Press release

Picanol puts Industry4.0 principles into practice with the Operator Info project


The manufacturer of high-tech weaving machines uses digital technology to support operators by providing customized work instructions for both assembly activities and the final inspection. This allows new modules or adaptations of old systems to be more rapidly deployed. In a broader sense, it offers an efficient way to handle specific customer needs.

During the Operator Info pilot project at Picanol, the operators used a tablet with step-by-step work instructions, enhanced with explanatory pictures. It’s a handy aid for the construction of the special weaving machines with extra modules and options.


An internationally known company on the scale of Picanol needs little introduction. The company designs and manufactures advanced weaving machines and that’s been its core business since 1936. In the course of those 80 years, this Belgian machine manufacturer has installed more than 175,000 weaving machines for customers in virtually every corner of the world. Picanol is a part of the Picanol Group, which is made up of two other entities, Proferro and PsiControl. Proferro supplies cast iron parts for the weaving machines, while PsiControl is specialized in the development of controls, HMIs and other electronics-related software solutions. It is a clear strategy for keeping close to the source of developments in all the key areas, thus building knowledge that can fuel the continuous improvement of both product and production, since the data derived from the interchange between both of these aspects is what drives the company to take steps forward.

“We are intentionally not making a choice,” says Geert Ostyn, vice-president Weaving Machines at Picanol, on the subject. “By doing everything ourselves, both in terms of the product and production, at least when it comes to what we call core competencies, we can become smarter and therefore better. Industry 4.0 plays a leading role in this process because technology helps us to make better use of this data.”


Geert Ostyn, VP Weaving Machines Picanol: “Whereas in the past, each new request from a customer would be ‘a disruption’ in the production flow, today, we can turn that variability itself into an asset.”

“At Picanol, we consider Industry 4.0 to be a compelling development that one has little choice but to follow.” Geert Ostyn is categorical: “Perhaps the timing is still somewhat debatable, but not the transition itself. As a company, you have to get on board, if you want to still be around tomorrow.” He immediately explains why.


“The customers’ demands and needs are becoming more specific. Digital technology makes it possible to efficiently respond to them.” In other words, we are evolving towards a type of mass production that will increasingly need to be capable of incorporating product variation and, in some cases, even customized work, in the production process without causing the costs to rise (excessively).

This is accompanied by a new vision of manufacturing that is radically at odds with the way much of Western industry currently still works today. In the classic 3.0 models, geared towards automation, the idea is to take a small number of standard products that are then manufactured in large quantities. This enables the costs to be kept down. With regard to planning and product configurations, wherever possible everything is determined in advance. That is going to have to change completely.

“While in the past, every new customer request would disrupt the production flow, so to speak, now, in the age of Industry 4.0, we can turn that variability itself into an asset. It is the intersection of mass production and the one-off product,” says Geert Ostyn. “Digital technology has a facilitating role to play here by providing the right information at the right time. Only in this way will we be able to wait until the last minute to implement whatever is optional.”


The employer is now faced with a new question: How can we use technology to provide maximum support for people? “This question concerns physical as well as informational support,” notes Geert Ostyn. “By using cobots and balancers (smart lifting devices) we can lighten the workload for the operators. In terms of information, I am thinking, for example, of augmented reality glasses that add virtual information to reality or offer real-time info at the right time that is customized for the operator.”


Pieter Vandenbroucke, project manager Operator Info (Picanol): “During the final inspection, the serial number of the machine is scanned, which causes a checklist of features to appear.”

This catching-up process has been going on for some time now, as evidenced by the Operator Info project that Flanders Make launched and is coordinating together with a number of companies, integrators (Movilitas, Proceedix and One Two) and the knowledge institutes VUB and UGent as partners.

A little background on the project. In addition to the traditional air-jet and rapier weaving machines, there is growing demand at Picanol for niche machines, meaning specials with extra modules and options. Although the basis for this type of machine will still be manufactured on the main assembly line, for the extra modular elements, the frame will then be passed on to a special purpose-built zone.

Pieter Vandenbroucke, who is in charge of the project at Picanol, explains that in the past, operators sometimes had to summon information from deep in their memory banks: “A characteristic of this separate assembly zone is the large variety of configurations. On top of that, quite a few of these modules are used too rarely to remain fresh in the minds and routines of the operators. Certainly for those cases, the operators will always need to refer to a complex plan, and that costs them time.” The Operator Info project needed to simplify that process by providing custom configured, step-by-step work instructions, accompanied by explanatory images.


The main goal was thus to be able to provide better support to the operator through clearer work instructions. But beyond that, Picanol had a number of remarkable requirements. On one hand, in most companies, the data from the shop floor is not yet connected with the ERP system, or at best, only with the middleware software (MES), on the other hand, the operator information (work instructions, order information, process monitoring, …) is not yet connected with the company network. That is often done using PDFs and/or Excel output.

The result is that the information is highly static and not bidirectional. That was the problem that the project aimed to address, by connecting the operators with the company network, via wearables and tablets. Moreover, the information received by the operator would not only need to be completely in sync with other order (line) data sent from MES, but also the operator data (comments, process monitoring results, …) should be logged in the generic databases of the company network. In summary: Picanol expected a feedback loop to be built in.

A second general requirement had to do with customizing the work instructions. Picanol wanted that information to be tailored according to errors that the operator had made in the past, the operator’s preferences and knowledge, and also the best practices of predecessors. In this way, an experienced operator would receive few instructions – although he would still have the option of requesting more instructions – while a less experienced operator would be automatically offered the full set of instructions. This was achieved by using the same recommender filtering techniques as are commonly used in e-commerce.


Instructions – adapted to the operator – appear on the tablet or smartphone. In this special assembly zone, the team of nine operators has two tablets (two different sizes) and one smartphone for consulting the digital instructions. It is possible to connect this to a TV screen. Before the instructions are sent out to the operator in tailored form, there is a chain of events that precedes it. Everything starts with filling in a questionnaire in which the customer indicates which extra modules he would like to have. This questionnaire is also used as a basis for the parts list. The planning is retrieved from the ERP system and all of it is sent through a competency matrix: for example, the method engineer can assign a competency level to the instruction cards. On the basis of this and other information, the appropriate instructions for an operator with a certain level of competency will be selected.

This filtering process takes place completely within the software from Movilitas and the outcome is then directly delivered to Proceedix, which in turn ensures that the output is sent to a smart device. Since each operator has a personal login, the system knows who is using the tablet, and once the serial number is scanned, configured instructions (with lots of photos) can be retrieved. Because this scanning method often results in a long list of step-by-step instructions, the user can also opt for a sort of shortcut. The operator scans the code of a subset made up of multiple components, a motor, for example. The operator would then get a display of the instructions for how to put together that motor. A QR code with the related photo will be hung next to the parts that are used for this subset. Meanwhile, a log is kept of what has happened, the much-vaunted feedback loop, which is important so that the system can update the operator’s experience level. In addition, at each step from the list of instructions, each operator also has the option to add comments (see also, diagram).


The tablets are used both for the assembly and the final inspection. Everyone agrees that this personalized, visual way of working – because the steps are illustrated with lots of photos – offers nothing but benefits.

Pieter Vandenbroucke: “During the final inspection, the serial number of the machine is scanned, which calls up a checklist of features and options. It’s fast and clear, high-quality added value. The reporting, including all the measurement values, is sent to the Movilitas cloud. If an error is determined, the tablet can be used to take a photo or even a video for use during the team meeting afterwards. The inspector can also immediately launch a Skype conversation in order to decide what needs to be done. For assembly, the added value can be found more in the area of training and support. Instead of having to refer back to a plan, the operator instantly receives the instructions in digital form. The assembly of rare configurations will thus go much faster and updates to the modules can be inserted with much more flexibility. It’s simply a matter of a small adjustment to the instructions, a new photo, perhaps… In busy periods, a colleague from a different department can also easily lend a hand, because the instructions will provide step-by-step guidance with photos. Finally, this way of working also encourages a consistent work sequence. The only effort required for each new configuration is to draw up the procedure, but of course this only has to happen once.”


Industry 4.0 will bring a total revolution, a new way of thinking about production. But if you take the right approach to this change, the digital technology can serve not to replace people – as was the case in the phase of pure automation – but on the contrary, to support the operators in their work, so that their added value increases, especially when you can incorporate their experience via a feedback loop to constantly improve the process.

Source : Motion Control

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