comes to innovation, it is often difficult to get the team or the management on board. Maurits explains that he is fortunate to work in a family business.

When he presented the idea of the Trimclean machine to his father, his reaction was ‘it will never work, don’t spend your time on it’. Yet today, three years later, the technology is fully operational and working well. So even though it’s sometimes hard to convince people, it’s important to keep a long-term vision, something that often characterizes a family business (also see the podcast with Aurelie here).

‘We have to believe in a project otherwise we won’t do it’.

Next to having a long-term focus, it is really important that you believe in the project, and that there is a match with your key assets and technology. Maurits explains that at Valvan, they always start from an existing project to make it work for another project. Every innovation is a small step and it’s always an incremental improvement, but by doing this every month, they can develop a lot and create a lot of new technologies and innovations.

One last driver for innovation at Valvan is sustainability. As the company is mainly working in the field of recycling, it has always been in the nature of the company. Like all Belgian companies, the resources at Valvan are limited, so they have to choose what they want to do and the choose there goes to durable projects and durable technologies.

A market in full development

The market for textile sorting and Fibersort is a niche, and even though many people know this technology, it currently accounts for only 10% of Valvan’s turnover. Not a very high share yet, however, Maurits does expect it to increase in the future. The efficiency gains are clear, but there is still a long way to go in the industry.

If you had asked me 5 years ago I would have said ‘in 5 years it will be big’, today I would say the same I think.’

European Collaboration

Valvan is actively involved in several European research projects, such as the SCIRT Horizon 2020 project. These engagements not only help to step outside the company, to meet people from different areas, and to cross-innovate, but for a company like Valvan they also contribute to reduce risks.

As an example, this financial support has helped the company to develop the picking robots that fully automate the Fibersort process. There was no customer for this technology yet, hence the support enabled them to realise this kind of high-risk innovation. In addition, the projects bring you into contact with many partners, which allows you to spread the word about what you do.

A takeaway message

When asked about his concrete tip to all innovation managers or companies looking to do more in terms of innovation, Maurits is crystal clear: make a plan and stick to it. Do not make the mistake that innovation is not urgent or make it easy to ignore when you’re dealing with ‘the shit of yesterday’. Stay focused on innovation and stick to the plan.

If this episode has inspired you to persist in your pursuit of sustainability and establish new collaborations, know that you can rely on the support and expertise of the Ellie.Connect network and the Ellie team to move forward!