Interview with Boerge Wessling, Reifenhäuser Reicofil
The past two years have been an extraordinary period for the nonwovens industry, and for Reifenhäuser Reicofil as a company.
INDEX News: Can we discuss how things progressed from the start of the pandemic and the key lessons learned?
Boerge Wessling: I think we have to consider what happened in the last two years from two perspectives: firstly the market dynamics and secondly our internal response to the situation.
In terms of market dynamics, at the very beginning there was a shortage of meltblown materials for facemasks and many of our customers simply switched very quickly to these medical products and even ran large composite lines on meltblown beams only.
At Reicofil, we received permission to run our lab equipment in Troisdorf 24/7, so we were able to support the need for meltblown from here transitionally, until our customers had installed the additional capacities.
Very quickly after that, meltblown equipment was in high demand and we had a big variety of customers purchasing new lines – from experienced customers to newcomers and anywhere in-between. Most of these machines are now installed and running as we speak, but there are even some still under installation – the very last of this wave.
Systems for medical protective gear such as gowns were then in demand, and the latest in a rapid succession of market dynamic events for Reicofil technology was a high demand for the company’s standard equipment for hygiene.
Generally speaking, the demand for high quality hygiene products increased during the pandemic and we think this had a lot to do with the fact that people stayed at home and at home you want to be comfortable. People also didn’t have a lot of possibilities to spend their money on leisure activities, so they purchased high quality products for their homes, and high quality hygiene products are made on our systems.
So there was, and still is, a very high demand for the equipment, adding to a catch-up effect because there were hardly any investments in 2019.
To cut a long story short, the market was extremely dynamic and still keeps us very busy.
In terms of lessons learned, it quickly became clear that flexibility was essential, not just with our internal teams and our supply chain, but also with our customers. They have been extremely flexible and put a lot of trust in us, specifically under these circumstances – without personal contact and face-to-face meetings. A lot of technical discussions were also carried out remotely and it has become clear in this unique situation that trust between companies is extremely important and goes a long way.
INDEX News: What is the current situation with regards to the transportation, deliveries and commissioning of machines?
BW: It has been difficult but we have been managing with the help of our network of suppliers, and our customers too.
We have a very high operational load because of the market demand and that has been coupled with the global supply shortages and logistical challenges. Basically, we’re managing, but it’s a day-to-day flexibility thing.
Just before we started this interview, for example, there was a message coming through that the Chinese airspace might be closed down for passenger planes coming in from Europe. We have to send people and it is difficult to get people to some of these countries as a result of the quarantine requirements etc., and it just makes it difficult to plan. All you can do is do your best, work flexibly with everybody you know and trust the other party. I’m very thankful to our team who are doing everything they can – they’re sitting in the quarantines, just waiting until they are allowed to got to attend customer sites. We’re trying our best to stick to timelines as closely as possible.
INDEX News: Is the global chip shortage still a problem and does it affect the company directly?
BW: Our machines have a high degree of automation and they run at very high line speeds and throughputs, and we provide a production environment which is reliable and delivers the right quality at any time for our customers. Obviously to achieve that you need sophisticated monitoring and control devices which of course rely on electronic component deliveries. So, we are a part of that supply chain but not to the extent of, say, the automotive industry. Nevertheless, we took measures very early in order to secure supplies and we are not afraid of making redesigns or taking on new suppliers. So again, it is difficult but we are dealing with it well.
INDEX News: How has the pandemic influenced the company’s automation and remote assistance services? Has it had an influence?
BW: Of course. It is one of our key principles to support the customer to the best possible degree – no matter how and no matter what the circumstances are. Nowadays when travelling is difficult, or even impossible, we rely on remote assistance – from installation to service.
To give you one example, we commissioned a system at a new customer in Asia with a new local team, completely guided remotely from Germany. It worked, but it is an extreme case. However, it has shown us that there are now more ways of providing services than previously thought possible.
INDEX News: The Reicofil 5 system was introduced at INDEX 2017, how would you summarise the strengths of the system for nonwovens manufacturers servicing the hygiene industry?
BW: There are two basic lines that we offer because different markets have different needs in terms of efficiency, quality, and costs.
The RF5 is our latest generation technology and addresses high volume markets. The technology sets benchmarks in terms of quality, performance, availability, efficiency, and machine intelligence. It is also customisable to a high degree, not just a standard line. Its strengths have now proven themselves, especially with all the pandemic difficulties and the demand we’ve already discussed. On the other hand, we have the RF Smart line which is designed for emerging markets and smaller volumes. The line concept focuses on an easy market entry and a quick return on investment without compromising the nonwovens quality. Both line concepts are serving the trend towards even more comfortable, soft, and bulky nonwovens, using our optional High Loft technology.
And of course, nowadays a lot of discussion is going on in terms of sustainable solutions which we are working on together with our customers. Downgauging and the processing of alternative resins are important topics here.
INDEX News: What are you showcasing at the US nonwovens exhibition, IDEA 2022, in Miami from March 28-31?
BW: Our booth at INDEX 2020 in Geneva in October was extremely busy and our target is to have it exactly the same way at IDEA. I don’t want to spoil it though, so I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to showcase, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be as busy as at INDEX, so please just come around and see for yourself. We’re really looking forward to meeting our customers again in Miami – from all over the world if possible.