Problem: Travel restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus forced a machine manufacturer to change how it installs equipment in its customers’ plants.
Solution: The OEM has used an online communications service to help customers set up equipment.
It’s not only plastics processors who have faced logistical challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Manufacturers of equipment have had to figure out how to install large and complex machinery they sell to customers in distant lands.
That was the case with GN Thermoforming, a manufacturer of servo-driven, roll-fed thermoforming machines used to produce plastic packaging. The company has approximately 1,700 machines installed in 75 countries. Many of those machines produce packaging for meat and other foods sold in grocery stores.
GN Thermoforming, based in Canada, is classified as an essential business. While that's allowed it to continue working during the pandemic, the company faced widespread travel restrictions that posed challenges for installing equipment at customers’ locations.
“A colleague of mine said the plastic packaging business is back on track due to the coronavirus,” said Marek Nikiforov, a global key account manager at GN Thermoforming Europe, who works in the company’s R&D center for new materials in Jihlava, Czech Republic. “Our customers are very busy. They are producing 50 percent more product during this crisis because customers are at home more often buying more food. People buy meat in our country like they buy toilet paper in the United States.”
The Jihlava facility includes a machine showroom and is the home base for machine installations in Europe and the Middle East.
When Georg Polymer, the largest Russian producer of rigid meat trays, bought a new GN760 at the beginning of the pandemic, it needed the machine installed quickly to meet growing demand in Eastern Europe.
“We supplied the machine to our customer in Russia, but we were told, if you fly there to install it, you cannot return,” Nikiforov said.
GN Thermoforming has seven technicians who install new equipment. Four are based in Canada and three are in Europe, according to Paul Phillips, sales and marketing manager.
“We had to think out-of-the-box and come up with a solution because our customer desperately needed the new capacity,” Phillips said.
Rather than postponing the installation indefinitely due to travel restrictions, the company decided to use WhatsApp Messenger, a freeware, cross-platform messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol service owned by Facebook. It allows users to send text messages and voice messages, make voice and video calls, and share images, documents, user locations and other information.
A GN technician remotely guided the Russian customer through the installation of the new GN760, an in-mold cut thermoforming machine. The installation, which normally takes three to four days onsite, took about a week to complete using the WhatsApp platform in March, Phillips said.
“Doing the installation remotely takes more time than it would in-person because communication is more difficult,” Phillips said. “You need to be able to see everything clearly, and that can be challenging. You also must be clear about what they are seeing and asking about. When you are trying to convey a lot of information to customers by phone or video, effective communications are difficult. When installing this equipment, you need to have the ability to test systems and check parallelism. Trying to explain what you are putting together is challenging. But the biggest challenge was the language difference.”
Georg Polymer faced some minor problems with wiring, but a video call with the GN Thermoforming technician resolved the issue. Despite challenges, the installation was successful, and the machine is now producing 240,000 meat trays a day.
The customer’s broad mechanical experience with this type of machine and high-speed internet connections helped make the installation successful, Phillips said. Georg Polymer, which produced more than 350 million meat trays last year, operates two other GN760s and three GN1914DM thermoforming machines. Operator training was minimal after the installation due to the customer’s experience with GN Thermoforming equipment.
“We assured them we will do a follow-up visit in person later on, which is part of the machine sale,” Phillips said. “We are trying to give them additional support as needed rather than worry about the cost. This is not easy for all our customers.”
Since its first online installation in Russia, GN Thermoforming has done several others, including one in the central U.S., using WhatsApp. It will continue to offer the remote installation option.
“It goes back to the comfort level of customers,” Phillips said. “Most of our sales are to customers who have some type of GN machine. In the U.S. installation, it was their third machine, so not much training was needed after the install. We have a newer customer in Ontario, so it will take more time to do the training. How we install our machines and train people in the future will vary by the customer. Each will need to move at their own pace.”
GN Thermoforming took advantage of the pause in travel and the business disruption caused by COVID-19 to improve its online training materials.
“This has allowed us to beef up our online support through videos, pre-installation manuals and booklets,” Phillips said. “This gives us more flexibility to meet customer needs.”
“COVID-19 brought changes to our working life,” Nikiforov said. “When our technicians were not traveling, we started to make videos to incorporate into the training. Many of our customers in the Middle East and Russia lost some of their technically trained skilled people who moved on to work for other companies. We started to make training videos to help them train new workers.”
Bruce Adams, senior staff reporter
For more information:
Contact: GN Thermoforming Equipment, Chester, Nova Scotia, 902-275-3571, www.gncanada.com