Czech engineers and the coronavirus crisis
Novel situations often require unconventional solutions. The fact that Czech companies can react genuinely quickly was also corroborated when the world was struck by the coronavirus pandemic, which has seriously affected the operations of all engineering companies.
We asked TOS VARNSDORF Business Director Miloš Holakovský how one of the main Czech engineering manufacturers handled this extreme situation affecting the global economy.
How is TOS VARNSDORF a.s. doing now? How has it dealt with the impact of the pandemic and how great has the pandemic’s impact on the company’s operations been?
TOS VARNSDORF is a limited liability company primarily based on exporting its products. We produce and ship up to ten machines per month, of which about 80% are destined for export. Assuming an average assembly time of four to eight weeks, it is easy to see why we have over 30 assembly personnel plus a few service employees working abroad each month. That was one of the biggest problems we had to deal with when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Within a very short time, we had to leave incomplete machines with our customers and make sure that our employees could safely return to the Czech Republic.
However, even in this extreme situation, the company succeeded and even devised an interesting innovation—virtual handover of machines!
Indeed. Since the coronavirus pandemic did not halt production of new machines at TOS VARNSDORF, completed machines accumulated and were stored in-house during April. As a result of borders closures, our customers unfortunately could not visit us to collect their machines. Moreover, at that time nobody could reliably predict how long the pandemic and its associated quarantine measures would last, or especially when travel would once again be possible. That is why we agreed with our customers on virtual handovers of their machines. We used Zoom Cloud Meetings, which are an advantage because they support calls between multiple participants. This allowed us to conduct virtual handovers and show our customers all the important and required matters by video, specifically the completeness of the machine and its functionalities, including movement along all axes, and of course, automated replacement of equipment and technological accessories. This meant customers could remotely check the machine’s operation for the individual applications uploaded into the machine’s control systems. These handovers also included measuring the accuracy of the machine’s positioning and culminated with a machining test for a NASA item. It is worth mentioning that all the handovers carried out in this way were successful. Sometimes it was necessary to take the customer’s geographic region into account. For example, for an Australian customer, we began the handover very early in the morning.
Did you also encounter any problems?
I am not aware of any extraordinary problems that concerned the virtual handovers. Just as we saw less personal travel and travel replaced by webinars, we saw the technology behind the virtual handover of machines as an interesting opportunity that could be particularly useful for very distant regions. This can save precious time and costs in the future that would otherwise be spent on travel. Handovers for distant regions such as Australia, China or the U.S. take 3–5 workdays due to travel, and that does not even take into account the problems associated with time zone differences. On the other hand, virtual handovers can be carried out in a single day.
TOS Varnsdorf has a well-established tradition of presenting their newest products at open days and trade fairs. Will physical presentations now be complemented by the digital technology verified in practice?
The main advantage of presenting products using digital means is being able to introduce a product without necessarily having it physically present. This leads to significant savings in time and costs spent on transportation and assembly. There are many ways to do it. We are currently holding our presentations using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). We have used VR at our trade fair presentations via 3D cinema, which offers a complete showcase of the machine’s model and a fully-fledged 3D display that includes interactivity with the machine, such as rotation, movement, zooming, etc. We are currently completing our work on augmented reality presentations. These will let us present a machine in its real environment, such as at a trade fair or directly at the customer’s premises. You can use devices such as tablets or mobile phones as cameras that display your real surroundings but are enhanced with a complete 3D model of the machine in its actual size and with correct dimensions. Once again, it is possible to fully interact with the model, including real movement around the machine. Another significant advantage of this type of presentation is being able to attach additional information to the displayed 3D models, such as text, photos or videos which can be activated using the interactive icons on the virtual 3D models. The primary benefit then is the opportunity to present the internal structure of the machine, showcase the functionality of certain components or provide specific use cases.