"We like to dream about an idea and then think about it, but not for long: you don't need to know every detail before you start. Think for a while, and then start doing something. The experience of taking action enhances your thoughts and improves your vision." With this hands-on approach, chemical engineer Robert Bouwman started his business with mechanical engineer Randy Appiah. The two identified a clear gap in the production lines of factories, namely the tool needed to make the jobs of workers easier, more efficient, and - why not - more fun and meaningful. Meet EZ Factory.
A shared view for turning issues into solutions
Both Robert and Randy had worked as Continuous Improvement Specialists, helping factories improve their working ways. Robert, as a consultant running his own business and Randy for a large Dutch dairy company. When they met, their mutual vision to facilitate the routine functions of frontline workers was an instant match. In factories, quality defects or technical issues are not unusual. "What we see is that people are eager to fix problems in order to deliver products on time in full. It stands to reason that it would be better to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place," Robert explains.
The checklists, work instructions, tasks, and audits in a factory environment are a challenge. According to Robert, "the amount of paper forms required in the production process or stored in cabinets is huge, and it's hard for people to keep track and overview all that information." He draws the comparison: "You have to maintain machines, just like your car. You have to clean, you have to inspect several things, you have to adjust items. If you don't, your safety, driving comfort, and fuel economy are dangerously compromised."
The numbers, though, can be overwhelming. About 5,000 to 7,000 of these so-called first-line maintenance tasks are performed weekly in average size factories. Paper systems are not the optimal choice to keep track of all this information. Another issue is that newcomers receive only limited training, which may lead to safety risks and downtime of machines. Besides, many foreign workers have excellent technical skills, but not everyone masters the local language. That's why it is essential that factory workers know what to do, when, where, and how to do it, in such a way that everyone can understand: in other words, having the benefit of visualization.
From dream to reality in no time
The duo concluded that the big whiteboards and complex Excel sheets that factories currently use are not very helpful to the workers. Hence the idea to use a contemporary approach: a digital platform to visualize the work on tablets. They started drawing sketches of iPad screens, envisioning the app and its functionalities. Then they organized software developers to build the application.
Photo credits: Silicon Canals
After two months, they had a click model: a prototype that mimics the application by showing its screens and estimating its performance. "We showed it to a potential customer, and they were very enthusiastic," Robert says. A few months later, the app was launched by this customer who, three years later, is still working with the product today and is very satisfied with the application. Robert and Randy have direct contact with their customers, listening to their needs, and aiming to resolve those through new functionalities or designs. The team has five developers, a CTO, and marketing personnel.
Safer, simpler, and more efficient: a factory line with EZ Factory
EZ Factory organizes all first-line maintenance tasks visually and intuitively. As Robert exemplifies: "Imagine you, and I are the two operators at line 3, and out of those thousands of tasks that need to be done every week, we only have nine tasks to do during our morning shift. These are visualized by pictures and videos. If I've done one of those tasks, I simply press thumbs-up, and it's recorded that I have finished it. The next task may be done by you, who might press thumbs down because you noticed a deviation or something off standard. You type in what's wrong; you take a picture of the problem and propose a preventative solution. So you don't just fix problems: you also try to prevent them from recurring."
The gain for those who work with the system is a more predictable operation through having fewer issues and a clear overview of the activities. The workers have the assignments planned for them, scheduled with recurrence patterns, reminders, and clear instructions of the expected results. The shift leaders have oversight and know what requires their attention to keep the production line safe and efficient. Besides, they have the assignments planned for them, scheduled with recurrence patterns, reminders, and clear instructions of the expected results.
Ownership and simplicity are key
The customers upload the content to the app, not the EZ Factory consultants, thereby enabling shop floor workers to gain ownership of their work. According to Robert, the professional factory workers enjoy populating the app for their own needs: "One person is uploading the cleaning standard of the machine, while the other is taking pictures, or making videos of the procedure. And it's fun to do. When they upload the content, they immediately see the result on the tablet. It is stimulating to organize your work in such a visual way."
Robert mentions that these professionals are very proud of their work, but they lack opportunities to showcase their skills and talents. As such, older professionals enjoy the application just as much as the younger generation: it is a way to leave a legacy by way of sharing their knowledge and experience. EZ Factory's solution is tailored for the end-user. As Robert says, the workers prefer to work with straightforward, uncomplicated interfaces. "Sometimes we like to say that our technology is simplicity. I think that is why we get high user scores." The app ensures that all the material is stored in the cloud and protected according to industry standards, so the data is kept safe for an unlimited number of years.
Award-winning and human-driven application
In 2019, Co-CEOs Robert and Randy discovered the High Tech Campus. In their search for an office, they sensed a good environment with the other start-ups and admired the Campus's strong community. For Robert, one great asset of HTCE is that "you can get connected with other companies. And Eindhoven is a good fishing pond for software developers."
EZ Factory won the Gerard & Anton (Philips) Award 2020. Organized by Innovation Origins, the award acknowledges the most promising Brainport region start-ups. Becoming the standard solution for factory workers is what Robert envisions for EZ Factory. And more: "I would love it if our app put a smile on the faces of the men and women who produce our daily needs."
He believes that these professionals are often not valued for the critical work they perform: "You don't want your children to bite on a metal object in their cookie, for example. Yet we just take for granted that all products are safe. However, many steps have to be taken to keep them safe." Seeing EZ Factory having a positive impact on workers' routines and on the performance of the companies that employ them is their primary goal.
If you would like to know more about EZ Factory, located at HTC 9, check out their website.