When the Customer Sleeps Well

What ladies lingerie taught Stanisław Ozga about off-highway equipment.

The early 1990s were a difficult period in Poland, which had just begun its transition to capitalism. In 1990, Stanisław Ozga graduated university with a degree as a mining engineer. "After spending a full month one-thousand meters underground on a student internship, I wasn't keen to continue in mining," he laughs.

Realizing that a career in sales and marketing would keep him working above ground, he did some additional coursework, sent out CVs, and found a job selling vegetable oils. Then he sold insurance, worked a gastarbeiter in Norway on a salmon farm, and even ran his own trade company for several years.

In 1994, he stumbled upon Zakłady Dziewiarskie Mewa SA, a textile factory that manufactured ladies lingerie. The company was formed in the 1960s but had suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite being the largest underwear factory in Poland with 800 workers, it had no sales. Ozga was invited to head the sales, marketing, and export operations.

‘Process is critical’

Ozga traveled to southern Europe, since he knew this region was home to the world's top lingerie brands. He persuaded the Italians to allow Mewa to produce for them. He also focused on the home market, employing designers to create collections for the Polish market. 

After a meeting in France, the Playtex company asked him to create a production line for their bras. But the factory employees — and even his boss — were very skeptical. “The Playtex bra design was much more complex,” he says. “To the workers it was like being asked manufacture a Mercedes when you’ve only ever made Dacias.” The technological process was also much more sophisticated, with operations calculated in seconds. But Ozga understood bra manufacturing as very similar to making mining frames. "The principles are the same. The process is critical. If you have the right tools, and if you organize yourselves in the right way, then it can be done well." Ozga did it well.

Ozga stayed with Mewa for the next ten years, growing its export to Western Europe, Russia, and even to Saudia Arabia. Today it is a successful publicly traded company.

The recipe for safety

In 2004, Ozga joined Fortaco in Janów Lubelski. In 2008, he says, the Janów Lubelski factory found itself in a similar situation to the company he had just left. “All our eggs were in one basket, because were almost entirely serving only one market, the construction industry.” When the global financial crisis brought the construction business to its knees, the factory lost half its orders overnight. Military orders, a smaller part of its business, also shrunk dramatically.

“My job,” says Ozga, “was to essentially fix the same problem: to diversify our portfolio to reduce risk. This is the recipe for safety.” As a rule of thumb, Ozga says no single customer should constitute more than 30 percent of the Janów Lubelski factory output. Currently, material handling is the largest sector the factory serves, but it has multiple customers within the sector. Mining is 25 percent of the portfolio, with the balance made up of the construction, agriculture, energy, and military sectors.

“What we’re working on now is to balance the share within each industry. We don’t need to serve more industry segments, but rather grow along with the customers we have. They are the world leaders in their businesses, and our objective is to help them grow.”

Turnkey production

Poland today is not the Poland of the 1990s. Its GDP ranks tenth among the 48 sovereign states of Europe, and it’s no longer a low-cost country for manufacturing. “It used to be that manufacturing in Poland was four times cheaper than in Finland,” says Ozga. “It’s still cheaper, but nothing like it used to be, and the day will come when it’s not cheaper at all.” 

To prepare for that day, Janów Lubelski is increasing efficiency and automation so that it can be competitive. “We're focusing on more complex products in the mining industry, for example, where complicated welding is required,” says Ozga, “and we look for complex machining tasks where we can put our CNC centers to work. In December 2021, we added a paint shop. By having the entire chain of operations, we open the door to assembly. We are now ready for turnkey manufacturing for our customers who have sold all their capacity and need assistance."

How to sleep well

What has such a wide range of business experience, including a decade in the ladies lingerie business, left with Ozga? If he’s learned one lesson he says that it's to remember the customers pay our salaries.

"You've got to defend their interests and protect your own company's interests at the same time. You have to really take care of them, but I don't think 'making them happy' is the right way to put it. I have a German customer who says he can sleep well when he knows Fortaco is his supplier. I think that's how to express it: the customer should sleep well. And that's really why we're growing."

Fortaco’s DIY 4.0

Fortaco’s approach to Industry 4.0 allows it to do things on its own terms, controlling speed, costs, and autonomy over its data.

Industry 4.0 is a fashionable term, and great to throw around at cocktail parties. But the idea of Industry 4.0 can manifest itself differently in different companies. For Fortaco, it means “everything connected,” in the words of Andrzej Wrona, Operational Excellence Director.

"The first industrial revolution was steam,” says Wrona, “the second electrification and mass production, and the third automation, such as robots. Now, the fourth revolution allows everything to be connected, meaning those robots may now talk to each other."

Wrona says autonomous cars are a good example of Industry 4.0 technology in action. "Take two cars without drivers. The one in front brakes for a pedestrian, the other car is immediately informed and slows down, making a collision nearly impossible." So what if you could do the same thing in a factory? What would it look like? It would look like Fortaco.

Do it yourself?

Given that Fortaco benchmarks itself to the auto industry, one might imagine factories teeming with data scientists and consultants collecting data and building data architecture. One might imagine hundreds of millions invested into startups – as Porsche has done – to develop technology.

But Fortaco's strategy has been to use a DIY (do it yourself) approach. "If you hire outside it's expensive," says Wrona. "So when we go outside we're looking more for teachers, rather than companies who can sell us something." It's all in the name of maintaining flexibility. And it means that the famous tools of digitalization are adapted and applied as needed.

Here are six examples of how Fortaco is applying Industry 4.0 to the workplace:

  1. ‘Uber’ for internal logistics

In Fortaco's steel fabrication plant in Wrocław, data is used to manage the transportation of goods between work stations. "Wrocław's layout is complicated," says Wrona. "Production spaces are separated from one another, requiring us to move items in production from one hall to another. We used to use emails, calling, whistling, or shouting, but we've now developed an app that works a bit like Uber.”

Much like ordering an Uber car, a worker inputs the need to move a product from one station to another for further processing. The forklift driver sees this in the form of a virtual ticket representing the job, with his name assigned. Having this information, the driver moves the goods. When completed, the operator marks the job as done, and everyone can see the product has been moved. This is a digital mirroring (a digital shadow) of production. “The app shows where everything is, and we also eliminate the need for planners to go to the shop floor trying to find out the production status of each product,” says Wrona.

2. Priority parts in Kurikka

Late parts are a headache for most manufacturing companies. It's often necessary to order missing parts using express couriers. But parts arriving priority may still end up in standard channels, queuing with serial deliveries, meaning urgent parts can be internally delayed due to missing information. "We had poor information flow," says Wrona. "It meant a part might sit on a shelf for two or three days without production knowing it had arrived."

The team created an app which allows the prioritization of urgent materials, ensuring they move to the production line. The purchaser marks urgent goods within the app, and the information appears on a large screen in the receiving area. The app has enabled everyone to be informed about urgent parts and they are fast tracked.

3. Modern warehouse management

The Kurikka business site has implemented a warehouse management system for precise stock management. Every single part has a digital shadow in real time, which shows precisely what material is available, avoiding surprises and line stoppages caused by missing components.

"Everything that comes into the factory is scanned," says Wrona. "If I put five parts on a shelf, the system knows it. When parts go to production the system generates a list, and the pickers are directed to the correct storage destinations.”

The system monitors material movements and ensures high-quality logistics services to production. Machine learning also comes into play, since the algorithm uses historical data to designate optimal box placement. "It's reduced picking time significantly," says Wrona, "and it talks to our ERP system, informing our SAP about what needs to be ordered."

4. Tracking equipment utilization

Data can also shed light on investment decisions. Welding robots, for example, are expensive investments, and it’s critical to understand how those Fortaco has already invested in are used.

A pilot solution has been implemented in Fortaco’s Holíč plant, where IoT sensors track and record welding robot performance. A camera monitors knob position and informs an algorithm whether the robot’s status is automatic, manual, or off. A separate sensor monitors power consumption, collecting data about welding arc time. These two pieces of information provide an understanding of whether investment is producing a return, and what obstacles may stand in the way of efficiency.

Since data never lie, Wrona says it's sometimes been a revelation on the floor. "When a display shows poor utilization of equipment some have taken it as a challenge. 'Is it really true?' an operator said. 'So much underutilization? I don't accept it! I'll change it for the better.' And he really did change it!"

5. Visualizing data in Holíč

Data changes behavior, and displaying the efficiency of a robot has meant its uptime has increased. "It becomes a game," says Wrona. "People do what is necessary to make the bar rise."

Another good example is the visualization of actual operating time versus the target. "We managed to access data from our time registration system," says Wrona, "and we added some easy-to-understand visualization capability to the system’s built-in functionality." Data in the form of graphs is made available to assemblers so they can monitor their performance in real time. "Production planners, sales people, and process engineers make very good use of visualized data. It removes opinion from the equation and helps us know that we're making good decisions."

6. How data affects culture

Data is also great for what Wrona calls "small kaizen things." Getting workers to apply 5S techniques has never been easy. "People have other priorities and it just doesn't happen. But we know that many small improvements made frequently are effective, and we know production people know best how to arrange their working environment. As leaders, we've got to make sure they have the time and tools to do it, and of course monitor progress.”

So Fortaco developed a smartphone app where the production cell leaders make a 'before' photo and add a short description of the change to be made. After the improvement, a second photo is made that documents the change. The app also provides statistics about progress made by individuals to help them achieve annual targets.

The result has been that everyone can see who made 20 improvements and who made three. "The app has helped us to form habits and make real improvements,” says Wrona. “If you have 25 improvements per year with 10 line managers, that's 250 improvements in the Kurikka factory." And not only Kurikka. The app has proved so useful that it's being rolled out across other Fortaco factories. 

Where data will take us

Currently, Fortaco is using data to make its production more predictable, which translates directly to better quality and reliability. Its dedicated digitalization team of five, part of the operational excellence group, is committed to make a digital shadow of manufacturing for better, fact-based management, and eventually use intelligent analytics tools to further improve performance.

In the future, Wrona envisions full traceability with a quality check embedded in a system based on real-time data. Fortaco products will carry unique QR codes, the code redirecting the user to a web-based system where relevant information is present. “We’ll have raw material and components certificates, and operator traceability,” says Wrona, “and information about quality inspection, and test results.”

There'll be assistance for production, as well. Operators will be guided with instructions for operational sequence and production stage information. Quality testing instructions will be there, too, the results of which may be inserted directly into the same system as a form of data (no pen and paper required).

Given the pace of technology's development, long-term benefits are harder to predict. In the not-too-distant future, Wrona is excited about data that today appears disconnected, data the human brain can't process. “There are already tools available that can analyze data we collect in multiple configurations and return results a human being could never see,” he says. “It’s all about the amount of data and processing capacity. But the technology is already there.”

In all cases, the embrace of digital will mean that Fortaco will be a dominant player in the off-highway industry. "If you don't go digital you'll be out of the game," he says. "Nokia didn't believe in smart phones. Kodak didn't believe in digital photography. Fortaco is a premium supplier and we've got to make sure we offer a lot more than steel and a hammer."