Hans Odenthal, department manager at Sioux with a tenure of ‘a hundred years’ (his words, not ours), has an enduring love for technology. Hans loves technical fiddling. This passion extends beyond his work hours, as he is an enthusiastic member of a Sioux hobby group that builds software for a fully automated LEGO train set. ‘Within Sioux, we call this kind of useful hobby group Tech Labs; we see it as learning for fun. Tech Labs remind us why our profession is so much fun AND they strengthen the bond between colleagues. Sioux also reaps the benefits of this. That's why as an employer we arrange the space, pay for the supplies and treat ourselves to food for thought.’

His dedication to LEGO has earned him the well-deserved title of ‘Mister LEGO’ among his colleagues. Hans: ‘I am a fanatic, yes. At home, I just assembled the newly released Concorde; LEGO has clearly discovered people like me as a target group. My sons are equally fond of it; one of them wants to build the Concorde one day too, so soon I will take it apart again,' he says. Hans is not the only Sioux employee with a LEGO passion, as evidenced by the fact that he and a group of colleagues have been building a fully automated arrangement of the tiny building blocks for years. ‘The LEGO makes learning about the software extra fun. We started with a train, which we ran using a self-developed .NET application - hence our group name, .NET on Track. It has since become a comprehensive set of multiple builds; sweets are now loaded onto the train fully automatically, which are then delivered to a vault. We also use the train for technology promotion, it does particularly well with children. We are currently rewriting the software into Coco; another step in our hunger for technological knowledge.’

Tinkering with a purpose

Fun and educational - those are the keywords for the Tech Labs. ‘At Sioux, we believe that continued learning is essential to remain successful. That's why our employees receive a 6,000 euro training budget per year. Sioux organises a large number of training courses and workshops they can spend this on; a number of these are also open to our employees‘ partners, so they also benefit,’ Hans explains. But he says the Tech Labs are completely separate from work. ‘Participation is entirely voluntary, we don't judge you for it if you don't participate, nor do we weigh it in your assessment if you do. We think this is important, because not everyone has the opportunity to stay longer at work in the evening to do some hobbies. Maybe you spend all evening at home by yourself tinkering with something, in which case that is just as valuable. But if you and colleagues have an idea for a Tech Lab, Sioux is happy to make it possible. The only condition is that there must be an interface with the work in terms of content.’

Testing with Toto

Sioux recently decided to rekindle the passion for technology among employees. It resulted in a number of new Tech Labs; bringing the total now to around 10. ‘For example, a new Tech Lab has been started for a model railway, where trains, switches and other components will be controlled wirelessly from a PC. Poor contact between the wheels and the rails will then no longer play a role, as is often the case nowadays when sending information via the rails,' Hans explains. ‘In another new Tech Lab, we are building a hybrid guitar effect pedal, which will be tested by the ex-guitarist of the rock band Toto, Tony Spinner. And in the Rocket Science Tech Lab, we want to start calculating how to shoot a water rocket into the air as high as possible. The world record stands at one kilometer, it would be nice if we could improve it.

Harnessing knowledge from hobby projects

While Sioux doesn't intend to sell guitar effect pedals or model train controls, the company recognizes the valuable knowledge gained from these Tech Labs. ‘We gain additional expertise in bringing together hardware and software,’ explains Hans. ‘For instance, with a guitar, it's crucial to preserve the original analog sound while digitizing only the control elements.’ You never know how this knowledge will ever become useful; but you always learn from it,’ says Hans. ‘The professional idiocy of our people doesn't easily go too far for Sioux. Indeed, we would love to support more crazy hobby projects. New ideas are most welcome! Colleagues can call me, I like to help put things on track.’