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Machines versus people

“Where on earth have I ended up?” A bemused Rob van der Wijst takes a look around the production facility, a compact space where three machines are installed. Or, more precisely, two and a half machines, as the flow packer he’s been hired to operate is not working properly, and there are parts of the machine lying around everywhere. “It’s been breaking down a lot and we had a look inside to locate the problem”, Arno and Hans had explained to him just before. But they never mentioned that they stripped down half the machine...

 

Yet Rob – a 21-year-old recent technical college graduate – doesn’t let any of that deter him and gets down to work anyway, becoming the first mechanic on the Vetipak payroll in mid-1997. He goes online to find a manual for the Omori SJ 500 flow packer, which is manufactured in China. As Arno is going over some paperwork in the office and Hans lights up another cigar, Rob starts collecting the sensors and other machine parts his two trailblazing bosses had carefully arranged across the floor.

 

Luckily – as he learns from studying the online manuals and doing his own analysis – the machine is not defective after all, and the incident reports can all be explained. Rob recalibrates the machine to its original operating conditions, reconfigures the settings, and reports back to Hans and Arno. He’s just finished his first job as a Vetipak employee!

 

Rob, who is currently 46 years old and heads up the Technical Support department: “I still remember that machine well. It was a pretty complex piece of technology, but once you bothered to take a look under the hood, so to speak, you’d find that it could do almost anything: calculate the input speed of products, set the pitch of the gatherer chain, and so on... We didn’t discover many of those features until many years later, including the ‘no product, no bag’ feature, where the sensor would stop running as soon as it detected a foil bag with no contents. So, it was an excellent machine overall, which we ended up using for many years.”

 

 

Trailblazing

Rob looks back fondly on that very first job: “It just shows you how much has changed, how differently we used to deal with technology. Arno and Hans were straight-up technical trailblazers who were adventurous and eager to try out all kinds of new things. I remember that one day they bought a Twin-UWA, which is a vertical trans-wrap machine: a fairly basic machine that’s used for filling pillow packs and pouches. They figured: ‘If we split the machine into two functions and add separate operations, we can process two different bag sizes instead of just one.’ So that’s what they set out to do – and successfully too, as that machine from back then is still running today. You could say it’s a precursor of sorts to the trans wraps we use nowadays.”

 

“Arno and Hans were straight-up technical trailblazers
who were adventurous and eager to try out
all kinds of new things”

 

Visible enjoyment

It’s clear that Rob is enjoying this trip down memory lane, and he draws comparisons between the technologies we had back then and those used today. “One day we were packing dog chews into boxes. The thing was, they had to be cheese-scented, so we added a paint roller containing liquid aroma that smelled like cheese and would be swiped across all the chews before they were packaged into flow packs. It’s a good example of an operation for which we would have come up with a manual solution back in the day and which is carried out by robots today. We’ve certainly seen a lot of changes in terms of technology.”

 

 

Dynamic and challenging

Rob feels it’s those technological advances that still make the business dynamic and challenging after 25 years. “It’s a combination of that and the freedom we enjoy as mechanics. It’s never an issue if one of us wants to leave work an hour early, because we know we’ll all be right there to pull our weight if needed. And the system really does work. Sure, the work environment has changed quite a bit in those 25 years, but that’s inevitable. We still have a pretty easy-going and friendly atmosphere, so that hasn’t changed. Although we all understand the importance of IT, at the end of the day it’s still the people working on the assembly line that give the place its character.”

 

“Although we all understand the importance of IT,
at the end of the day it’s still the people working on the assembly line
that give the place its character.”

 

Talented techies

Rob did not necessarily always expect Vetipak to grow into the company it is today. “I never doubted we’d be successful, because it was very clear that Arno and Hans were talented techies who had a great work ethic and never turned down a job. But when we relocated to the Landweerstraat-Zuid site, that was such a massive upgrade that I believed we’d got as far as we could. And just look at us now... We haven’t even reached our limit yet – I think the company will just keep on growing.”

 

Variety is the spice of life...

Rob is still as happy as ever in his job. He’s become even more of a jack-of-all-trades over the years, as he’s responsible not only for technical maintenance, but also, for example, for maintenance scheduling and dispatching his co-workers in the Technical Support department to various jobs. “So as you can see, I don’t spend entire days lying under machines anymore”, he laughs. “But I happen to enjoy that kind of variety on the job. I can’t say I never looked elsewhere over the years, but I always said: enjoying yourself is the most important thing. And I do still enjoy myself – every single day.”

 

To be continued in the next blog of this Anniversary Series