Standardised maintenance departments make Agristo future-proof

At the end of March, Agristo received the BEMAS Technical Team of the Year award following the implementation of an Enterprise Asset Management System (EAMS) across their various sites, which resulted in standardised technical services. We talked to group maintenance manager Steven Volckaert about their visionary approach and the important contribution of the technical teams.

Since 1986 Agristo has been focusing on the development and production of frozen potato products for retail and food service. First as a modest family business from Harelbeke, today as a global player with 4 different sites. The same values, growing numbers and always an eye for optimisation.

Back to the start. Why the implementation of an EAMS?

“The use and performance of assets was previously site-driven and monitored separately. Agristo’s strength, however, lies in combining the knowledge across all sites and learning from each other. This is also the mindset of the family and management. And so the question arose to find a solution to harmonise the maintenance approach. Specifically, we needed an EAMS to build up the history of machines, but equally to be able to schedule maintenance better and increase availability. To implement this Agristo decided to create the group maintenance department: getting technical managers to focus on the machinery and pulling all upstream issues to group level ”

You had your eye on Ultimo. Why this choice?

“At our Harelbeke and Tilburg site, we had previous experience with an old version of Ultimo. Otherwise, we would use Excel, crosses on our hands, planning on paper… anything but efficient. Our technical director Dieter Raes took the initiative to suggest a smarter approach, for all sites combined. He works closely with the shop floor and he was looking for a connecting factor. Why would we solve problems differently in branches that are barely 20 km apart? We had to join all the knowledge we had if we wanted to improve the machinery. The technical teams also needed to be fully involved in the solution. So, I started to investigate by listening to the different departments and their needs. I presented the info to the board to show how urgent it was. Then I prepared a list of requirements for the software and worked out a demo scenario. From 8 software vendors, we selected a top 3, which were given the same facts on the basis of which they had to develop a demo. People in charge at our various sites got the opportunity to review all three of them – the perfect support base for acceptance. In the end, the Ultimo maintenance software was selected, partly because of its ease of use, adaptability and availability of safety related modules.”

Involved at the plantInvolved at group level
Plant manager
Technical service (managers – technicians)
Packaging manager
Production manager
Prevention advisor
Group quality
Group operations
Group automation
Group HR


From fire service mode to peace of mind and structure – is that the evolution?

“Previously, our technical services had no overview of the work or recurring problems, activities were started without preparation and sometimes without the right resources. Everyone called, emailed or spoke to the technical department. The maintenance manager carried a booklet for questions. There was no warehouse operation, so the most experienced technician usually knew where something was. Downtimes took longer because they couldn’t find the piece or they ordered something in a rush, even when it was available 15 min. away at another branch. Following the implementation of Ultimo in 2019-2020, the tenor is: peace of mind and structure. Works are reviewed, prepared and clearly communicated to other departments. Spare parts are visible to all branches and there is a mutual exchange. We can now clearly do analysis on machine fleet downtime and technicians can easily consult breakdown history or other documentation. We have also been able to reduce our suppliers by about 100, as we now work with fixed suppliers and discounts across all branches.”

As for the implementation, how did that work?

“Step 1 was the creation of a tree structure in the program to reflect the layout of our factories, integrating all installations. Step 2 was to get the technicians’ work order flow into it. We also started planning quarterly 1-day meetings where we united all maintenance managers. This was also done for the work planners, warehouse managers and team leaders. From these inputs we created a unified way of working in the system. In fact, Ultimo’s consultants did not interact with the shop floor. My team was responsible for guiding the project, training and advising the technical services. Every technical department has supported and embraced this change. We brought them together quarterly and brainstormed about further adjustments that would be needed. We encouraged an Agristo mindset as opposed to an individual site mindset.”

How are the experiences today?

“Ultimo was initially intended for our 120 technicians, but today almost 300 colleagues are intensively using the application. Safety incidents, for example, are also reported in Ultimo. What started out as a tool for the technical department is now spreading to the other departments. The message is: where possible, report anything maintenance-related in Ultimo, and our technicians will ensure that the notification is responded to within 24 hours. Every message will be answered, even if the issue is still pending. We now have a standardised way of working and along with the implementation of the system, we have defined new roles and responsibilities. We can easily exchange persons/roles and information across sites. We have also achieved standardised operation of our spare parts. A spare part now has a unique number and designation that applies to all sites. The result: exchanging spare parts between sites has never been so clear and simple. Thanks to Ultimo, our maintenance departments improve asset utilization and performance, stay on top of maintenance costs and are able to extend the life of assets. That is pure added value for our organisation.”

Positively so. How do you see the future for maintenance at Agristo?

“The implementation was an improvement project for us and today we are already reaping the benefits. We wanted to simplify the lives of our technicians, and thanks to the vision of the Agristo family and feedback from our technical services, we succeeded. Change processes in multiple plants are difficult, but at Agristo we combine the principles of excellent maintenance with common sense. However, optimisation is work in progress and linked to future challenges. It is very difficult to find new technicians. If we can increase efficiency on the machinery and make our people waste less time on documentation and systems, that helps a lot. We are currently seeing 10% fewer malfunctions. We now work more preventively. The future is up to changing technologies, more data, analytics, IT security issues… requiring different expertise and people within maintenance. We are aware of this, Agristo is mature. Besides, it never gets boring here. We are growing strongly and still have many expansion plans. And within the BEMAS and Asset Performance network, we also learn from other maintenance departments – very valuable to stay futureproof.”