The Swedish compressor giant Altas Copco is investing 70 million euros in its factory in Antwerp. The majority goes to production expansion and research. ‘Wilrijk is and will be our most important center of excellence for compressed air in the world.’
Every day, thousands of cars pass the Atlas Copco site in Wilrijk along the Boomsesteenweg. Many drivers do not suspect that behind the low old-fashioned masonry facade is one of the most important machine builders in the world with more than 3,000 employees.
The factory’s Belgian roots go back almost a hundred years ago, when the Enthoven family – specifically the uncle of the Belgian industrial designer and designer Axel Enthoven – began producing mobile compressors in Wilrijk. In 1956, the family sold their company Arpic Engineering to Swedish Atlas Copco. It has grown into one of the largest developers and manufacturers of industrial gas and air compressors in the world.
“Sweden has developed this site with its more than 800 engineers for the ‘University of Compressed Air'”, says Wouter Ceulemans, Chairman of the Airtec Department of the Swedish Group. ‘Here we combine production development with assembly and production’. Wilrijk is the largest site for the Swedish multinational with 130,000 m². Two of the group’s four business units, which account for 60 percent of the group’s turnover, have their head office there.
Ceulemans: ‘We were able to convince the headquarters in Sweden to invest an additional 70 million euros here over the next three years. Why Antwerp? Because we already have a lot of expertise, because there is room for expansion, because we have good universities, and because it is an attractive place for expats. ‘ More than 50 different nationalities work in Wilrijk.
The focus of the investments, which will take place in four phases, is the expansion of the production area – a total of 4,000 m² -, new production technologies and machines as well as the expansion of research and laboratory capacity. The focus is on further automation and robotization of production and logistics, autonomous vehicles and automated spare parts distribution. Ceulemans: ‘The goal is for the site to grow into a’ smart factory ‘, where everything is connected in real time. It will be a mecca for engineers. ‘
An Amazon-like warehouse was built on site to store parts and semi-finished products. Ceulemans: ‘We see that globalization is turning a bit after the repeated hiccups in the worldwide logistics supply. More and more companies are taking care of their own stocks. That is what we must do here, too. That way we can use the space more efficiently in the production halls. ‘
Research and development
The investment in the further expansion of the research department is important, says Ceulemans. “We are going to do almost exclusively research here that does not happen elsewhere. The energy efficiency of a compressor is an increasingly important factor. You have to put power into a compressor and then compressed air comes out. The less power you have to put in and the more compressed air that comes out, the more efficient. Compare that to the consumption of a car. We have been working on improving efficiency for years, but now we are focusing even more on it. We also work with energy conversion. Heat is released in a compressor room and it makes sense to recover it. How and in what way should we study here. ‘
‘The smart factory in Wilrijk becomes a mecca for engineers’
Despite increasing automation, more people are being recruited. ‘In recent years, about 130 new people have been recruited here every year,’ says Ceulemans. ‘We assume that we can maintain that pace in the coming years. It is not easy to find people, but this year we are already on 100 jobs and we are looking for 100 more. We are also investing heavily in retraining and further training of employees’.
The modest and at first glance not very cool Atlas Copco has worked hard on its image in recent years and has recently appeared in the top 15 of most attractive companies in Flanders. ‘Brand awareness could be even better,’ says Ceulemans. “We work on it. Compressors form the basis of everything we come in contact with on a daily basis, from the shower to our cup of coffee, car and aircraft construction, construction, agriculture, the hospital sector … Compressed air or a compressor can be used anywhere ‘Come. And we’re developing and collecting it here. We need to tell that story more.’
The Wilrijk factory is Atlas Copco’s most important. In Belgium, the group still has locations in Boom (rental of compressors), Hoeselt (a distribution center) and Overijse (sales and service). A total of 3,700 people in our country work for the Swedish group.
Belgium accounts for a turnover of 3 billion euros. Every year ‘approx. 100,000 compressors’ out in Wilrijk. All types: from 5 to 10 kilowatts to 1 megawatts. The average price varies between 150,000 and 200,000 euros.
Atlas Copco was founded in 1873 and has 43,000 employees in 70 countries and customers in 180 countries. Last year, the Swedish group achieved a turnover of 11 billion euros. The group is led by the Swede Mats Rahmström. His predecessor was Belgian Ronnie Leten, who was CEO from 2009 to 2017.