Modular factories of Enschede-based Zeton travel the world

From all over the world, market-leading companies and start-ups in the process industry are coming to Zeton in Enschede. From Dow to Shell and from GSK to SABIC: from all over the world, they come knocking at the door of this Dutch branch of the Canadian company. And with good reason: Zeton is the designer and builder of modular pilot and demonstration factories. “We build mini-factories for our customers, from laboratory phase to production phase,’ explains director Johan ter Harmsel.


Simply put, Zeton supports its customers with the steps required for the complete production of a new product. ‘We don’t just design based on theory; we also look at practical and economic feasibility. What aspects will you have to deal with in a complex production process on a smaller scale at high temperatures and high pressure?’ Ter Harmsel sketches. The products developed and tested in the factories are very diverse, from bio-plastics made from biomass to oil made from wood chips. ‘In recent years, our projects have been mainly focused on sustainability within chemistry. In our market, we work around the interface of development and production,’ Ter Harmsel explains. ‘But we don’t manufacture our own products. With our scale-specific knowledge, we are experts in designing, engineering, and building installations for our clients’ production processes.’

Transporting a factory

At ‘De Marssteden’, an industrial estate in Enschede, Zeton works out each step in detail with the customer. ‘How big should the installation be? How are you going to control it? After the design is completed, we build small pilot factories that can make a few kilograms of a product, but also a ton if necessary,’ says the director. But the process doesn’t stop there. Once a factory is tested and working correctly, it is taken apart in modules and reassembled at the customer’s site – wherever that may be. ‘Being able to transport is therefore essential, both by road or water.’ The location in Enschede is ideal for this: along the A35 freeway and near the Twente Canal.

Big Pharma

Zeton has been around for almost 40 years. The company was founded in the 1980s, thanks in part to OOM, the predecessor of Oost NL. In 1986, OOM linked the company, then called Xytel, to an engineering company from Hengelo, after which it was taken over by Canadian Zeton in 1996. In recent years, the company has continued to grow, doubling in size in both hall capacity and personnel. The location in Enschede currently employs 180 people. ‘The market has also broadened,’ says Ter Harmsel. ‘We started with process-technical installations in the oil and gas industry, and later, we added the chemical and plastics industries.’

Meanwhile, Zeton is also entering the pharmaceutical market, a – for now – conservative market with many opportunities for innovation. Ter Harmsel: ‘We’ve got a lot of knowledge of continuous processes, while the pharmaceutical companies work with batches or incremental processes. But more and more big pharma is also starting to see the advantages and possibilities of continuous processes. Because the technique would allow them to respond more quickly to changes in the process, they would be better equipped to monitor their product quality. On top of that, it would save time and energy. There is a radical change going on in the pharma industry in terms of sustainability. This market is therefore an important focus point for us.

Pleased with Enschede

Zeton’s growth is partly due to its good relationship with the University of Twente, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, and the many secondary vocational schools in the region. ‘There are many talented, enthusiastic young people here. We have set up a trainee program, especially for them. Most of the participants continued to work for us afterward. There are also many good manufacturing companies in this region, with whom we cooperate a lot. We consciously choose these collaborations because the culture is the same and because we speak the same language. We know what we can gain from each other.’ Zeton also regularly uses knowledge and advice from Oost NL. ‘We have a strong bond. Their support is instrumental, especially in matters that reach beyond our national borders. The cooperation is precious to us.’

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Zeton Enschede

Zeton has been based in textile city Enschede since 2000. Leaving the East of the Netherlands is not an option; Ter Harmsel is adamant. ‘Partly because of the university, Enschede is an international city, but with the pleasant, no-nonsense culture typical of the East of the Netherlands. We have employees from Mexico, South Africa, and Brazil, and almost everyone in town speaks English. This makes our people from abroad feel welcome. In addition, it is pleasant to live here, and people feel less rushed here in the East.