Celebrating 25 years in business, ITM Poland demonstrates it is ready for the future—in whatever form that may arrive.
By Taco Tuinstra
ITM Poland started operations in a turbulent time, both for the tobacco industry and the world at large. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had opened an enormous, previously underserved market for tobacco companies. From Berlin to Vladivostok, millions of smokers were yearning for Western products. But the lifting of the Iron Curtain also created new opportunities for the region’s talented professionals, who were now free to market their skills and cooperate with whomever they wanted.
A veteran of the Polish tobacco monopoly, Andrew Stanikowski didn’t need to think long when ITM CEO Arend van der Sluis Sr. approached him about setting up a Polish division for ITM. Headquartered in the Netherlands, ITM had until then been primarily a rebuilder of existing tobacco machinery, but the company had outgrown its niche and was eager to start developing its own equipment.
Poland was an obvious choice for the new venture, but not for the reason cited by many Western firms at the time. Whereas other foreign companies were attracted primarily by Poland’s low cost of labor, ITM was interested in the quality of the country’s workforce. For all its shortcomings, the former communist regime had invested heavily in technical education, resulting in the widespread availability of skilled engineers.
Excited by the opportunity to work for an international company, the young Polish team started innovating almost immediately. Under the direction of Leszek Sikora—currently CEO of ITM Poland—it developed groundbreaking equipment, such as Capricorn, a revolutionary first-in, first-out rod buffer; Gemini, a flexible filter logistic system; and the Solaris filter combiner. Capricorn, in particular, represented a milestone—not only due to its pioneering technology but also because it put ITM on the map as a manufacturer of new equipment.
Prepared for tomorrow
As ITM Poland celebrates its 25th anniversary, the tobacco industry is again in the midst of transformation—perhaps the biggest since Columbus brought the golden leaf to Europe from the New World. Whereas the venerable combustible cigarette has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction, 150 years ago, today’s modern products are outdated almost the minute they hit the store shelves. Short product life has become the norm, requiring tremendous creativity from technology suppliers. During its anniversary celebration, ITM Poland sought to demonstrate that it is well-prepared for this new dynamic market.
In mid-September, business partners from around the world descended on ITM Poland’s hometown, Radom, to take part in festivities and learn about the company’s latest technical solutions. Company representatives recounted past successes, thanked customers for their support and paid tribute to Arend Van der Sluis Sr., who passed away in March.
Whereas the first day of the event celebrated the past, the second day was about the future. As several speakers pointed out, the greatest challenge is predicting what tomorrow’s products will look like. In the absence of a crystal ball, ITM is building as much flexibility into its products as technology will allow, so that its machinery can evolve along with the product.
In 2014, ITM’s TDC affiliate introduced the Genesis, for example—the industry’s first e-cigarette automated filling and assembly solution. Designed modularly, the machine allows customers to keep up with product changes simply by adding and removing modules.
With the same future-oriented philosophy in mind, ITM presented several new technologies at its Radom event.
In the filter segment, the company launched a capsule-insertion module for its Polaris filter maker, along with a cavity-filling unit and a non-cuttable objects module for its Solaris combiner.
Utilizing the full speed capability of Polaris, the capsule-insertion module operates at an unprecedented speed of 500 meters per minute without compromising insertion accuracy, according to ITM. Features include a double-capsule insertion function and an on-board capsule-presence monitoring system.
The Solaris combiner cavity-filling unit, says ITM, sets new benchmarks for precise cavity creation, filling percentage and product cleanliness. With a built-in monitoring system, the unit is ready for both current and future filling additives.
ITM’s noncuttable objects module creates opportunities to insert new finished component types that differ from the typical base rod into (future) products. The ITM Solaris can combine quadruple products, including ultra-short 5 mm internal segments. The new module allows for novel combinations of finished products. As is the case on all the company’s new filter solutions, an onboard monitoring system ensures quality.
In the rod-handling segment, ITM launched its new Taurus tray unloader. Benefitting from the company’s considerable experience in rod logistics, the machine features a modular construction method with selectable options to fit varying needs and budgets.
ITM’s Delphi II tobacco reclaimer, which was also introduced during the event, builds on the success of its well-established predecessor machine, but has been redesigned to process more complex products. Advances in filter technology, with new materials and components, such as flavor capsules, have made the task of reclaiming tobacco from rejected cigarettes trickier. To prevent contamination of the recovered tobacco, the machine features integrated infeed separation, a new rod-alignment system and the latest in gentle opening technology.
Other reclaiming innovations presented during the event included the Elph plug remover and the Delphini on-line tobacco reclaimer, which guarantees full traceability and eliminates the risk of cross-contamination between brands.
According to ITM, all introduced reclaiming technologies are capable of retrieving tobacco from all existing tobacco products, including the special-purpose tobacco rods used in today’s new-generation products.
As it prepares for the future, ITM is not shy about borrowing ideas and best practices from other industries. To expand its skills and knowledge, the company has been on a bit of a buying spree lately, snapping up companies that complement its core business. ITM’s recent acquisition, Tricas Industrial Design & Engineering, is a good example. The company uses crossover innovation to apply proven technologies from other industries in the tobacco industry.
In 2013, ITM acquired IMAtec of Luxembourg, a supplier of packing equipment for other tobacco products. IMATec’s portfolio includes cigarette paper booklet machines, pouch makers, clear-wrap kits, shrink kits and end-of-line packaging equipment.
Combining the companies’ teams has enabled ITM to offer complete packing solutions from concept to machine acceptance. In addition, it can now produce prototypes and mockups. The company will also be offering efficiency improvement services.
In 2015, ITM purchased Gemba Solutions. Based in Atherstone, U.K., Gemba specializes in overall equipment effectiveness software and continuous-improvement services that maximize production efficiency, increase throughput, reduce inventory and provide all-round visibility into factory operations and processes.
And, earlier this year, ITM teamed up with EME-Engel from Zaandam, the Netherlands. With more than 75 years of experience, EME-Engel specializes in liquid-pouch packing. It offers a broad spectrum of solutions, from concept to final design and production. According to ITM, the new partnership provides a platform for crossover innovation, enabling it to apply technologies from other industries to tobacco applications and vice versa.
In the meantime, ITM has been paying close attention to “Industry 4.0,” the trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. As machines become “smarter,” they are increasingly able to communicate with their operators and one another. By making clever use of the data generated, manufacturers can greatly improve the efficiency of their operations, minimizing downtime and optimizing performance. The Solaris Athena platform, which was also introduced during the event, is a good example. It allows all parts of the filter combiner to communicate with one another, provides full access to date and facilitates decisionmaking.
The tobacco industry has changed significantly since ITM established its activity in Poland. But, as became clear during the Radom celebration, the company has evolved with the market, sometimes even developing new technologies that enable customers to manufacture products that don’t exist yet. As a result, ITM appears well-positioned to enter the next chapter of its history, no matter how turbulent the new environment may be.