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Van Dijk
Client stories 2 Jun 2021

“Innovation is what really motivates me!”

-interview with RoBlock patent-holder Piet van Dijk- ‘That's what you’ve come to see, isn’t it?’ Piet van Dijk stands at his office window and nods towards something outside. Slowly rotating on the walkway leading up to the main entrance is an enormous white rectangular planter. ‘Weighs over three tonnes. And it’s got an in-built radar safety scanner!’

Van Dijk’s office resembles a company boardroom, with a large meeting table in the centre and at the back a wide desk with two computer screens and a modern ergonomic chair. But this is no boardroom. ‘I’ve been demoted to a lower floor,’ the 84-year-old innovation expert quips with a wink. ‘They needed more room upstairs.’

His latest innovation

He walks round the meeting table and points to a framed illustration of his latest innovation: the RoBlock, a rotating vehicle barrier made of high-grade terrazzo. It’s a road barrier which doubles as a bench, planter or artwork and is designed to fit seamlessly into a specified streetscape. “It’s a great way of providing security while at the same time visually enhancing an outdoor environment. And much better-looking than those steel tubes you normally see rising from streets and squares, don't you think?”

Van Dijk has obtained a patent for the RoBlock in the Netherlands and has another patent pending for the EU. A key innovative element of the RoBlock is its radar safety scanner. “It detects when a person or object is inside the turning circle, in which case it comes to an immediate standstill. The rotating element is what I got the patent for. The turntable and electric driver are embedded in the concrete foundations underground. You can operate the system using numberplate recognition, an app or a remote control device.”

Father-son enterprise

Piet van Dijk is the founder and former owner of Van Dijk Maasland, a full-service provider of infrastructure, construction, environmental and foundation engineering technologies and landscaping solutions. It's a family firm, established in 1953. “My dad and I built it up together,” explains Van Dijk, who turns 85 in June. “I was 16, just left school - that's how it was in those days. My father started out with just one tractor and eventually our agricultural business grew into the contracting firm of today. We now have around 90 employees on our payroll.”

Earlier this century he began gradually handing over the reins to his son Frans, but still carried on coming in to work as usual. “I’m here nearly every day, usually from about 10 in the morning to the early afternoon. I’ve got my own work, but it’s still part of the company.” And there are quite a few employees who remember him when he was CEO. “I came across a crane driver the other day who’s on his final project and retires next week.”

He also still regularly visits clients on behalf of the company. “If they have a water or odour problem, it's me they tend to call. Piet, could you come over and take a look?” Van Dijk’s well-known for being constantly busy working on ‘new solutions’. And with considerable success, judging by the six or seven patents he’s garnered over the years. “The first was the most successful.”

It's reassuring to know I’ve got my hands on the patent!
Piet van Dijk -

Constantly innovating

His first patent, which he took out in 1980, was for a system based on foam concrete for insulating crawlspaces and underfloor voids. It was a ground-breaking innovation which established Van Dijk’s name in the insulation sector and for which he was even interviewed on national television. “I appeared in the second broadcast of De Nationale Ideeënbus, the first-ever programme about new innovations on Dutch TV. The next day I was in touch with dozens of housing associations, all of which had water or odour problems in their properties. Each one I called welcomed me with open arms.”

He delves into a stack of binders, extracting a folder of patent licenses which he opens out on the table and leafs through, identifying the ones that are still current and those that have expired. They range from a ‘Swiss cheese’ substrate for reducing the density of asphalt on dyke roads, to moveable playground foundations. As he goes through them, he says that thinking up new solutions is what’s always really motivated him. “If you come up against a problem, you look for a way to solve it, don’t you? I used to keep a tape recorder in the car to take down inspirational ideas I had as I drove along. I found it again recently and played it back!”

He pauses over a patent for a self-raising flood barrier, which is still current. “That's not actually one of my ideas,” he says without hesitation. “Somebody came to me one day and said he’d heard I was always working on new ideas, and that he’d come up with something he thought was quite interesting. So we developed it further and applied for a patent. We initially applied it in Antwerp to protect the historic quayside along the river Schelde, but we’re still in fact waiting for it to be implemented. I wish they’d hurry up and get on with it because I want to be around to see it… I think I’ll give ‘em another call.”


Although Van Dijk now mainly focuses on his own projects, his colleagues are still keen to make use of his knowledge, experience and inventiveness. “Recently I’ve sat in on a few brainstorming sessions for a major quayside renovation project we’re tendering for.” “There are the sketches” - gesturing to his desk. Together with a retired friend - a former professor in hydraulic engineering - I’m developing ideas my son can put to the committee.”

Innovation and inventiveness are part of the company’s DNA, he adds. “That's why we’re also taking the lead on behalf of two partner firms in the same tender.” Beyond the office, he thinks his creative genes have chiefly been inherited by his daughter, an interior designer, and four granddaughters. “They’re all studying subjects with a large creative component, from art to architecture. So it’s obviously in our genes!”

Then it’s briefly back to the RoBlock, of which the demonstration model outside the entrance is currently the only working example. “We’re now busy concentrating on the product roll-out. The website’s being finalised and I’ve got several meetings coming up with potential partners and users. I’m also in advanced talks with one or two large municipalities. Generally speaking, we tend to specialise in building outdoor spaces rather than in designing. Although this makes launching the product a little trickier, the market for this solution is definitely out there, so it's just a matter of finding an ‘in’. Meanwhile, it's reassuring to know I’ve got my hands on the patent!”