50 years at Kiwa: interview with Bob Spee

How long have you been at Kiwa?

“On 23 October, I will have been with the company for 50 years! I was hired at the age of 17 as an apprentice instrument maker, in the craft metal working sector, to make installations and measuring instruments for the laboratories and the people who did inspections on location.

I had just left school at 17 and had worked for another company for two weeks, putting things together in an assembly hall. But I wanted to be an instrument maker, to make things. Once I was a minute late because where I had to clock in was a long way from the assembly room, and I had to pay 10 cents – in those days you got paid in cash. Well, I gave the man 20 cents and went home and said I'll never go back again! Of course, my father was not happy about that, as I didn’t have a job and we had a hard time making ends meet.

But I was happy, I wanted to work at Kiwa and become a real instrument maker under good supervision. Mr. Solman, who hired me, remembered that I came in with my father for the job interview! I used to come from Delft on a scooter. I remember Mr. Noordijk saying to me, “Bob, go get some screws and stuff.” I had to go to The Hague, but I just couldn’t find it. Instead, I drove to the beach where my friends were. I came back after a few hours and said, “Mr. Noordijk, I could not find it.” He said, “It doesn’t matter boy, we can sort it out next week.” That sort of thing used to happen, but you can’t imagine it happening anymore, not with everyone having mobile phones!”

What have you done at Kiwa over the years?

“Due to reorganizations over the years, the instrument department where I started in was dissolved, and the technical people were divided among the departments. I ended up in the plastics department, where I managed the equipment; preventive maintenance, purchasing of new equipment and the calibration system fell under me. I was unlucky, and the department was moved to Nieuwegein, where I spent five years, driving back and forth. I then moved to the drinking water department and was asked if I wanted to come back to Rijswijk, where I’ve now been for 12 years.

During my 50 years at Kiwa, I’ve experienced the development of the sector – robots, Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) devices and even computers weren’t there when I started, but now that’s all we’re working with. These days it’s difficult to find technical staff. Because of the very different products we have, there is often some technical part that must be made.

I have experienced several generations. I was the youngest and now I am the oldest! The new generation is pretty handy with new technologies. But the changes have also brought new challenges: we test everything with standards in the laboratory, from the water meter to the safety of the boilers that are in your house, so it is quite complex to become a fully-fledged lab technician.”

What does a day look like for you?

“I work three days a week. On Monday we first have a meeting and divide up the work to be done for functional tests and endurance tests. I am busy with the purchase of equipment, and the calibration system – 400-500 measuring instruments must be calibrated on time, sent out or delivered to different locations. Then I have to check the certificates and put them into the system.

We’ve recently purchased three robots for durability tests, in consultation with the team, and a new hot water bath, which was due for replacement. Every month we look at the costs and benefits to see if we can buy certain equipment. I create a project proposal, outlining what the equipment we want to buy would cost and what it would deliver, what kind of testing we would do with it. You have to guarantee quality and ensure that you have good equipment, so I explain all that in the proposal. Once management gives a signature, I order the equipment and guide the project until it is finished. When it arrives, we have a purchase protocol, so we then fully check that it meets the requirements we have set.”

What is the biggest change you’ve seen during your time at Kiwa?

“There were only about 70 people when I started – we were like a family, everyone knew each other, and we would play cards, go for nights out, have a game of table tennis, things like that. There are about 5,000 of us now so it’s very different – a new generation, much more businesslike and professional.

I don’t oversee the equipment for every department any more, it’s all so much more specialized and complex. Even new taps are electronic – they turn on when you move towards them. We have to monitor all these parameters, and the changes in the technology are changing the equipment we need.

The company has also changed a lot, but one thing has stayed the same: you have to keep the quality in mind in the laboratory – we approve and we disapprove. Preventive maintenance of the equipment should not be forgotten, and equipment must be replaced on time. That’s one of the most important parts of my job.”

You work a lot with the new generation, what do you teach them?

“At Kiwa, I am a mentor to Ryan, who has a lot of questions about all the different tests. I often jump in to do tests and to offer help to him. I like to teach him that way, I have a lot of experience to fall back on!

Sometimes I say to the new generation that first they have to invest a lot of time in learning. There are many lab tests and many standards, and they have to find their way in the lab. I encourage them to try to broaden their horizons. They can of course develop in the company itself, for example by becoming an inspector.”