Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be running a series of 1:1 interviews with the KTE (Knowledge Transfer Experiment) teams that joined Better Factory through our second open call. These incredible teams are each made up of a SME, artist and technology provider, working together to develop new and personalized products, become cyber-physical systems, and transforming into Lean-agile production facilities.

The SMARTENVELOPE project aims to produce a smarter security envelope, with the ‘smart’ aspect being approached from three different perspectives: smartness in the sense of digital connectivity; smartness in the sense of sustainability; and smartness in the sense of envelope lifespan and after life.

Their KTE team includes:

  • Plast-farb (Manufacturing company)
  • David Rickard (Artist)
  • And-Tech (Technology Provider)

So let’s jump into the interview!

Hello, thank you for joining us! To start off, could you tell us why you decided to apply to Better Factory?

SME Plast-farb: Hi, at Plast-FARB we focus on keeping up with industry trends and developments. In recent years, we have started to see how important the digitisation of production processes and products is. We built up the first tentative concepts on paper, which were eventually brought to fruition through an application to the Better Factory program. We were looking for a supporting instrument that would allow us to experiment with our envelopes and bags towards finding ways to digitalise them while highlighting the pro-environmental values that the implementation of the new solution could bring. Better Factory has proved to be the ideal support mechanism to take our products to the next higher level and open up completely new opportunities for recipients and parcel users. As an experienced market player, we know that creating new and improving existing products involves experimentation and uncertainty as to whether the creative effort will be rewarded with a satisfactory reception by the market. This is when a financial and mentoring support instrument like Better Factory steps in to assist us, allowing us to mitigate the risk of incurring financial and time expenditures on R&D activities.

Artist David Rickard: I heard about the Better Factory programme from the first round of projects and was intrigued to see the diverse range of experiments that were being undertaken. I often collaborate with research institutions, and I enjoy the way in which works can develop through the exchange of ideas and expertise. However, I haven’t collaborated with manufacturing industry previously, so I’m really fascinated to bring new ideas to an SME and see what we can produce together.

Tech Provider And-Tech: Good day, thank you for the invitation! I decided to apply to Better Factory for several important reasons. Firstly, I am deeply intrigued by the technological challenges embedded in this project. In the era of the digital age, I believe that the transformation into Industry 4.0 is not just necessary, but absolutely mandatory for any company wishing to maintain competitiveness and innovativeness. The Better Factory project perfectly aligns with these concepts, emphasizing the importance and possibilities of Industry 4.0.

Secondly, the APPS applications that have been developed as part of the project are not only innovative but also exceptionally practical. They have the potential to implement real changes in how factories operate, which is incredibly exciting for me.

The last, but not the least important reason is the concept of the project itself. The idea is really interesting, and the opportunity to work on such advanced technological solutions and contribute to the further development of Industry 4.0 is a prospect I couldn’t overlook.

Can you tell us more about Plast-Farb and its history in the postal services market?

SME Plast-farb: We are a medium-sized company located in the north-central part of Poland with its headquarters in Toruń (the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus). The beginnings of PLAST-FARB date back to the 1980s, while with the arrival of the 21st century the market for packaging for the courier and forwarding industry opened up in Poland, i.e. the products which now represent the strength of PLAST-FARB. 

The Factory has been developing by introducing innovations that contribute to the continuous improvement of its products, which are SECURITY ENVELOPES AND BAGS – high-tech products designed for the transportation or storage of cash, coins, confidential documents, jewellery, valuables, machine parts, machine samples, medical samples, and all other items that need to be properly secured. The Factory’s products are mostly made from LDPE, MDPE or HDPE film. For several years, PLAST-FARB has been using up to 80% PCR recyclate derived from secondary waste) and biodegradable materials for the production of envelopes and bags, the so-called BIO film – made from 100% plant-derived material (corn meal) and I’M GREEN foil (sugarcane).

In Poland, we are the only manufacturer of security envelopes and bags, while we additionally reach more than 30 countries worldwide.

How did the idea for the SMARTENVELOPE project come about, and what inspired the team to approach the smartness of the envelope from three different perspectives (connectivity, sustainability and envelope ‘life and after life’)?

Tech Provider And-Tech: As a Technology Provider, our role in the SmartEnvelope project has been to bridge the gap between the innovative vision of the Manufacturing SME and the creative input of the artist. From the beginning, our goal was to realize an intriguing solution that would enhance the relationship between our customers and the end-users, and we believe that the SmartEnvelope project perfectly captures this aspiration.

Our initial discussions with PLAST-FARB highlighted the potential of packaging as information carriers, a concept that gained traction in Q2 22. In response to this, we submitted an application to the Call for Expressions of Interest, which is an optional step of the Better Factory programme. Thanks to the positive review and the support of the matching process, we established a collaboration with an artist, which has enriched the consortium with fresh, out-of-the-box ideas.

Our role has further evolved to address the unique needs and challenges that were identified in our early conversations. We understood the potential for postal envelopes to be more than single-use items and have worked to explore opportunities for multiple life envelopes. Additionally, we have considered alternative ‘after-use’ functions for these envelopes, which contributes to our commitment to minimizing the use of materials harmful to modern civilization.

As we continue to keep our finger on the pulse of the latest technological trends in the packaging and IT industries, we are excited about the potential of SmartEnvelopes. It’s a concept that combines innovative tech solutions with environmental consciousness, and we believe it represents a better way of connecting people and goods. We are thrilled to be a part of this project and are looking forward to seeing the impact of SmartEnvelopes in the world.

Artist David Rickard:  Plast-farb & And-Tech have worked together for many years, however this is their first time collaborating with an artist. They already had the seed of an idea for a SmartEnvelope and we then progressed the idea together during many conversations before the submission of our project proposal. As Plast-farb produces a vast quantity of postal envelopes (approx. 20 Million per month), I’m very interested in how our innovations with this new product could connect with a very large number of people. 

SME Plast-farb: As mentioned, our concept evolved through numerous meetings that brought us closer to the final shape of SmartEnvelope. During the conversations, we touched on various threads of digitalisation of our products, but also arrived at exciting hypotheses regarding environmental aspects. For example, during conversations it has been identified that postal envelopes act like ‘clothes’ to protect a product during transit, however whilst we wear our clothes multiple times the postal envelope is typically used only once, or sometimes twice if returning products. Thus, assumptions have been formulated that include the exploring opportunities for multiple life envelopes and in addition considering alternative ‘after-use’ functions of envelopes.

What kind of industry 4.0 interventions are you considering to translate the directions for smartness into practical prototypes?

SME Plast-farb: The envelope and bag are nowadays seen as physical objects carrying goods between people. Our intention is to change this paradigm and the way we think about such products. Our partnership aims to offer people a new way of connecting people through the synergy of a physical object and the data sent through the envelope or bag. 

Tech Provider And-Tech: As a technology provider, we will utilize the ready-made digital platform provided by Better Factory, equipped with a set of pre-configured features. These are designed to significantly reduce costs and efforts typically associated with custom software development and proprietary software dependencies. 

The core functionalities of the platform focus on visualizing the Digital Twin, optimizing forklift operations, and providing a graphical representation of production speed and machine energy consumption via user-friendly charts.

In addition, we aim to develop our own platform for the secure storage of digital data associated with the Smart Envelope. Beyond mere data storage, we offer Plast-Farb customers a simple and efficient method for transmitting and preserving information related to the Smart Envelope.

How do you envision the artistic element of the project, and what role will David Rickard play in the development of the prototypes?

SME Plast-farb: The secure plastic packaging industry is an area subject to recurrent market changes, the effects of which we must observe and anticipate their consequences. On the other hand, the picture of reality and the business model currently being implemented is limited to the vision imposed by PLAST-FARB management and employees. Opening up to a completely new collaboration with an artist, we believe, will open new paths of thinking about our products. Bringing unique insights and innovative ideas can lead to the discovery of new solutions and help us better understand our customers’ expectations. We see the role of the artist as a catalyst for the creativity and originality of our experiment, being involved in the prototyping process from inception to implementation. 

Artist David Rickard: I work across a wide range of media to develop works that reconsider preconceived perceptions of place and materials. Therefore, I’m very interested in considering the wider role of post and the physical movement of goods within postal systems. Envelopes have been used for thousands of years and with the rise of e-commerce the use of physical post has been increasing in line with the rise in online shopping.  Therefore, I’m fascinated in thinking about how a digitally connected envelope could enhance the peoples experience of receiving post, alongside ways in which we can reduce the environmental footprint of each envelope.

Tech Provider And-Tech: From the perspective of a technology provider, the role of the artist – in this case, David – is extremely important in this project. As technically-oriented individuals, we often have a limited artistic outlook; for us, the product we create needs to function and meet the client’s requirements. It’s David who infuses spirit and artistic flair into the project we are developing. Collaborating with David is very helpful and creatively inspiring – he has a completely different perspective on the project, which allows it to evolve in many directions that we, as technical people, wouldn’t pay attention to.

What are some of the biggest challenges you anticipate facing during the project, and how do you plan to overcome them?

SME Plast-farb: Our overall challenge is to bring the humble envelope into the 21st century by harnessing the power of digital data to create a SmartEnvelope. Alongside digital streamlining of the production, we aim at developing a new line of postal security products that can individually link directly to online data through QR codes and NFC connections with mobile devices. While we have no concerns about the technological capabilities of implementing the solution, we will need to place emphasis on creating a business model that will be accepted by the market and allow us to attract new customers, as well as offer new value to our existing customers.

Artist David Rickard: The use of the RAMP systems has already posed some interesting challenges; however we are working through these. The development of the SmartEnvelope will require careful design and testing to ensure the product is suitable for production and distribution in very large quantities. However, through close dialogue between team members we are optimistic that an innovative new product will be developed. 

Tech Provider And-Tech: The greatest challenge in the project is to combine the artistic part with the technology. Very often, the artistic vision is not in line with the factory’s capabilities. However, in our project, thanks to the close cooperation with David and Plast-Farb, we manage to reconcile both the technological possibilities and the artistic vision.

How will you measure the success of the project, and what specific outcomes are you aiming for in terms of production efficiency, waste reduction, energy consumption, and worker time per unit of product?

SME Plast-farb: As in all experiments, success can be measured by the decision to effectively implement a new product. The same will be true for our project at Better Factory. In addition, we have also been able to map out a number of metrics that certainly set a development path that fits with the company’s strategy. We will aim to increase the share of products made from environmentally friendly materials. We plan to test performance on pilot the business model with early adopters which will bring an answer on market interest. Finally, we will work on developing solutions that have the potential to reduce waste and contribute to environmental protection by using the concept of smart envelopes and bags as second-life products.

Artist David Rickard: My terms of success are based on the adoption of innovative ideas in the production of new products. At this early stage in the project, we have lots of ideas for how postal envelopes can be reused to reduce waste and connected to the internet to enhance information, and we are hopeful that some of these ideas can be implemented by the SME to provide new products going forward. 

Tech Provider And-Tech: This is an excellent question that we aim to answer during the course of the experiment. Currently, we are still in the phase before implementing the RAMP IoT platform on the production floor, so we don’t have initial data based on which we could estimate our direction. At the very beginning, we need to define our starting point to determine the goal of the experiment based on it. However, I believe that during the experiment we will be able to increase efficiency and reduce energy consumption, but we can talk about numbers closer to the end of the experiment rather than at its start.

If you’d like to learn more about SMARTENVELOPE and their experiment, don’t forget you can check out their KTE page here, including a cool video!