Article - Smart robotics, Smart people
In 1983, when Arie Kranendonk built his first automation solutions for regional companies from a garage in Ingen, he could never have imagined that the company would develop into a significant international player in the field of automated robotic systems for the shipbuilding industry.
Text: Rein de Ruiter. Photos: Roy Versteeg
KRANENDONK - Smart Robotics is relatively unknown in Tiel, where the company moved into a brand new head office on the Biezenwei at Medel last year. But the Dutch manufacturer plays a leading role within the worldwide maritime and offshore industries.
The new head office in Tiel.
Visitors to KRANENDONK - Smart Robotics in Tiel know what the company is all about the moment they step through the door. Standing prominently in the entrance hall is the very first robot that Kranendonk ever used in a system. This machine marked the start of the company's history. Fueled by software developed in-house, robots cut and weld steel in a fully-automated process for the shipbuilding sector, but also for pipelines in large offshore projects, bridges and sports stadiums. Robots are traditionally deployed in repetitive production tasks, but the Kranendonk philosophy is completely the other way around: the automation of non-repetitive production through the application of smart robotics.
The company's marketing manager, Sander Voerman, laughs as he forgives you for never having heard of Kranendonk. "The Netherlands is a relatively small player in this niche market. No less than 90 percent of our products are currently exported abroad. Approximately 60 percent of all our work is destined for the shipbuilding sector, and if we add to that the offshore assignments then that accounts for four-fifths of our production. Complementing these activities are the company's structural steel construction solutions. We deliver not only the high-tech robots and the accompanying software, but we also help designing the complete factory lay-out for the client."
Since the shipbuilding relationship is traditionally so strong, KRANENDONK rubs shoulders with a number of clients in this sector through its offices abroad. Alongside a number of sales and service outlets in Singapore, Japan, China and most recently the United States, KRANENDONK - Smart Robotics also has a site in Denmark where much of the complex software is developed. But head office is and remains Dutch, confirms Voerman. Approximately 60 staff are employed in Tiel at the moment - predominantly highly-educated engineers - and the company is an important engine for employment in the 'Rivierenland' area.
Arie Kranendonk (middle) and the deputy mayor of Tiel (right) opening the new head office.
KRANENDONK supplies fully-automated welding lines, primarily for the maritime sector, as well as cutting lines for the offshore and steel industries. For somebody not in the steel business, a visit to the enormous self-contained factory is an eye-opener. Numerous smart robots are assembled by specialists and carry out their assignments within gantries towering metres into the air. The machines look as if they are big, but need to be produced as compactly as possible. Manufacturing the double bottoms or hulls of ships is not easy, small spaces and complex construction demands a certain compactness. Voerman: "We produce everything according to precise customer requirements, or 'tailor made' as it is called nowadays.
In the factory, the robot welds or cuts every component exactly as the client requires. We often make one-time, unique constructions because our work here is fully tailor made. We make use of basic concepts that have stood the test of time and adapt them to customer requirements. Take automation of the robot's programme, for example. Our customers deliver so-called 3D-cad models to us that we can subsequently read into our own RinasWeld software, saving us hours of work-preparation processes. We are not welders; we are automation specialists. The customer has the welding know-how and understands the fine-tuning, but we fix everything else here in Tiel."
On our own premises
The often enormous machines are assembled and tested extensively in Tiel. This has its benefits, because each and every deviation is spotted in Tiel already and can be adjusted immediately. "The calibration process here is pretty far-reaching. A very slight deviation can become truly substantial and cause problems for the customer because the machines are so incredibly large. Calibration specialists, mechanical engineers and software engineers work shoulder to shoulder in Tiel.
Driving innovation using a 3D printer for scale modelling.
Kranendonk develops everything on its own premises and the various teams work together to conceive the latest techniques and superior customer solutions. The nice thing about this is the fact that the customer receives a product on which a complete team of proud, often young employees has worked very hard. A dynamic team that is able to think outside the box - and does so! And these kind of compliments circulate quickly throughout our customer base."
Once the fully-automated robots and the software have proven themselves in Tiel, employees disassemble the giant machine as a kind of reverse construction package. The component parts then disappear into standard seagoing containers ready for shipping from the Rotterdam harbour to the customer. Teams of specialists subsequently fly after the components and assemble the machine at final destination while instructing the end-users about how to operate and maintain the machine.
"There are only a few companies in the world that can offer automation for the shipbuilding industry at this level," according to Voerman. "We distinguish ourselves by making new technologies quickly available and by accelerating processes that were formerly typically done by hand."
Following the economic downturn that affected almost everybody, wherever in the world - including KRANENDONK, things are more than looking up for the robot specialists in Tiel. The office premises are literally bursting at the seams, even though the site was delivered to KRANENDONK only in September last year. The search is on for new housing opportunities in the area for the company. The portfolio is growing exponentially as interest from around the world, specifically Asia in general and China in particular, is turning into increased demand. The Chinese are increasingly in search of sophisticated technologies - and end up in Tiel, almost as a matter of course.
The number of job vacancies is increasing by the month with the company looking to fill two to three job positions every month. With a certain feeling for understatement, Marketing manager Voerman characterises this as 'a challenge'. Although the company until now has succeeded in recruiting the right kind of clever specialists, the pond of subject matter experts in the Rivierenland region is becoming increasingly empty.
To this end, KRANENDONK maintains excellent contact with training colleges and further education institutions in the region. And their own 'KRANENDONK Academy' is the way in which new employees are trained in-house. Naturally enough, KRANENDONK keeps a sharp eye on the future, because fossil fuels will no longer be the key driver at some point in time. Customers already considering this perspective will ultimately need to adjust the way they think and redirect their activities more towards solar and wind energy, for example. "And we're happy to think along with them, of course," says Voerman. "KRANENDONK - Smart Robotics views this future with confidence too."