In the workplace, the different kinds of harm caused by regular exposure to noise are recognised today, such as tension, tiredness, difficulty in concentrating, irritation or hearing loss. In order to combat these problems, Laurent Capellari founded Cotral Lab 26 years ago, at Condé-sur-Noireau, in the Norman county of Calvados. His aim? To provide custom-moulded hearing protection devices to workers exposed to sound pollution. Today, Cotral Lab is the world leader in the field: present in 11 countries, the company is in the process of expanding into Asian markets too. Portrait.
Regulations oblige companies to equip their workers with hearing protection devices from 85 decibels upwards, and to propose them from 80 db
Health in the workplace – an essential issue
‘‘Acutely aware of the problem, Laurent Capellari created his business all by himself, personally getting involved in every stage, from taking ear-canal moulds to marketing,’’ explains Arnaud Leboucher-Verneau, now head of marketing at Cotral Lab. ‘‘It’s been a significant issue for businesses. With Corporate Social Responsibility on the agenda, he understood that these protection devices provided a concrete response to the problem, benefiting both employer and employee.’’ Finding key players, including Gwenolé Newer, director of technology, performance and transformation, Laurent Capellari rapidly developed his business, both on the technical and organisational sides.
Having grown across France over 15 years, Cotral opened up to international markets a dozen years ago, notably in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia and the Nordic countries, before taking on Italy and Spain. ‘‘If hearing loss is diagnosed in an employee at work, the company is held responsible. So it’s in a company’s best interests to protect its workers properly… Our mission is none other than to ensure that employees no longer become deaf because of noise in the workplace, our value proposition really being capable of making a difference all over the place…,’’ makes clear Ricardo Allamelou, Director of International Development. Today, the company is N°1 in the world in the particular segment that is custom-made hearing protection devices, and is proud to have equipped almost two million employees across the world, in over 30,000 businesses of all kinds. ‘‘Most major industrial groups and thousands of SMEs have adopted this solution, but also more surprising groups, like the Miami Fire Brigade.’’
Working in environments subject to 92db or 87db of noise requires two different kinds of hearing protection devices. It’s the same if you need to communicate regularly with colleagues or not.
Custom-moulded using innovative processes
Down the years, several models of hearing protection device have been developed in-house by Cotral Lab’s engineers. The challenge? To make these protection devices as comfortable as they are efficient, so that they can be worn with ease through all the periods when a worker is exposed to noise. ‘‘We often make the comparison with rain. If you only open your umbrella a minute after it’s begun to rain, you’ll get wet. It’s the same with noise. There’s an impact even after a short period,’’ Arnaud Leboucher-Verneau emphasises… with the distinction that hearing impairments are invisible and irreversible… To overcome this difficulty, Cotral systematically sensitises employees to the risks of noise. ‘‘A technician specialising in prevention goes into each company, takes the moulds and trains the workers on the importance of protecting themselves from noise pollution.’’ Now, Cotral hearing protection devices are suitable both in loud industrial environments, open spaces and offices.
The aims? Comfort and adaptability. ‘‘The different devices are adapted to different work environments, as well as to the hearing and shape of the individual employee.’’ Hence personalised hearing protection devices with handles to make them easy to pick up, or transparent and flat ones, more discreet in an office… To increase the efficiency of the products, the manufacturing process is regularly improved upon. Notably, moulded earplugs made by hand have been replaced by resin hearing protection devices made by 3D additive manufacturing, to ensure maximum airtightness. The complete digitalisation of the process has been developed in-house, allowing Cotral employees to gain in skills and versatility with each manufacturing shift. But Cotral’s expertise comes into play most notably thanks to the acoustic filter linked to the tip of its devices. Like mini-tympanums, these filters, now developed in-house, can eliminate or lessen noise on specific frequencies. ‘‘That’s where the technology is, in the filter; it’s the key element in our hearing protection devices, and the right one can be chosen according to the working conditions of each user,’’ Ricardo Allamelou underlines.
On the Asian market, Japan and South Korea are ground-breaking. They are strongly oriented towards innovation and experience very little turn-over in staff by encouraging loyalty
Two major axes: innovation and internationalisation
From improving existing solutions – e.g. release of the cord from 17 newtons upwards, or flatter interchangeable filters – to 4.0 industrial protections, the company has placed innovation as the central pillar for its development. Most recently, the Cotral Laboratory has been awarded the contract to develop BANG (Bouchon Auriculaire de Nouvelle Génération, or new generation earplugs) for the French DGA (Direction générale de l’armement, or Directorate general of armaments) in association with the Franco-German research institute, Saint-Louis. Embedded electronic technologies have been adapted for the invention of Bionear, a product destined in this case for the civilian and industrial worlds. ‘‘It’s a connected, custom-made in-ear headphone which has as its primary function to increase the hearing capacity of the human ear.’’ At test stage, this device should start to go on the market from September 2020.
The other major axis of Cotral’s development is internationalisation, using two models, either direct subsidiaries – created from scratch, taking on local employees, adapting to the realities of the specific market – or joint-ventures in more distant countries, both geographically and culturally speaking. ‘‘For example, in Korea, we’ve sought the support and know-how of the local leader in the manufacturing of security glasses and soldering masks,’’ explains Ricardo Allamelou. ‘‘The idea is for us to link up with connected industries that have a real value proposition for our core customers; this allows us to develop solidly within an existing network of customers.’’ In 2019, the Cotral Group achieved a turnover of €50 million, 20% of which was made in exports. After recruiting 45 members of staff in 2018, 17 of whom were for totally new positions, Cotral Lab continued its expansion in 2019. ‘‘Some 250 people work for us, around 100 at our headquarters in Normandy. We’re constantly looking for specific skilled individuals, from engineers with expertise in embedded electronics to technical sales people who are bilingual, speaking Korean or Japanese, for instance!’’
Key figures :
- 300,000 pairs of custom-made hearing protection devices manufactured every year at Condé-en-Normandie (Condé-sur-Noireau), in the Norman county of Calvados
- Cotral Lab represents over 50% of the world market in the field
- The company has set up in 11 countries
- 250-strong workforce, c.100 of whom work at the Normandy headquarters
- Since 2011, the company has developed its manufacturing with resin and 3D printing
- The company is the only one in the world in this field to guarantee its protection devices for six years, not just the product, but its efficiency and comfort as well
- Count 3 to 4 weeks between the custom-made moulding and dispatch of the finished product
- Three essential criteria need to be met before the company is prepared to launch itself on a new market: mandatory laws must already be in place as regards security at work; a culture of security consciousness must also exist; and blue-collar workers must be guaranteed a decent wage. For the time being, only 20 countries around the world meet these criteria!