Rijk Zwaan's huge main site is located in De Lier in the heart of the Westland area and employs almost 650 people. In the western part of the province of Brabant near the village of Fijnaart, the company also has a large cultivation improvement centre with various laboratories that together employ around 400 people. In addition, around a thousand employees work in different subsidiaries spread around the globe.
Rijk Zwaan focuses on the development, cultivation, production and sales of high quality seeds for vegetables.
The company's concept of focusing on quality is clearly on the rise. Sales are growing steadily in over 100 countries. In 2007 the vegetable cultivation improvement business drew up plans for a new building. Construction started in 2010 and should be completed by 2014.
What is the secret behind this steady growth? René Heijink: "It's has everything to do with the corporate culture at Rijk Zwaan. The organisation does everything to create a pleasant and stimulating atmosphere. Employees don't just follow courses relevant to our products, they are also encouraged to think about making improvements. All our employees are aware that they are working with a top quality product."
Specific market demand
The development of new vegetable varieties provides an important link in the chain of business processes. Each country has its own culture, regulations, consumer preferences and of course climate. Researchers are constantly coming up with innovative products in our specialised laboratories. Anticipating specific market demands has become a real art at Rijk Zwaan. René Heijink: "You just have to look at all the different types of lettuce and the range of tomatoes that consumers can choose from in the Netherlands." Rijk Zwaan is producing even more varieties thanks to growing demand from Asia. Where the European consumer prefers a crisp lettuce consisting of short lettuce leaves, the Chinese consumer much prefers their lettuce to have long leaves. There's a total of 25 different vegetables that originate from around 900 different varieties. Developing a new variety normally takes between six and twelve years. We hold the absolute top, global position as agricultural scientists involved with improving the strains of lettuce and spinach.
Innovative packaging department
The packaging department represents the final phase for all the company processes, following on from the standard cleaning and seed processing (preparation, pelletizing and coating), but before distribution to the customers. The counting and weighing of seeds is done automatically in this department, and the same for packaging the pellets used to encapsulate the plant seeds, making them easier to sow by machine. The seeds of the more expensive plants such as cucumber, tomato, paprika and aubergine are all counted. Smaller lots of seeds are manually weighed and packaged by employees in a separate area. They also make up portions for the seed treatment department. The exceptionally clean and dust-free department is currently equipped with six counting machines, two canning lines, two weighing machines and a bulk line used mainly for spinach. One canning line packages cans containing 5,000 pellets, the other line packages cans containing 25,000 pellets. Three counting machines each with 4x12 channels are used for counting all the seeds precisely.
René Heijink: "The total capacity is around 30,000 seeds per minute. The same line also has an automatic sealer for the packaging. Apart from setting up the machine, nothing needs to be done manually." René Heijink became head of the packaging department three years ago. As well as sorting out problems, he is responsible for implementing procedural changes and also supervising the working atmosphere on the shop floor over the long term. How can we make the processes and working methods more efficient? What ideas or suggestions do the employees have? What are the alternatives and what kind of investment would be needed to introduce improvements? "I initially found there was too much work pressure in the department. People had to work right next to each other. Moreover, there appeared to be a lack of teamwork. We've taken important steps to rectify this. In the new building the packaging department is much more spacious and our team is really pleased with it", he confirmed happily.
The packaging department employees carry out an important process inspection function. "We are the last people to see and inspect the seeds. We are able to decide whether a seed meets the standards by way of visual inspection. If for example the seed is not properly cleaned, we correct the process. We also supervise process safety and prevent for example, batches getting mixed up." René Heijink explained. " It would be disastrous if a customer saw tros tomatoes instead of beef tomatoes growing out of the ground. We must always prevent this from happening."
As well as inspecting the product and operating the machines, cleaning is another important task. Minuscule seeds must never be left lying around. After each batch has been completed, the people working in the packaging department totally clean the machine using both high pressure air equipment and a vacuum cleaner. Standard procedure includes one person checking and signing off the cleaning carried out by his colleague. This may seem unnecessary, but it all contributes towards the consciousness raising process of the cleaner. Nothing is left to chance. It goes with the production and delivery of a top quality product.
Where is the possible point for criticism? René Heijink: "The routing for each batch is programmed by the supply teams beforehand. Each batch of seeds gets a unique bar code. This way the seeds should arrive at the correct machine. If this is not the case because of human error, a message appears on the scanner. In such cases it can only go wrong if the employee forgets to use the scanner. That's why all the processes in the company revolve around fixed procedures.
This is really well organised at Rijk Zwaan. The employee scans every single operation he carries out."
Creating extra capacity
Sales at Rijk Zwaan are growing and therefore also the quantity of seed that has to be processed in the packaging department. This has resulted in the number of people working there increasing from 18 to 25.
"But we're unable to increase the number of employees in the department in line with increasing global sales. That's why we have to create extra capacity. We are now busy with a substantial investment in new counting machines with wider channels that can count more seeds simultaneously which will considerably increase our hourly production capacity. Instead of taking three hours, these new machines can process the same amount in just one hour. The greatest gains are achieved with the large batches of more than 1,000 pouches up to 50 grams, but smaller batches are also interesting with these machines". said René Heijink. It is typical that the entire company is always thinking about the future. Greater efficiency must never be made at the expense of safety or quality. "We are also currently busy here in this department dealing with the question of whether or not we should invest in an extra conditioning room for tomato seeds, for example. This is to prevent the germinal force from dropping off. We want everything to be 100%. Furthermore, we also want the 18 operators in our department to learn how to operate their machines better. This raising awareness regarding the daily processes also increases efficiency within our company."