EP22 – Johan Verstraete, Picanol, the strength of always questioning what you do, no matter the size of the company. 

In a world where things are continuously changing, we need to question what we are doing and consider new ways of doing things.  

For this 22nd Ellie.Talks podcast episode, we were honored to welcome Johan Verstraete, Vice President Weaving Machines at Picanol, in the studio. Johan has been active at Picanol Weaving Machines for over 20 years and has a special interest in innovation and sustainability. In this episode, he shares the inspiring story of Picanol and how the company has grown and become more sustainable by implementing new technology and seizing opportunities

A very interesting talk for anyone who believes in the importance and effectiveness of combining people and technology for the future of our industry.  

Key takeaways 

  • Understanding your customers and all the players in the value chain is your starting point; visit, listen, and question them in order to understand their current and future needs.  
  • The word “environment” should be taken broadly, considering both the natural and the social environment. 
  • Processes, products, innovation – three pillars to remember when it comes to sustainability in our industry. 
  • Combining experienced teams with young talent and new technologies is a source of success for sustainability. Do not only try to attract but also familiarize people with the industry.  
  • Technology needs to be as accessible as possible to be used.  
  • Always challenge yourself, be open to new ideas, new technologies, and possibilities, and you’ll start seeing the change! 

Meet Johan, a man who aims to make an impact on the future.  

After starting to study engineering, Johan quickly realized that it wasn’t the field that would thrill him and turned to economics. Working in sales was his lifelong dream, and he gained his first experience as a sales executive at Sadef before joining Picanol Group in 1998 as a sales manager. Over the years, he had the opportunity to take on more managerial responsibilities, which led him to the position of Vice President Weaving Machines at Picanol Weaving Machines.  

Johan explains that his main driver and goal in his work is to be there for the next generations. While Picanol has been exiting for 85 years, the team is already preparing for the next 85 ones, and this is something that cannot be done without a long-term vision of preserving the planet and passing it on in good shape to the next generation.  

About Picanol, the world leader in weaving machines  

 Picanol Group is part of Tessenderlo Group and it consists of three companies:  

  • Picanol, the best known, specializing in weaving machines 
  • Psicontrol which makes man-made controls and human-made machines interfaces 
  • Proferro, which specializes in foundry and mechanical finishing 

Picanol makes high-tech weaving machines based on air-jet or rapier technology depending on the insertion technology. Used for flat fabrics, these machines can produce high-end applications, such as the parachute of the Mars rover, or consumer fabrics such as denim (today, one out of two pieces of denim is woven on a Picanol machine).  

Today, Picanol is the world leader in its specification. With 1500 employees worldwide and two plants in Ieper (Belgium) and Suzhou (China), 95% of the company’s business is conducted outside Europe, and it is mainly based on exports.  

Understanding your customers is the main step to helping them grow  

With days filled with many meetings, Johan’s main role is to listen and understand people to guide them in decision-making. It is necessary to create clarity by making sure that they know what needs to be done in the next steps and to review with them the strategy with a broad view making sure they are following the goals and working on the right things.  

Johan also likes to travel a few weeks a year and visit customers and competitors’ customers. Here he emphasizes the importance of really getting in touch with the market to understand the customers’ challenges and needs, as well as their future needs. 

Considering the natural AND social environment  

Although sustainability has always been part of Picanol’s DNA, Johan mentions that awareness has grown a lot in recent years. The importance of being fair to people, the environment, and resources is something the company’s CEO emphasized before talking about sustainability.   

Beyond thinking about the natural environment, Picanol is also working on its approach to the social environment. On a local level, one of their principles is to take responsibility for the community of Ieper for example. 

“I think the core of sustainability is being fair with your environment in the widest sense of the word.” – Johan  

The 3 pillars of sustainability – processes, products, innovation 

1. Making a difference in the process 

Picanol has always been vertically integrated, something which is crucial for the company not only to eliminate all the unnecessary transport, intermediate inventory, and intermediate waste but also to develop their machines in the way they want, as they can build everything themselves and hardly buy any standard components. In addition, it allows them to go from basic to advanced technology, turning the castings made in the foundry into mechanical parts, assembling those parts into a machine, and adding electronics, controls, software, etc.   

Moreover, the environmental impact is really part of the process. At the end of its life, the machine returns to the foundry surface and can be recycled into a new, simplified machine, which is why Picanol is sometimes referred to as a great recycling company. Beyond recycling metals, Picanol is taking many other sustainability initiatives.

As an example, Johan cites the current installation of over 6000 square meters of solar panels, the construction of their new energy-neutral main office in Ieper, the use of geothermal energy and heat pumps, the multimodal transport of containers to the ports of entry, daylight-controlled lighting, but also the use of electric cars which is stimulated with the installation of 66 charging points in the parking lot. While this initiative was launched only 18 months ago, Picanol already has 60 electric vehicle drivers, which shows the motivation of people to go down the road of sustainability. 

2. Implement sustainability in the products 

Johan explains that the Picanol machines can be compared to Mercedes cars for several reasons. On the one hand, like Mercedes cars, Picanol weaving machines live a very long time. After 10 or 15 years of use, they change owners and run for another 10 or 15 years. On the other hand, the fuel consumption of a big Mercedes is surprisingly lower than that of other less powerful cars, which is also the case with Picanol weaving machines.   

What also enables Picanol to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and that of its customers is the introduction of the Sumo direct drive in 1996, which has reduced the consumption of the machines by about 10% compared to traditional drive systems. By putting this system on the market for 25 years, calculations have shown that Picanol has saved more or less the equivalent of the annual production of a nuclear power plant. 

3. Innovation 

By the time this episode of the podcast is released, a new version of the Optimax rapier machine – the Ultimax – will be launched at ITMA on June 8-9, 2023 (where you can also meet the Ellie team!). For over 15 years, several generations of this machine have been made and over 60,000 units have been sold, making it one of the most successful rapier machines of all time. Coming up with something better was a challenge that Johan believes he met with the brand-new Ultimax rapier machine.  

For this new machine, Picanol has been working on three main targets:  

The first is performance, which must always be improved. Although they don’t want to do it at all costs, Johan says it’s always about smart performance, with optimization of inputs (energy raw materials) and outputs in terms of the number of meters of fabric produced. 

The second objective is of course sustainability, an area in which the company excels as it has always been the leader in lowest energy consumption on machines and for more than 15 years the leader on the rapier machine. And for this new machine, the company has optimized the motor and drive system to further reduce energy consumption. A very important point that comes while focusing on the aspect of sustainability is that the machine was also specifically designed with the purpose of weaving recycled yarns as the share of recycled fibers in yarns as well as completely recycled yarns are increasing. However, because these fibers are more vulnerable to breakage, they require gentle treatment to be able to be woven, which the new machine can do.    

The final target is digitalization, where data is used to optimize settings and performance, as well as ease of use. The importance of this digitalization is accentuated by the decreasing number of people, and especially skilled people, available to work in weaving mills. 

PicConnect, the tool to optimize your operations 

Because some things are better done with technology than by hand, technology is now taking a very important place in the development of sustainability.  

To support this, Picanol has created the PicConnect customer portal, which allows the optimization of the machines as well as the entire weaving mill. 

As a simple example of how this portal works, Johan explains that if two styles are run on two different machines and one machine performs better than the other, the system can compare settings and recommend certain adjustments on one machine to increase its performance. In this way, machine performance can be increased more easily, which will also reduce inputs and make production more efficient and sustainable.  

In addition, the PicConnect platform has a monitoring system that allows the entire system to be controlled. This way, consumption and production per machine can then be compared, yarn consumption can be recorded, etc.   

Finally, while it is becoming easier to work on sustainability, Johan explains that it is increasingly necessary to report on it, for example with the sustainability report, but also with all the other efforts the company is making in this direction. 

Get inspired by Picanol’s last sustainability report here.

The triangle between collaboration, sustainability, digitalization 

The future is built on the triangle of collaboration, sustainability, and digitalization, yet, Johan explains that there are some challenges Picanol faces, hindering this transition. One of them is the reluctance or “sort of conservatism” to use all the new and innovative tools they present to the market.

“In the past, we created many features that were engineered and very well thought out, but they required so many settings that if we went into the mill after three months, we would see that half of them were disabled. So we need to make it as easy to use as possible.” 

People often think they’re doing well with their own knowledge without realizing the importance and opportunities for improvement behind big data and AI, and the dimension they can bring to them. This is also the reason why we can observe different speeds on the topic of transition in the world. While we can already feel a transition in commodities, there is still a difference in the use of technology in different parts of the world. While some Asian customers (like Indians or Pakistanis) are very comfortable with technology, other countries are not pushing machines to the limits.    

For Johan, these differences are not due to a lack of sustainability ideas. Today, large sourcing companies and brands can have a significant influence on introducing sustainability initiatives, and to continue to supply for these brands, the entire supply chain needs to get on board as well. Thus, if the entire ecosystem (the end market, retail, consumers, etc.) begins to promote more sustainable products, a transition will be created in other parts of the world as well. 

‘Let’s grow together’ – a strong and true message behind Picanol’s baseline  

Picanol’s baseline, ‘Let’s grow together’, not only focuses on growth with Picanol’s customers but also includes all other players in the value-added chain. By traveling around the world, product managers can detect the needs of Picanol’s customers, see how they use the machines, and what can be improved.

Customer triggering, one of the main tasks of the Picanol team, is part of both customer-driven innovation and technology-driven innovation, the two dimensions in which they can be the most successful in the industry according to Johan. For this, the PicConnect platform was something completely new in the weaving industry, it took some time to convince the first customers to start using it, to present the results, and to testify about it. 

The importance of people and contact in innovation 

Defining your future innovations and anticipating those coming to the market is an important focus at Picanol. After receiving and gathering information from project management, sales, and other areas of the industry, the product strategy group can provide guidelines for development. There, the work should be divided into detailed projects and project portfolios for more efficiency, which often results in the idea of a new product.    

To successfully complete these projects, people are defined as the company’s greatest asset and power. While the mix of experienced people and young talent is important, personal contact is essential! As Johan explains, physically visiting customers allows the team to really hear the machines and to be in the real world, and this is something much more effective than organizing collective meetings to improve results. 

Driving the younger generation toward a beautiful sustainable industry  

Karla Basselier, Tim Vannieuvenhuyse, and our own Julie Lietaer already mentioned it in our previous podcast episodes: to prepare for the future, it is important and even necessary to bring ‘fresh blood’, young talent to the company.  

At Picanol, the combination of a very experienced team with young engineers has been a strong basis for success, allowing the team to find sustainable and better solutions to traditional and old problems in a creative way (with the contribution of 3D printing, big data, AI, and all kinds of new technologies). 

While finding the right people for a company is essential, it is a daily job and one of the most difficult challenges for Picanol. By being active in campus recruitment, offering internships, participating in workshops for young people, or being present at job fairs in Belgium, Picanol aims to get young people excited about technology and manages to develop its visibility on an international level.   

Beyond attraction, it is also important for Picanol to familiarize young people with the industry to convince them to join it. As Johan explains, if we talk about textile machines today, many people will think of craftsmanship and ignore the technologies, disciplines, and digital parts integrated into the new machines, which are considered cutting-edge technologies, and therefore it is necessary for the company to let people know what technology really represents in the industry.   

A very important point that Johan emphasizes is the growing interest of people in the sustainability aspect. The questions candidates ask are no longer “How much will I make?” but increasingly “What are you doing about sustainability?” because they want to contribute to the sustainability of the world. Johan explains that stating that the company is moving towards sustainability has been a major plus in terms of recruitment.   

Finally, it is important to stress again that authenticity plays an important role in convincing people and potential candidates of the company’s vision and purpose. Picanol really tries to convince people that it is not greenwashing or smoke and mirrors, but that sustainability is really at the heart of its beliefs and values, and this has proven to be effective over the last 5 or 6 years. 

“We want to do more than greenwashing. We really want to do what we say and to say what we do.” 

Don’t stop questioning yourself. 

As a key takeaway of this episode, Johan advises you to constantly challenge yourself. Are you still doing the right thing? Can you do better? Is there no better technology available? Or are there no other capabilities available? Are there new opportunities? 

A valuable lesson learned in recent years at Picanol is that the combination of experience and new technologies or opportunities is the source of progress (as they have also noted in the fact that both generations of engineers work together). Therefore, always be open to new ways of doing things, new ideas, and new technological ideas and possibilities. 

“Whatever you are doing in the textile industry or in other industries or in other activities, question yourself. Be open to technology, because technology will also enable us to be more sustainable in the future.” 

If this episode story has inspired you to take your sustainability journey further, you can contact Picanol via Ellie.Connect!