Fallprotec, which was founded in 2004, is specialised in height safety equipment and safe access systems. Its sister company SolarCleano was created in 2018 and focuses on the development of autonomous robots for cleaning industrial photovoltaic installations.
The two companies are engaged in very different activities – even if some bridges naturally exist – but both of them have benefited from Luxinnovation’s services in their development.
The first contact dates back to 2014, when Fallprotec launched an R&D project concerning an electric winch on ropes to be integrated into the cradles used for the maintenance and cleaning of building facades. “This very light and accessible solution was revolutionary at the time,” explains Christophe Timmermans, the managing director of the Capital Access group, which groups the two entities. “Our ambition is to change the business model of the sector: instead of having stationary maintenance machines that are only used once or twice a year and are expensive to maintain, we offer a movable solution for cleaning companies that can be used for and amortised over several buildings. Obviously, this challenges the current business of the vendors of such cleaning machines, who focus mainly on the costs of maintenance and servicing of these machines. But attitudes are beginning to change.”
“Guided and supported”
Luxinnovation helped the company prepare its application for funding from the Ministry of the Economy. “There are so many support measures available, depending on the projects and their complexity, that it is necessary to be guided and supported in order to make sure that the Ministry’s requirements are perfectly met. Then, it is also essential to have support for drafting the application itself, which is very time-consuming.”
Capitalising on this first successful experience, the group returned to the national innovation agency in 2018 for another type of support for another project, this time carried out by SolarCleano: the establishment of an efficient organisational structure for the development and subsequent production of autonomous robots. “We had to review our organisation in order to integrate robotics engineers into our teams who could make the robots autonomous. This also meant moving from a ‘mechanical engineering’ structure to a ‘robotics engineering’ structure, with a fairly complex automation problem,” summarises Mr Timmermans. “We invest 100% of our profits in R&D, which allows us to increase our skills over time and acquire the right profiles more quickly.”
The robots are controlled by a GPS-type navigation system with an accuracy of 2 cm. The advantage of such autonomous robots is that they can clean and maintain large fields of solar panels – often located in geographical areas far from any other activity – with a minimum of stress and presence for the operator. “We have acquired the skills to develop a ‘plug & play’ model that can then be duplicated on other types of applications.”
“An outside eye”
Although SolarCleano is currently focusing on solar panels, the potential is enormous for applications in agricultural environments (to be able to move robots between plantations without damaging them) or mining.
“The next step will be the integration of artificial intelligence modules coupled with thermal sensors and cameras capable of detecting defects in the panels and relaying the information to the operator for better predictive maintenance.”
Here again, Luxinnovation’s multidisciplinary teams enabled SolarCleano to go through the process of applying for a subsidy from the Ministry of the Economy. “There is a real exchange with Luxinnovation, which also helps us to better formalise and structure our explanations. We sometimes tend to be too absorbed in our own field, and this outside view allows us to make things more understandable and accessible.”
With a relationship that has now lasted more than seven years, Capital Access also benefits from long-term expertise. “It is possible for us to build on past cases to develop future ones and thus create links between the various applications.”
Performance gains between 20 and 30%
In the meantime, Fallprotec has participated in the Fit 4 Digital programme in order to implement an IT tool to improve the efficiency of its internal processes. “We know that it is no longer enough to deliver good fall arrest and height access products,” explains Michael Pop, Operations Manager Export at Fallprotec. “We now also need to provide value-added services, without increasing the cost of the product, but instead reducing the operational costs. This is why we have sought to stimulate the digitalisation of our internal processes. This also allows us to offer our distributors and customers an automated immersive platform in real time.”
The diagnostic and stocktaking process, conducted with the help of a Luxinnovation-approved consultant, identified the company’s strengths, weaknesses and needs. “By also using data collected from our distributors, with an extensive satisfaction survey, we benefit from the perfect outside view to match expectations and needs with our future plans.”
Fallprotec has, for example, implemented a new ERP and developed, in parallel, a new immersive and interactive customer portal together with a team of external developers. These two platforms are obviously interconnected to allow access to information in real time. “As expected, the automation of certain processes met some resistance to change, but also generated high expectations. In the end, it was a success,” says Mr Pop. For some internal processes, the time saved was no less than 90%, which allowed the company’s employees to concentrate on strategic aspects rather than on repetitive standard processes.
“Most sales, purchasing and production processes have seen a 20-30% increase in performance, with a peak of 90% for some distributor-related sales processes,” says Mr Pop. “In addition, customer satisfaction has increased by 10% compared to last year’s satisfaction survey.”
Today, Fallprotec employs 35 people and is developing numerous projects internationally. In Qatar, for example, on the construction sites for the next football World Cup in 2022. SolarCleano, with its 15 employees, manages a fleet of some 250 robots deployed in 40 countries on all continents.
More recently, Fallprotec has also been involved in the Fit 4 Resilience programme. Affected by the health crisis, the company experienced a complicated recovery, particularly in its relations with suppliers. It is now taking advantage of the programme set up with the Ministry of the Economy to benefit from external support in this phase of strategic reflection on the means to be used to emerge stronger from the current crisis.
“This project is a perfect illustration of the 360° analysis that Luxinnovation offers companies to identify their needs and to guide them towards the right tools and programmes,” comments Claude Hostert, SME Performance Advisor at Luxinnovation. “If they are looking for support in applying for Ministry of the Economy grants, access to Luxinnovation’s Fit 4 performance programmes or the L-DIH, partnership opportunities with Luxembourg research organisations, or networking opportunities through the clusters or the EEN network, we have a wide range of solutions that specifically meet each need. And our support is available for free.”