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Geert van Ewijk

“Our work always revolves around innovation and improvement.”

My Unisign Story: Geert van Ewijk (65) witnessed the move from speciality machines to CNC machines while working as a control engineer in the late 1980s.

Geert was offered a position with Unisign as soon as he completed his vocational degree in electrical engineering. ‘Compulsory military service did not apply to me. Unisign was at the school gates, asking if anyone wanted a job. They definitely had my interest. Bart van Ruth, our managing director at the time, always had a preference for graduates from senior technical schools because “they are good with their hands”. I started out as a control engineer, working on the electrical systems and programming of speciality machines, as they were known then. Everything I worked on at the start was new to me. School did not teach us how to programme a PLC. I learned all of that here.’

Speciality machines

A shackle bending machine was the first speciality machine Geert worked on. ‘We’re not talking handcuffs but those U-shaped pieces of metal for cranes, with two eyes that can hold a bolt. The machine was built for a company in Sliedrecht called Van Beest. It was connected to a small PLC for the controls, which I was allowed to programme. One of the largest projects I worked on in my early career was the automation of a Veha radiator manufacturing plant in Geel, Belgium. We developed an entire production line for them, including stackers and destackers. The whole set-up was built and tested here in Panningen, all as part of our speciality machine activities. And there are many more projects I could mention. Just now I am reminded of the production line we developed for Organon, which was used to assemble filters for artificial kidneys. Very different from the machining equipment we build today.’

CNC machines

In 1981, a year before Geert joined the company, Unisign had built and successfully presented its first CNC machine at the Technishow fair in Utrecht. Geert, however, spent his first few years working exclusively on speciality machines. Management decided to shift the focus to CNC machines at the end of the 1980s. The very first CNC machine Geert worked on was a key cutting machine for the well known Lips brand. Geert: ‘This machine was used to cut dimple keys that have those characteristic dots. When I visited Lips around 5 years ago, they still had that first machine running. You’d be astounding by the long service life of most Unisign machines. We simply make amazing products.’

Competitive advantage

Geert: ‘The knowledge we gained while building specialty machines proved very helpful in the development of CNC machines. An example is our expertise in hydraulics and clamping devices, which immediately put us ahead of the competition. We were also already set up to build to a customer’s specific requirements, whereas most competitors offered standard machines that were selected from a catalogue.’

The change of course at Unisign coincided with an increased demand for support, from both its customers and in-house service engineers. Geert comments: ’The controls for our CNC machines became more and more sophisticated at a time when our service engineers were mainly equipped to handle mechanical tasks. I moved from Controls to the Service department in 1992 to support customers and colleagues with my expertise in controls.’

The year 1982
Geert started his career with Unisign on 16 June 1982. This is the year in which Helmut Kohl became the German chancellor and Ruud Lubbers took up the position of Dutch Prime Minister. The Falkland Islands were the scene of a war between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982. The Rubik’s Cube became a craze among young people and the computer was named ‘Man of the Year’ on the cover of Time Magazine.

Remote control

Geert would regularly visit customers on-site in his early days with the Service team. Geert: ‘That doesn’t happen so much now with the arrival of remote control. If there is a fault, we can check what’s going on using a remote connection. In the old days, our diagnosis relied quite heavily on the information the customer would give over the phone. These days we can simply ask them to record and send a quick video with their smartphone so we can see for ourselves. Service delivery processes have seen many improvements over the years, as have the controls themselves.’

Sweet treats

Geert: ‘I never know what lies ahead as I head into work each morning. This is part of what working in service operations is about. That first call might just turn your day upside down.’ Geert smiles: ‘Keeping machines running and getting service engineers out on the road is what my job is all about. It brings a lot of satisfaction to know at the end of your day that you’ve solved so many problems. Customers regularly show their appreciation, by sending us cookies or other sweet treats. It feels good to see customers happy.’

40 years at Unisign

Geert celebrated 40 years of service at Unisign in 2022. Alongside his service role, Geert has also served as member and Chair of the Works Council for the past 9 years. What has made him stay at Unisign all those years? Geert: ‘My father would have liked me to join the plumbing business he ran. But after some consideration I still decided on Unisign. I chose this job because it is always about working on something new, together with colleagues. One innovation is quickly succeeded by the next and that is what makes our work fun.’

This is also Geert’s core message to new technical graduates who are out hunting for a job: ‘If you want to keep innovating, Unisign is the place to go. You’ll work with the latest technologies and be challenged over and over again. Right here in Panningen.’

20 April 2023