"I Was Always One of Few Women in the Industry"
SOLO Swiss in Porrentruy in the canton of Jura has been making industrial furnaces for heat-treating metals since 1924. The family company with a global presence is developing against the backdrop of Industry 4.0 and is struggling to find the qualified workforce which is indispensable for what it does amid the effects of the strong franc and what are sometimes restrictive administrative regulations. Interview with Anne-Sophie Spérison, President and CEO.
Anne-Sopie Spérisen, CEO of the SOLO Swiss Group (img: Didier Walzer)
BaselArea.swiss: I imagine that Industry 4.0 is a key area of development for you?
Anne-Sophie Spérisen: Absolutely. Industry 4.0 is understood as the collection of all the data available on a machine to convert them into information or “impetus” for other factors included in the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, for example. It is also about loading and downloading information on preventive or corrective maintenance for a machine. In practice, alerts are triggered if a turbine is gradually approaching the end of its run. This can also be management data which is sent to the control cockpit.
Is there major potential in terms of Industry 4.0 in your company?
Yes. On our kinds of machines, all the information on each of them could potentially be sent further down the line. Industry 4.0 could also be very useful for maintenance. For example, it would be conceivable to provide our customers with connected glasses so that our technicians could provide instructions from Switzerland while the customer sits in front of their machine in Shanghai, so they can fix the machine themselves. Our objective is to ensure that Industry 4.0 is a real bonus not only for the customer, but also for production, maintenance, monitoring, machine productivity and the management cockpit.
There is sometimes a tendency to bundle everything in with Industry 4.0. But what is it really all about?
It is the extraction and processing of data in a previously unprecedented manner. In Industry 4.0, we are attempting to link new technologies and new processes with exactly this Industry 4.0. At the end of the day, it is almost a question of creating new products and services. That is why we have had an engineer dedicated to this project for two years now, although he is not the only one dealing with it. He needs to have a perfect command of information systems, data processing and emerging technologies (receivers, sensors) – as well as the associated possibilities these offer, since they are evolving all the time.
What about maintenance?
For us, this is a key issue. In this area, we offer our customers private Internet portals. They can connect remotely from their machines and monitor their production online. We can install sensors all over the machines. They generate relevant information which can then be retransmitted in a form which is coherent, intelligent and comprehensible to the customer as a function of their requirements. Effectively, we need to make all the information available to the customer in the form they want it. For example, a complete log of all maintenance on their furnace.
Still on the subject of Industry 4.0, are you able to find the necessary skills in Jura?
It is not easy. There is a lack of schools providing training. We are primarily looking for IT specialists, specifically specialists in Industry 4.0, but they also need to understand the technology. We need both IT experts and mechanical and electrical engineers. The region here is a centre for micro-technology, which does not tie in with our area of activity.
The future of SOLO lies in…
…perfect mastery of the furnace process, i.e. everything that happens inside the furnace and controls the machine. The customer demands pieces which are perfect after treatment with no reprocessing necessary and a guarantee that they will meet the ever more demanding quality standards of the automotive (CQi9) or aerospace (AMS 2750) industries. The complexity of the parts to be processed, new alloys, new production techniques for metal parts (3D printing), this is our future. It is all about having perfect control of the thermo-chemical processes of our machines. Essentially, it is metallurgy which is controlled by computers.
Will you be able to continue production in Switzerland?
It is a challenge, because we only sell 20% of our machines in Switzerland and we export the rest all over the world because our machines are aimed at niche industries. Added to this is the issue of the strong franc and the problems in finding qualified engineers in Jura, especially as the employment market is so robust. It is a real challenge for us. There is also the difficulty posed by the myriad of standards and regulations, which are coming increasingly complex and onerous at an administrative level. At the same time, however, it is an opportunity for us, as it protects us from competition from low-cost countries who cannot comply with the new and increasingly demanding standards. But remaining competitive at a pricing level is very difficult. That said, the new technologies fortunately give us an opportunity to improve our competitiveness even further.
Are you optimistic?
Yes, I am by nature, even when it’s a daily battle. There are so many parameters which can change very quickly. Luckily, the markets are currently stable, we are seeing good levels of growth from the majority of markets in Europe, Russia and Asia, and we have a range of quality products which are tailored to our niche markets. We also have a fantastic team we can rely on and have some new technical developments in the pipeline.
What can you say about the Chinese market?
When we started back in the 70s and 80s, we sold furnaces to Chinese purchasing centres. And we also worked with representatives over there. In the 2000s, we entered into a partnership with a local company. Currently, we are working with a production unit in Canton with around one hundred employees. It is a company run by a family who have become our friends. It was necessary, even critical to produce locally for the Chinese market, especially in order to respond to invitations to tender from government companies.
How would you describe the effect of having a woman in charge of the company?
It does not pose any problems personally. I am very much at ease with it. Some people I speak to are put off-balance because a woman is perhaps more direct than a man. We dare to ask questions, we are more stubborn. I grew up being the only girl or one of the few women: there are very few in industry, which I think is regrettable. There are no differences in management styles between men and women. It is more a question of character and sensitivity.
Interview: Didier Walzer
About Anne-Sophie Spérisen
Born in Bienne, although she considers herself three-quarters from Jura, Anne-Sophie Spérisen is 54 and has been running SOLO Swiss SA since 2001. She took over from her father.
There are around 80 employees working in Porrentruy (in Jura) and some 20 others spread across the branches in Bienne and France. This adds up to around 100 employees – or 150 including China.
Before SOLO, Anne-Sophie Spérisen, who has a Masters in Economics from the University of Neuchâtel, worked in industrial marketing for an automotive subcontracting company in Detroit in the United States, before holding various positions in finance and controlling at different industrial companies in Switzerland.
The company boss is a member of a non-parliamentary committee in Berne, the PME Forum, and the non-executive board of SERV (Swiss export risk insurance). Finally, she is a member of the French-speaking committee of Swissmem (umbrella association for SMEs and large companies in the Swiss industry for machines, electrical equipment and metals – known as the MEM industry – and associated technical sectors) and also of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jura (CCIJ).