Open control systems, an independent approach to suppliers and the skill to design tailor-made solutions is helping J-Tec Material Handling leverage its growth throughout South-East Asia.
Just three years after the Belgium-owned company - a wholly-owned business unit of its parent company Katoen Natie - put down roots in Rayong, Thailand they are driving growth across SEA as a process engineering partner to clients in the food and chemical industry.
“Part of our business plan focused on the possible synergies with Katoen Natie who have been in Thailand (and Asia) for more than 20 years,” said Arnaud Nelissen Grade, Sales Director Asia at J-Tec Material Handling.
“Aligning ourselves with Katoen Natie allows us to share resources like IT and HR more efficiently. But more importantly, it has resulted in a closer cooperation between the existing business units here which now makes our group quite unique in the region in terms of what we can offer to our clients.
“We were also attracted to Thailand because it is a big market with a lot of investments going on in the food and the chemical industry. On top of that, J-Tec previously had some success with significant projects in Thailand - so we felt that we could easily build on those to gain momentum.”
For more than five decades, J-Tec has focused on its customer-centric approach and has retained its competitive edge in handling solids and liquids due to the fact it is totally supplier independent and offers clients open control systems moving away from the more standardised approach of most of their competitors.
“This means we can guarantee a customised solution for every challenge,” said Nelissen Grade who bridges the gap between Europe and Asia as he spearheads the rapid growth in the region.
Speaking from J-Tec’s Asian headquarters in Rayong, he said: “We don’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach; instead we listen to the client and use our in-house knowledge and tools to develop a tailored solution for their project.
“J-Tec acts as a partner during the complete process: from the conceptual design, on through detailed engineering, procurement and manufacturing, up until installation and commissioning, and if required training and maintenance.”
He pointed out the open control systems mean clients are not ‘handcuffed’ to J-Tec if they want to extend the factory or system in the future. “Instead, we believe in delivering quality and that keeping this promise means J-Tec will hopefully be involved again in the future” he said.
Independence from suppliers is one of J-Tec’s key differentiators. “If we look back 50 years, J-Tec started as a representative of certain brands of component manufacturers. Over the years the projects became more complex and we evolved towards an engineering company,” commented Nelissen Grade.
“We knew our competitors and at that time, we made a very clear decision to start designing our own systems and become completely supplier independent in order to offer that additional flexibility.
“Today, in contrast with many of our competitors, we don't produce our own equipment. Most of the equipment in our systems are purchased from third parties, OEM for standard equipment and independent manufacturers for custom-made equipment that we design ourselves, but is then manufactured by these third parties.
“The way we make a difference is by leveraging this strategy. We always focus on finding the real optimal process design for any given application, which will then define which original equipment manufacturer (OEM) equipment we will source and where to source it. If it doesn't exist or if it needs to be custom made, we will design it and have it fabricated, typically in the region where the project is located.”
J-Tec is a company member of EHEDG The European hygienic engineering & design group.
“We are involved in several relevant associations related to our industry, the most important one being EHEDG. J-Tec is an active, contributing member of EHEDG and has been assisting in the development of the industry standards with regards to hygienic design for Dry Material Handling for more than 10 years now. Such collaborations help us stay up-to-date and highly relevant in what we do.”
One way in which J-Tec is turning to technology to give them a competitive edge is offering customers a virtual tour of a proposed factory development. “By using the power of Virtual Reality (VR) we are able to elevate a factory design from a flat plan to a three dimensional experience,” said Nelissen Grade.
“It enables us to show the customer and let them discover their future factory before it's even built which also helps us in the design of our systems. If our engineers and our customers can walk around a realistic 3D representation of the plant, we can discover potential problems, find alternative solutions and adjust the design much faster and more efficiently which benefits both J-Tec and its customers.
“A small thing like being able to visualise their factory also adds an element of wonder for the customer,” he said.
Commenting on J-Tec’s digital transformation to Industry 4.0, Nelissen Grade said: “Like many companies, we have an Industry “4.0” plan that is being rolled out to improve and expand our services during and after projects.
“We are developing several technologies involving the use of big data related to the systems we build. This can, in turn, lead to remote monitoring of certain metrics and KPIs, preventive maintenance and the further expansion of our internal know-how on how to design the best possible systems with optimal performance using realistic process simulations.
“Furthermore, we have accelerated our remote assistance program, finding ways to support our global customers without needing to be physically present, for example using AR, which has become highly relevant due to the pandemic.”
Future technology trends
“For our industry specifically, we do believe and invest in big data and remote assistance and see this as a trend across several industries,” said Nelissen Grade.
“Also, hygienic design, contamination prevention… are big trends and we are continuously developing solutions for our clients in this regard, particularly in infant nutrition.
“Lastly, automation is gaining momentum even in countries with a lower labour cost. Automation has many advantages such as a higher efficiency and accuracy, improved working conditions… but especially in these COVID times, it limits the required manpower needed in factories and prevents contamination to a large extent.”
Nelissen Grade helped spearhead the original business plan on the value of J-Tec moving into the Asia market. “The ultimate goal was to set up an entity in Thailand that acts as a regional headquarters. We will take the lead from here for our further expansion in the region. In terms of growth we just got started, but we've already exceeded most company targets and expectations that we set up three years ago.
“One of the targets we had was to grow a local team to perform key client-oriented activities like Sales and Project Management more locally. And so we grew from a full-time equivalent of two to about 13 people permanently based in the office in Thailand in just three years. We are still actively hiring but with the mindset that we have only got started, so we are slowly building the foundation of a durable business.
“We have all the experience and all the competencies in-house at J-Tec but we just need to keep working on how to effectively apply that experience and competencies in Asia without really rushing it. There's no point coming to Asia just to be in Asia, we need to do it right. That is what we are focusing on right now.”
Partnership with Statec Binder
Although we don’t have fixed partnership agreements with any supplier – one of our core strategies – we do have a list of preferred OEM that we tend to work with. This follows a rigorous supplier selection process to make sure that our approved suppliers can support us and our customers in the best possible way.
One of J-Tec’s preferred suppliers is Statec Binder who offer high-performance packaging systems for open-mouth bags, FFS machines and related palletising and bagging systems used in a wide variety of industries for packing different products worldwide.
“When it comes to highly advanced packaging systems, we have worked with Statec Binder on various occasions worldwide. They share a lot of our values such as an impeccable service and a high quality and performance level. I hope that the global partnership can continue for many years to come.
4 advantages of J-Tec’s open control systems
J-Tec’s open control systems is just one of the key differentiators setting them apart from most of their competitors. Nelissen Grade explains the main reasons why this gives the company such an advantage.
“The first is flexibility - which is something we're proud of because we are independent. We are flexible in selecting equipment and in the same way, we want to make sure that that flexibility is translated into the control system. More often than not, our main competitors have more standardized control systems that are not very flexible, based on their own equipment. J-Tec is different in that we also have limited standards that guide us, but every system is completely custom made based on specific needs of the project. This results in a more lean control system with smaller and cheaper hardware.
“Number two is that our systems are “open”. We are not like some of our competitors who design “black box” type systems which means the client needs their intervention if they want to expand. We had an example of this when one of our key accounts in Indonesia actually contacted us. They wanted us to do an expansion to their factory, but in the end, they were forced to go back to the previous supplier because the control system was locked which would be very costly to change. Instead, we offer open and transparent control systems using building blocks that are then ‘assembled’ based on the process design. The blocks themselves may be protected, but the program itself is open-source and can be accessed by our clients directly.
“Number three is the fact that our independence from suppliers means that we work with a large variety of different suppliers from all over the world. As a result, our experts have gained quite a significant understanding of how to control the variety of equipment. They often have a better understanding of how to control certain equipment as part of a broader system than the actual manufacturer of that equipment. This means that they can correctly use the specific characteristics of each equipment to optimise the performance through automation. And since these programmers are actually involved during commissioning on site, this greatly improves the efficiency, expedites commissioning and avoids all the hassle of finding bugs that would happen when using third-party programmers.”
“Finally, we are able to design a fully comprehensive control system involving all aspects of the production line, even for equipment that normally comes with its own control software. We can use our experience and know-how in using many different systems to program software for that equipment and integrate this in a single control system. As an example, whether the extruder itself is part of our scope or not, we can integrate it in a single SCADA system, avoiding the need for communication between various control systems from various suppliers.”
“In the same way Steve jobs did with Apple - controlling the product design from end to end: hardware and software - we are doing exactly the same with our control systems.”
“All these things means that we are very good at designing and offering control systems that are lean and simple - a single control system for the entire process, regardless of whether the equipment in that process is supplied by J-Tec or not.