The Impossible Project - Open House 2011

 The Impossible Project: Reinventing instant photography and taking the Polaroid Legacy further
Author: Vinyl Ivan
Published: Sunday May 15th, 2011
Abstract: This is a short review of the first Open Day held at the instant film factory "The Impossible Project" in Enschede, The Netherlands on Monday May 9th, 2011.

The Impossible Factory

On Monday May 9th, 2011 the former-Polaroid plant "The Impossible Project" in Enschede, The Netherlands would open it's doors to connect with fans from all over the globe. For people not familiar with The Impossible Project here is a short rundown. Polaroid was the largest instant film supplier and stopped producing the film in 2008. They started to close down factories all over the world. All factories were dismantled, except one in Enschede. A group of former-Polaroid employees and businessmen still believed in the concept of instant photography and bought this factory, just in time before all of it's machines were scrapped. The "impossible" task that laid ahead of this newly formed team was producing a new film, since the chemical plant of Polaroid did not exist anymore. Hence The Impossible Project was born.

Mondaymorning
Having taken a day off to go to Enschede, doubt started to arise in the morning. A day off! Do I really want to make a trip of 3,5 hours to Enschede by public transport? I could of course stay at home and visit the local market for some groceries. But then again when did you get the chance to visit a factory, let alone the mythical last-instant-film-for-Polaroid-camera's-production-facility left standing in the world? Finally I made up my mind and while packing I made the decision to take all of my gear with me the Nikon camera and a Polaroid camera. Yes heavy, but it could come in handy. While traveling by train stopping at cities with their own enticing treats: Amsterdam, doesn't the city look good, glowing in the morningsun? Even Amersfoort took it's toll: interesting old city buildings! Why not have a sneak peak? Deventer, it is an old town near a river?! But I stayed put and after 3,5 hours by train I made it to Enschede.

The Bus
While you can walk from the trainstation through the city centre of Enschede to the factory, I took the bus as planned, but that did not work out that great. The busdriver "forgot" me, while listening to the radio or telephone, so she stopped the bus at the next trafficcrossing, which I was thankful for! But I forgot to check out my public transportation chip card. Argh, now I would get a fine of 4 Euro's, well as long as I am on time at the factory! It was a bit of a hassle finding the right way into the factory-complex, some directions by panels would have been better. But the photo of the factory, which Marlene had send me was a big help.

Welcome
When I had found the gate together with a couple from Paris, France it was time to enter the realm of The Impossible Project, a big grey looking factory complex. A member of the staff directed the vistors towards the hall of the
main building. This building houses most of The Impossible Equipment and Machinery I would later find out.


The reception area is a small building, basicly it's a hall with a counter and wardrobe. The hall also serves as the outlet store, which is open every Friday. Some people were gathered in the small room, to register as a visitor at the counter, before going upstairs to have a drink and wait for the tour to begin. At the counter you could already meet The Impossible Project's Communication Officer Extraordinaire: Marlene Kelnreiter!



The flags could have given us a clue... can they be put alongside the road?


Aren't factories big? Then to think that Polaroid once owned the whole complex?! This is just the main building.


Made it!  We are at the headquarters of "The (im)possible Private Limited Company".


Nice! Every friday you can buy instant film at the factory gates! The Impossible Factory Outlet!



Taking care of the store and it's goodies is The Impossible Project member: Wim (Quality Manager).


The products are literally wheeled out of the factory into the hall, behind the counter. Wim, as the Quality Control guy, who he is, checked my Polaroid camera Spirit 600CL first to see if it worked, before selling me two cassettes of the new colour film PX 680 First Flush.


Fully restored camera's could be bought as well at the store. Just waiting for a new owner.


After leaving the Outlet Store you find yourself in the staircase of the factory, but I was not going up, before having a look at this great framed poster. The text at the right side says: "This image was put up in the hall of the Polaroid sunglasses factory at the Noorderhagen [street in Enschede]. Which was based there from 1967 to 1979." So the history of Polaroid and Enschede go a way back together.


The staircase houses a big lamp-ornament starting from the top of the building to down below.

An Impossible Tour
Well basicly I was too late to register for the tour, sorry Marlene! It was fully booked, but thankfully Marlene would add me to one of the last tours through the factory. It was close to 14:00, so I knew the Question & Answer-session would start soon. We were welcomed in the canteen. And what struck me first was the Polaroid flatscreen TV.


Welcome at The impossible Project Open House, May 2011!


Is it really? Yes it is! It's a Polaroid television. For some people the beginning of the end in diversifying the brand too much with other products, other than photography. But it would not be the last Polaroid product we would see on the tour.

Question & Answer-session
As we were all gathered and sat down we awaited what the Question & Answer-session with the founders would bring. André Bosman kicked of the meeting explaining the history of The Impossible Project, after Polaroid sold the factory to them in 2008.



André Bosman making fun of the above average age of the personnel: "The factory consists of old, but reliable machinery, just like the people working at The Impossible Project."

Demise?
When Polaroid announced the closing down of the instant film production it created a shock wave among fans all over the world. But the problems of Polaroid were very real, the market for instant film was shrinking and their factories had a too large production capacity. Besides the factories seemed to have a one function purpose-only: one making millions of batteries, other cassettes, the chemicals etc. Spread all over the world and sizing these factories down would be a problem, even pausing the production would still cost a great amount of money. In December 2007 Polaroid stopped production altogether and the first factories were dismantled starting with the chemical plants and the battery plant. The problem of Polaroid was also to guess how large the fanbase still was, who wanted to buy the instant film, since even Polaroid did expect consumers were still out there for the product. The global outcry regarding the production-stop even surprised the instant film giant Polaroid itself. But the decision was a fact and fans just needed to live with it. Until a group of "old men" stepped in to buy a Polaroid factory in Enschede, still having faith in instant photography and therefore formed The Impossible Project in 2008.

Challenge
The challenge the young organisation faced in 2008 was the making of a completely new chemical colour system. Since the Polaroid system could not be used anymore. One of the first factories which were closed by Polaroid was the chemical plant. Besides the Polaroid formula consists of serveral chemical components that are no longer produced, supplied or allowed due to current environmental and health standards. Furthermore it also took 18 months for the Polaroid chemical blend or mixture to be ready for photo-reproduction.

Feedback
Therefore the company had to develop a strong learning curve, and feedback is received quite quickly by it's cult-following from all over the world. Like with the production of the first all new black & white film material made by The Impossible Project in 2010 the Instant film: PX 100 and PX 600 Silver Shade. The new instant film created by The Impossible Project contains more than 30 new components compared to the original Polaroid film.

Marketing: a new generation
The Impossible Team will continue to focus on their traditional customers for now. Reaching a new generation is not a goal in itself, since young people discover the magic of instant photography, the "chemical light paintings", already for themselves. The demand from the United States to make more of an advertising effort will not be undertaken because the film is not yet perfected. People expecting the Polaroid quality could be dissapointed by the new film still in development. In other words managing expectations is key here.

Customer:
the many faces of instant film
The demand for The Impossible Project film is the largest in Europe, followed by the United States and Asia. Looking at the audience in the canteen I could understand how hard it would be to try to reach this instant film fan. Because there was no "average customer" here. There were men, women, teenagers, people in there 20s, 30s, 40s and senior citizens. And where were they from? The visitors came from Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, the United States, France, even all the way from Singapore. In the end André Bosman concluded: Our customers are our best marketingmanagers!



The complex was initially all Polaroid's. Now most of the machinery is held in one building.The young company The Impossible Project now rents 50,000 square meters of factory-space.


The Marketing & Communication manager Florian Kaps answered most of the questions fired by the attending audience.

Customer complains
To overcome the problems due to the language barriers of such a diverse clientbase the company sets up small teams per country to reach out to their product buying public, if a problem arises.

Diversity & Personnel
As the company started out in 2008 with "10 old grey men" as André Bosman puts it, the company has grown and even has 6 women working at The Impossible Project. That balances out the diversity and the age a little. New blood to the organisation is welcome, but it does take two years of training to independantly run a machine. And as he explains, he needs "hard workers", not managers. So he needs people who would like to stay for a long period of time working for The Impossible Project.

Competition
André Bosman emphasizes that The Impossible Project colour system of the photo's is different compared to Polaroid's or Fuji's. Florian Kaps describes the Fuji instant photo's as "too perfect". The rollers in all of the different Polaroid camera's give The Impossible Project photo's always a different look, you never know what to expect.

New Film
There were quite some questions regarding film-types that I did not know about. But I understood The Impossible Project is working and experimenting to produce a new  8x10 inch "peel apart" film, which is hard to make.

New Camera
A new camera is the next "Impossible Project". The company is developing a new camera completely optimized for the new Impossible Project films. Although the Polaroid SX-70 camera is the Number 1 camera, they have the dream and vision to demonstrate the new camera at the Photokina in September 2012. Regarding these new challenges mr. Bosman says: "The fact that it is impossible is good for us".

Questions
The questions asked were quite diverse from questions regarding the financial stability of the enterprise, to creative endeavours with an instant photo, but also "veterans" asking for special types of film from Polaroid's glory days gone by.


And then it was time to team up with our tourguide Johhny Verbeek, process engineer at the productionplant, to walk around the factory.



The storeys are big and grey, so stay close, do not loose the group out of sight! The warehouse with high stacks filled with production-material.


Polaroid's presence still oozes out of every crack in the factory.


Then we enter the room of Jos Ridderhof, probably one of the last people on the planet, who can renovate and repair a Polaroid camera. Here is a batch of SX-70 camera's, which have passed the test.


So ok, you think you are up to it?  Polaroid parts.


Meeting Jos is fun, hearing his Polaroid stories about the SX-70 camera. He even repairs for general customers, not only camera's for The Impossible Project store.


So many camera-models I did not even know about!



A whole stack of Polaroid Image Systems and some Polaroid Image 1200 Professional.


When the camera is repaired some broken pieces stay behind.


Jos is surrounded in his working quarters by different polaroid models. I like the orange cover SX-70.


Polaroid mixing with Looney Tunes merchandise creates a Tasmanian Devil instant camera.


A Polaroid camera for medical purposes with a macro lens.



A nice see through camera on the right.


This cupboard holds some of his spareparts, on top are several Polaroid camera's, including a Barbie merchandise version.


When a camera is ready for it's new owner Jos tests it with a photo of a mannequin doll Betsy, who is I understand a world renowned celebrity in the Polaroid universe.



The evidence that we are in a factory is all around, even in the hallways: big powercables and fuse boxes.

Laboratory
As told The Impossible Project team had to reinvent the whole instant camera chemical mixture again from scratch. My group got a tour by process engineer mr. Verbeek and we reached his domicile


The room where the materials and chemicals are tested to become the best instant photo's with their own unique twist.



On the otherside of the room you find a Polaroid MP-4 Land Camera connected somehow to a microscope.



An old Kunststoff Taschenbuch is laying around casually. The 23rd edition of 1986. The last edition won't help either, the 25th edition of 1992.



In this room you need to be very careful. These cupboard-doors give access to  "Zuren", which means acids and "basen", bases. A good old fashioned chemistry cabinet.

 

In this room testing is king. Several instant film photo's.


What another Betsy?! Yes, in a side room a photo setup is created for the newly developed Impossible Project film to be tested.


The room is full of Polaroid memorabilia used to test the new batch.


Now if that were a real photopack, how big would the actual photo be? Not mentioning the camera!


Old equipment can still be seen, a part of the pneumatic mail tube system.


On the wall a familiar sight can be seen. The darkslide collection!


For the collectors to enjoy! I understand this was the first series.


The second series: words of wisedom...


The recent third series. A bit boring, but more graphic.

Chemical mixing room
All this testing needs to boil down towards a working product, in other words a photo with the same repetitive qualities, when taken into production. If the formula is ready the mixing stage of these chemicals happens here.


No, you can't have a sniff...


It's all elementary, my dear Watson!


The second machine in the room.

Strips and safety goggles
We came into another big hall to receive safety goggles first, because we were about to see the machine, which makes the strips, you can find on your instant film photo's. These strips need to be filled with the chemical mixture to develop your photo's. Important is the opening of the strip on the right side, so the chemical covers the foil and negative evenly, when a photo is taken.


The production must have been massive at this plant since at least six of these machines are present.


It's working at a high rate.


On the side of the machine you could see a big clock hand rotating like crazy.


Lot's of dial gauges to check on this machine.


But not all of the strips make it through quality control, these are rejected.

Next level


We headed towards the next stage of the manufacturing process, well really towards another floor in the building.


Looking through the window.


In the hallways you can find these notice boards functioning as an old form of an intranetwebsite, this one is empty: Latest News, General, Vacant Posts, Mutations, Personal details, Sport & Leisure. It reminds you of the fact this used to be a factory complex with 1200 men and women producing instant film to make photo's of families, reunions, holidays all over the world.


Batteries

As one of the first factories that closed down by Polaroid was the battery-factory. It is good to see The Impossible Project has pulled it off together with their supplier to build a new one!


An Impossible Battery.


As you can see the battery consists of two little bags connected by wire.


All batteries are hand checked by an Impossible Project member, before they are used inside the cassettes!

Plastic cassettes
Talking about the plastic cassettes, of course the machines that make the cassettes ready, for the instant photo's to be inserted, are present as well in the factory.


It looks small, but it is quite big and long in real life.


There were two machines in operation. The machines had to be filled by hand, since the machines' automaticly filling system was scrapped before The Impossible Project bought the factory. But new ones are on the way.


The end product of this machine. It's looking good!


But as everything in the factory it needs to be quality checked, that happens in a room within the big hall.


A sight for sore eyes. All the cassettes that the former-Polaroid plant had to offer in it's heyday.

The Chamber
Now comes the important bit the machine room where the cassettes are filled with photo's. It is the most important room in the factory.


As you can see machines are located around the chamber. There are several of these chambers at the factory, but not all are active.


A machine supplying the foil for the photo's into the chamber.

 

One of the other reel-machines we could see upclose.


It is all quite big and on a massive scale.


Our guide mr. Verbeek is showing us what they are trying to pull off inside the chamber, make the best instant film possible by taking really good care of the foil and negative and piecing it correctly together, making it fit onto the millimeter exact.


There is a door in the chamber, that leads to a second door, but one door can not be opened before one has been closed, light is not permitted in.

 

An Impossible Project member just hangs up a microphone. So someone is inside the chamber, inside all that noise?

 
The mic.


Another machine: taking care of the strips filled with the chemical mix.


A large supply of strips waiting to turn images into real photo's.


From the ceiling up above the chamber is fed with the cassettes.

 
But before it enters there is something added.



Now you see it....



And then you don't... It looks like the metal spring system is added for inside the cassette.


The Impossible Project members check the quality of photo's every 3 or 4 times a day. If new material is used and problems arise these guys will be the first to know.


The old Polaroid quality standard procedure is still being followed, this version is issued November 2004.


Of course the darkslides with the artwork have to be added as well!


Up close and personal.


The machine looks quite difficult. I hope none of these lights need to go off. It does not look good if they would.

 

Finally the shape of the finished product appears, see here the sealing of the photopacks.


Folding the plastic protection sheet.


And fixating it, all automatic.

Packaging Department
The photopacks are ready to be shipped, which means they need to be packaged and posted to the warehouse in Vienna, Austria.
So it is time for the packaging department to kick in:


The safety mirrorballs you can find everywhere in the factory. You are looking at a packagingstation reflected.



Many filled carts like these are standing ready for packaging.



The cardboardboxes are stacked up to be used.



Feed me!


Just so you know they did not scrap everything: Polaroid machines live on!



And production of instant film has not stopped, it was merely postponed!


Let's make this journey!


There seems to be a last minute check.




What are we packaging today? Oh yes, our new PX 680 FF!



The end product is nearly ready!


It's all in a days work at The Impossible Project facility in Enschede.


Could I take one of these boxes with me? Just one, thank you!



Safety features are everywhere in the factory. And so is the quality control!


A shipment that had almost flown undetected under the Project Quality Control's Radar.


But there is no escape, neither from The Impossible Project members, nor it's fanbase. The quality needs to be absolutely good.


And then it's time for the endresult to get shipped into the world: Watching the world through a white bordered square.


For the ones that do receive the stamp of Approval by the The Impossible Factory staff, it's time to leave through the big elevator towards the transport dock.


And then it's time to clean up and go home, after a hard days work!


Big surpise
But at the end of the tour there was still a big surprise to come! One of the chambers was stripped of it's walls, so we could have a look at the inside:


The following photo's you see are from the left side of the chamber.


This is the part you normally do not see!


Within this room all of the efforts are coming together to manufacture the instant film.



Do you see the brown rim on the ceiling, that's where the walls used to be.


It looks as if the machine could start running any moment.


Since the walls are stripped away, you can only see one door to enter the chamber.


And this is the space the technician would have, like the machine-room of a submarine it is quite cramped. On the left side shutters are always closed for protection, so the worker is not exposed to the danger of the machinery.


This is a photo taken from the other side you can see more of the central inner workings.

 
Communication-microphone from the inside.


New Old Stock Machines
Thankfully not all Polaroid factories scrapped their machines immediately. Because once gone it is hard to make new machines as reality has proven The Impossible Project management before. Thanks to other Polaroid facilities in the world some of these are saved and shipped to The Netherlands! New machines have come in and the sender has taken care of them really well, including all the documentation! Something The Impossible Project team is really happy and grateful about!




More documentation to go through!

How it's made
At the end of the tour we went back to the canteen. Did I really understand how it was made? No not really, a little then! Because I was making these photo's I missed quite some valuable lessons by Johhny Verbeek. On the other hand you've had a sneak peak of what an Open Day has to offer for you. And I mean sneak peak, because you did not hear the huffing, puffing, screaking noises the machinery makes, nor talked to the people and their stories they have to tell. Since this Open Day was such a success I read there will be a follow up, so I'd urge you to visit the plant yourself! Or if you can't, then watch the show "How It's being Made", since an episode is devoted to The Impossible Project instant film production.



The show "How it's Made" is broadcasted on the Science Channel in the USA on Friday June 3rd, 2011 at 9:00 PM EST. On Discovery Channel in Canada on Friday July 8th, 2011 at 8:00 PM EST.

The Impossible Members
Meeting the members of the factory is quite something special, the rare breed that have continued. They emphasize how great it was to work for Polaroid and talk openly about the grieve of losing their jobs and seeing their machines get dismantled. They can look back at careers covering 20-30 years working for one employer, a factory that had seen 1200 other collegues! Now this has gone to past. And even if they met some jealousy of a few old-collegues, since they are the ones who carry on the torch for instant film, they do continue their task in making the best film possible with pride of ownership. Plus they are really a flexible workforce, because what needs to be done, needs to be done. If you work at one department, you just step in to help the other out. And that does show, how flexible the "old" workers still are, even after 20-30 years.


Everything is possible at Impossible. Please, open here.

Looking back
Did the visit take some of the magic away? Yes and no. Yes, instant film is being made in a factory and as all factories there is no glamour, nor glittter. It's smelly and noisy, it's big and grey! No, because I am quite impressed with what they have achived in 2-3 years time. They have taken up a challenge against quite impossible odds, reinventing instant film. The equipment might be old and some even scrapped, but they pulled it off, creating a new instant film. You see the eager to learn, to check the endresult, the quality control, the research and development. It's quite unbelievable how hightech you can be with such an old idea as instant photography. It's this atitude you find among the staff and the factory members - making the impossible possible. And that's the instant hit and the glamour you take with you after visiting the factory!

Museum-idea
Some ideas like a workshop "how to be creative with The Impossible Project film" was already mentioned at the Question & Answer-session. And it would be good to see more interaction among the fans, since you can learn from each other. Another idea would be to gather Polaroid camera's and promotional materials and start a museum within the factory. I learned from a member, that when the news came out in 2005/2006 a mass lay off would happen in a few years time, some 'souvenirs' were taken away. Maybe these former-members could donate some to The Impossible Project? It's just a thought, since I can understand all of the efforts today are directed towards the perfecting and producing of The Impossible Film!



In the hall before you enter the canteen there is a noticeboard, it includes a message: "He who has faith, commitment, trust and believes in the 'impossible' is usually successful." And at The Impossible Project they still are.



Instant Film: The future is just beginning.

Timeline

A short timeline to understand the history.

1965
The Polaroid Company established a factory in Enschede, The Netherlands.

2006
The Polaroid Company stops production of Polaroid camera's.

2007
The Polaroid Company decides to stop making instant film and is getting ready to close down the last remaining factories in the United States, Mexico and The Netherlands.

2008
The Impossible Project buys the factory in Enschede, The Netherlands, just in the nick of time.

2010
The Impossible Project introduces their first black & white and colour instant film.

2011
The first Open House Day at the The Impossible Project factory in Enschede.

2012
Next goal: The first camera by The Impossible Project is introduced at Photokina.



Reports

For other photo-reports regarding the Open Day, please see:

HoodedOne

http://www.flickr.com/photos/8316089@N06/archives/date-posted/2011/05/09/

Joep Polaroid Freak
http://www.flickr.com/photos/joepsx-70-freak/archives/date-taken/2011/05/09/

Open House in Enschede - Iamina
http://impossible-project.posterous.com/open-house-in-enschede

Pim Jager
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pimjager/archives/date-posted/2011/05/12/detail/

The Impossible Factory Visit by Starry Blue Sky
http://starrybluesky.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/the-impossible-factory-visit/

The Impossible Project – Factory Open Day by Fridlington Photography

http://www.fridlingtonphotography.com/the-impossible-project-factory-open-day


Video
A nice general video, about the factory. Please watch:

Film: Impossible | het tweede leven van instant-film (Dutch only)
http://www.digifotopro.nl/artikel/2333214/film-impossible-|-het-tweede-leven-van-instant-film


Sources

The websites I have used, not included are my notebook:

Laid-off workers to revive old Polaroid factory
http://vorige.nrc.nl/international/Features/article2265973.ece/Laid-off_workers_to_revive_old_Polaroid_factory

Open House Enschede
http://blog.the-impossible-project.com/open-house-enschede

Pneumatic Tube System
http://buispost.eu/e/

Polaroid to Exit Instant Film as Demand Goes Digital
http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=apSoe2r9tJ7M&refer=us

The Impossible Project
http://www.the-impossible-project.com/about/#team