For example, Krones was able to move much of its communication with customers into the virtual realm, using video conferencing instead of conference rooms, remote service support instead of hands on the machine, and webinars instead of in-person training. Of course, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. The necessary communication channels and technology were already available, but there was a lot of untapped potential that we have since to put to use. And although the ‘how’ has changed, the ‘who’ remains the same: the same team members are still available to discuss contract details, clarify technical questions, or work together to fine-tune machines. The following relates five examples of how we are able to successfully implement projects despite the exceptional circumstances.
Lockdowns, travel restrictions, physical distancing – a year ago, few would have imagined what the “new normal” would look like in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has the entire world in suspense. But there’s no time to stand still, certainly not in an essential sector such as the food and beverage industry. And so, instead of stopping us in our tracks, the crisis has inspired an unparalleled drive to find new ways of working together, from a distance.
1. The bid, the contract award, and order clarification
“The Sady Pridonia Group in Russia produces fruit juices, baby food, and non-dairy milk products. Currently, nearly all of their products are packaged in cartons. However, for its new oat milk line Sady Pridonia contacted Krones for the first time – and learned of Milkron. That gave us an opportunity to submit a bid for the entire processing part of the line. Because of travel restrictions and the strict lockdown in Russia, we had to rely on Microsoft Teams as our main communication tool for the technical discussions. We at Milkron had many virtual meetings with the decision-makers at Sady Pridonia as well as Krones sales representatives in Germany and Russia.
This was the first time I had personally done the entire process, from the initial contact to contract signing, without a single face-to-face meeting. So I’m really pleased that it worked so well! Of course, we had a lot of intensive meetings – as many as four a week in March. But unlike in-person negotiations, which usually last all day, these virtual meetings were only one or two hours each. Sady Pridonia brought clear expectations to the table. And thanks to the high frequency of relatively brief meetings, we were able to clarify questions internally before the next meeting and quickly show what was realistically possible. Through these meetings, we got to know each other quite well and ultimately achieved the same outcome that we would have had if we’d all been sitting at the same table.
I think the good relationship we built also gave the customer confidence in us. In April, Sady Pridonia awarded the contract for the entire process technology to Milkron. Right now, we are busy working on the detail engineering and developing the software. We need to deliver all of the components, including Evoguard valves and an HST homogenizer, to Russia by the end of November. Installation will be handled by the customer – but of course we’ll have Milkron supervisors on site as well.”
2. The Factory Acceptance Test
“Last year, Refresco placed four orders with Krones for various plants in North America. This summer, it was time to do the Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) for a blow-molder-filler block from one of those orders. Travel restrictions made it impossible for Refresco’s project team to travel from Florida to Neutraubling for the test. Knowing this, we got an early start on developing a Plan B – a remote FAT. We quickly realized that a remote FAT couldn’t be the same as a live test with everyone on site at Krones’ plant. So, we used the live FAT agenda as a basis and developed a unique schedule for the virtual FAT. Refresco provided a prioritized list of the topics and indicators most important to them, and we verified whether the requested items could be covered in a video conference. In the end, we scheduled two days for the remote FAT, with three hours for each machine.
The main tool we used – besides the blow-molder and filler, of course – was Microsoft Teams. Krones’ sales team and product specialists dialed in to the video call, as did various representatives from the customer’s side. The number of participants varied depending on the topic at hand. Overall, though, far more people were able to participate than would have travelled to Neutraubling under normal circumstances. To give the team in Tampa, Florida, a live look at the machines in Neutraubling, the respective product specialist and I, as project manager, were each equipped with a cell phone, a gimbal, and a microphone. Those tools enabled us to walk Refresco’s representatives through their machine, demonstrate test runs on a variety of container sizes and speeds, and answer technical questions. Since processes like molding cavity changeovers would have exceeded the time allotted for the meeting, we ran those sequences ahead of time, recorded them with a GoPro camera, and made the video available to Refresco.
Since that first virtual FAT, we have been able to run several remote FATs per week at Krones, for all of our machines. And the feedback has been consistently positive. For me, close coordination and good preparation are essential. Expectations and key topics absolutely must be clarified in advance so that we can set up an agenda that meets our customers’ expectations and fits reasonably into the online framework. When we do a remote FAT, the customer is placing a lot of trust in us. Instead of spending two or three days physically at the machine, they only get a brief look at it via video chat. But they trust that we will deliver the same quality they have come to expect from Krones.”
3. The commissioning
“Balter Brewing Company is an Australian craft brewery that has recently experienced tremendous growth. In order to meet the demand for its beer, Balter ordered a 50-hectoliter brewhouse from Krones for up to ten brews per day as well as a complete package of cellar equipment and a CIP system, which will also clean the Craftmate that has been in operation since 2018. Installation was handled by a local company. In April, the brewery was ready for commissioning. Under normal circumstances, we would always send a team from Europe to do the commissioning. But that wasn’t possible due to current entry restrictions.
First, we tried to get an exception for one of our European team members to be allowed to travel to Australia but were unsuccessful. We all knew this: if Balter was going to meet its production needs for this year, we had to act quickly. And so, together we decided to manage the commissioning remotely from Freising, Germany. Of course, we still needed help on site. And this is where the strength of the worldwide Krones family really came to shine. We were able to enlist the help of an Australian Krones service technician – an electrician whose specialty actually lies in bottling and packaging machinery. After completing a crash course on the Botec F1 control system, he was able to serve as an extended arm for his teammates in Freising. Balter also provided two experienced people: their own brewmaster and another brewmaster from within Australia’s CUB (Carlton & United Breweries) group, of which Balter is a member. The latter had already gained some good experience with Krones technology at the end of 2018, when a Steinecker CombiCube was commissioned in Adelaide. Together, the three formed the core team on site. They were guided online by two colleagues in Freising, who had initially intended to travel to Australia for the commissioning. One was a technology specialist, the other a software engineer.
And this motley crew did a fantastic job! They all took on the challenge readily – with no ifs, ands, or buts – and carried off the commissioning despite the unique circumstances. These extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Due to the 8-hour time difference, the team in Freising began their day in the middle of the night. But thanks to the videoconferencing function on Microsoft Teams, a VPN connection, and a lot of coffee, the remote commissioning went outstandingly well. The collaboration was so successful that the remote commissioning was completed ahead of schedule. The original target date was August, but it took less than four weeks from kickoff to the first brew! This accomplishment was possible thanks to the incredible flexibility and willingness of everyone involved to undertake this adventure. It was an excellent team effort on the part of Balter and Krones alike. As a result, we were able to overcome all obstacles and get the additional brewing capacity Balter so urgently needed up and running.”
“Since we couldn’t travel to our customers or meet with them at trade fairs this year, we decided to use virtual means to share information with them about current topics in the world of digitalization at Krones. To this end, we launched a webinar series and invited our customers from around the world. Registration was simple, through the Syskron website – and demand was tremendous: more than 400 registrations demonstrated not only a high level of interest but also the great need for such solutions.
The first round kicked off in July, with the topic Share2Act Assistance. To accommodate the greatest number of participants, we offered five different dates: two for a presentation in German and three for English. Each hour-long webinar gave customers a look into the topic of digital maintenance and the Assistance System itself. The content was presented in part by either myself or one of my colleagues in Sales and in part by an expert from Syskron. Of course, participants had the opportunity to ask questions during the webinar or to schedule individual follow-up meetings to go deeper into the material.
The series continued in September, with webinars on preventing cyber attacks. The October webinar focused on line performance, and November was all about good production planning and how it can be used to optimize filling schedules, shorten changeover times, and ensure material availability. We intend to continue the webinar series in the future. Possible additional topics include effective order handling with Line Management or how Line Diagnostics can be used to analyze causes of disturbance and calculate performance indicators. We also plan to dedicate a webinar to explaining in detail how serialization solutions can be used to enable precise traceability of product batches.
I, personally, am excited about this format – as are our customers. There’s likely no easier, less complicated way to discuss specialized technical topics like this from the comfort of your desk and at the same time stay abreast of the latest new solutions and technology updates than through a one-hour webinar.”
“We Krones Academy trainers are always busy. We train groups from around the world in Neutraubling or on site at our customers’ plants nearly every week. But the coronavirus and travel restrictions put the kibosh on that. So, the Academy team immediately set to work developing alternatives to in-person training. We began offering online training in June.
Two electrical engineers from Irish Distillers were among my first ‘online students’. They had originally planned to take a course on container orientation in the labeler in Neutraubling. Instead, they each took a seat in front of their laptops in Ireland for two days. Thanks to Microsoft Teams, they nevertheless got the experience of being there live. To show the containers and bottle plates from a number of different perspectives, I mounted cameras on the training machine. I also used an alignment trestle to enable them to practice setting up their company’s original containers.
After explaining the theory, I demonstrated setting up a container on the training machine. Then it was the participants’ turn to have a go at the machine – virtually, at least. I acted as their extended arm, doing exactly as they directed me. Because I could ‘hand over’ the touch-screen controls to them via Teams, they were able to do those settings themselves. In this way, we managed to conduct the two-day online training with as much practical experience as possible. Irish Distillers were also pleased with this solution – so much so that they sent three more of their team members for a second, identical training in our virtual Academy in July.
To be frank, conducting a training course online is more challenging for me since I have to describe each individual step or hand movement in detail. But, given the circumstances and with the tools available, it works quite well. Topics that involve a lot of touch-screen settings are especially easy to cover online. Of course, online training can’t truly replace in-person training at the machine. But, at the same time, we’re not going to let travel restrictions stop us from offering our customers the training options they need. So, as long as the material can be reasonably covered online, we have made such virtual courses a permanent fixture in our training catalog.”