Interview with Isabelle Maillot, Vice President of product innovation at Sidel

From developing complete beverage line processes to pioneering packaging technology and services, innovation is a driving force at Sidel. We talk to Isabelle Maillot, Vice President of Product Innovation, to find out how her team ensures Sidel continues to help beverage producers remain at the forefront of market developments.
Q: Where does your team get ideas for new innovations and developments?
A: They come from everywhere! But mainly from what we hear from the front-line talks with our customers. When our people talk to customers on site they can see what their needs are and find out more about how our solutions can help. We also have regular innovation days with our customers and suppliers. All of this input goes into our work and the brainstorming sessions we use to get new ideas. My team closely follows new market, packaging and technology trends. We attend exhibitions and trade shows, such as pharmaceutical, automation and even military technology shows. This lets us see how innovation and ideas are used in other industries.
Q: But how similar are these industries to the beverage industry?
A: If we, for example, look at the aerospace and military industries, they are driven by research and are not as cost- focused as the beverage industry.  They are often first with new materials and coatings. We keep track of the evolution of these trends and at a certain point when it is well integrated and proven, we can use it in our solutions. It’s a balance between finding the right time to be first to market and at the same time with a technology that has been proven, that is also cost-effective and reliable to offer to beverage producers.
Q: It sounds like you get lots of proposals for innovation projects. How do you select which to work with?
A: We have a process in place to help us decide which ideas to work with. We need to be sure that the project benefits our customers both today and tomorrow. Therefore, we work both with ideas that we can realise in the short- term, and we also have a pipeline of more long-term ideas with the potential to be game-changers. The product and account managers are important in this process as they have direct contact with our customers. They know whether an innovation development answers a real customer need. If it doesn’t it will just be a great technological idea with no real customer value – and not a project, we want to work on. Each month, we have a team meeting to discuss all the ideas we’ve received and we assess them using defined cri- teria and processes. However, there is still an element of instinct involved.
Q: What role does instinct play?
A: Innovation is something that disturbs the standard process. If you use too many processes and criteria, you tend to     end up with the safest ideas. And the safest ideas are generally the ones that everyone else is also considering. This can result in a “me-too” solution. That’s where instinct comes in. And because we have people on the team who know the market, the customers and in- dustry, their instinct is highly valuable.
Q: So when you decide to invest in an innovation project, are you sure that it will be a success?
A: No, we can never be sure. We usually start with a business case and then we have targets that we need to meet on the way. We use risk analysis techniques and work using the Six Sigma process methodology that is widely used in the automotive industry. But if we have a lot of customers who are demanding and validating the project, then we can be more confident.
Q: How involved are beverage producers in Sidel’s innovation process?
A: It varies greatly. Some are very in- volved in our work and want to influence the development process, which allows us to take more of a long-term view in developing solutions for their needs. This collaboration is not always about the big breakthroughs but often about incremental innovation. For example, they might have the equipment and want to improve its performance. However, all of our customers are different and others prefer proven technology.
Q: From the customer point-of- view, what are the big drivers for innovation?
A: The packaging itself is the main driver. Any technology or innovation that helps manufacturers produce the packaging they want, in terms of performance, bottle weight, product safety, at the lowest cost is what they are looking for. Reducing total cost of ownership, or TCO, is without doubt a big part of this. This is a broad theme and covers the equipment, costs, maintenance, energy and resource consumption, and need for labour. By focusing on TCO, we can also impact sustainability, which is high on the agenda for most of our customers. As part of reducing TCO, we’re working a great deal with machine intelligence. This kind of artificial intelligence is a big theme right now. This is how the machine learns by itself from the data it receives. Over time this will lead to the machine making better choices than we humans can make – from adjustments to production processes to predictive maintenance when the machine itself knows it needs a spare part.
Q: Which of Sidel’s innovations are you most proud of? 
A: Predis has been a real breakthrough and is a project we’re all proud of. It has improved sustainability, ease of use and product integrity for beverage producers. This dry preform decontamination solution works using no water and very few chemicals, which has challenged traditional assumptions that complex blowers with a high chemical consumption are the only way to produce aseptically. Our Intelliblower solution is another solution that I’m very proud to have been involved in. This solution takes a first step towards machine intelligence. It can analyse various parameters and auto-adjust its processes to ensure production quality.
For customers, this means that their production lines can run within specifications without operator intervention in the blowing process. Even if the temperature varies during the day, the Intelliblower produces bottles that meet specifications. It can also identify a blowing station that is not performing optimally, which is a clear boost to improving production quality.
Q: Which industry innovations do you expect to see in the next five years?
A: I see packaging technology playing a larger role in consumer health. For example, your fridge could analyse the turnover of fruit and vegetables, if you drink more soda than water and so on, and transmit this information to products you buy. Then the product packaging could remind you about the shelf life of the product or encourage you to balance your diet, for example with the message “drink me now with an apple”.
Q: Is there a certain type of person who is good at working with innovation?

A: The short answer is no. For a good innovation team, you need different profiles. In my team, everyone is very different but we are all hugely passionate about what we do. That’s actually quite typical for Sidel. We are all driven by this passion for creating the best equipment and services for our customers. I believe that everyone at Sidel works with innovation at some level. We’re just the catalysts for getting it to market.