Digital contract manufacturer
The corridor walls outside Marco Bauer's office are covered in bright yellow, red, blue and green Post-its. His company is growing and recruiting new employees. It is in the process of setting up childcare facilities, expanding its production shops, buying new machines and establishing digital production processes.13 May. 2020
New Post-its are added every day. Due to the lack of free wall space, the company recently switched from stick-on notes to a digital solution.
Based in the Bavarian town of Weiden, the company BAM is a contract manufacturer boasting more than 40 high-tech machines (for metal cutting, sheet-metal working and additive manufacturing) as well as extensive software expertise. Today, Marco Bauer’s company can no longer be classed as a typical contract manufacturer. Nine years ago, the situation was different. At the time, the computer scientist took over an eight-man operation with just four machines. “One half of the employees didn't care what I changed. They said to themselves, ‘He knows what he's doing’. The other half was passionate about my ideas.” Six of the eight are still working; two are now retired. Today, more than 150 employees are breathing new life into a large part of a former battery factory in the Weiden-West industrial park.
Targeting niche markets
“I had no idea about lathing and milling,” Bauer explains. However, as an IT graduate and computer systems administrator he was very familiar with digital processes. “At my previous job, we still backed up our data on floppy disks in 2010,” he admits. His expectations were different. From the outset his goal was to create an online shop in a production environment. He bought the contract manufacturer and travelled around the local district looking for partners for his digitization plans. But nobody wanted to follow Bauer’s path. “So we set out on our own.”
Bauer’s prime focus for the online shop was on the manufacturing process. “If you order a component somewhere today, the price depends very much on soft factors. The person who designs the component is sometimes in a bad mood, sometimes motivated, sometimes self-confident. These factors influence the production plan and the price. We wanted to change this.” Bauer and his team at BAM have found a way to automatically calculate a production plan and a price in a few seconds. “This saves time during production scheduling, reduces set-up times, optimizes administrative tasks and makes us faster and cheaper than our competitors,” Bauer proudly explains. His customers come from a wide range of industries – chemicals, laboratory technology, electronics and sensor technology. Even ambitious private hobbyists order their parts online from mipart, BAM’s on-demand manufacturing platform. Bauer’s secret has been to enter a niche in the B2B market and build a B2C market. “Fortunately, we don’t deliver to the automotive industry,” Bauer says jokingly. The lot sizes in the B2B and B2C markets are almost identical. “We feel very comfortable with small-size batches and are also happy to make 50 parts,” Bauer states as his goal. The AI-based online shop is an important step – but not the last one – in automated production of batch size one.
The core elements of the software solution are automated geometry analysis, machine learning algorithms and human know-how. Within a few seconds the software analyzes each component. BAM has closely involved its domain experts, i.e. the men and women on the shop floor in the development process. They were asked to define thousands of components in advance on the basis of a Tinder-like process using criteria such as “difficult to manufacture” and “easy to produce”. This delivers a specific work schedule and detailed price information. With each new component, the software learns and optimizes the algorithm – automatically and continuously. The software tool has meanwhile been transferred to a spin-off enterprise (“up2parts”), which has attracted external partners.
BAM has received a lot of praise in industrial circles: the company’s software not only speeds up the capture of 3D design data and the calculation of production times, but also establishes new processes that save time and money.
Digital and analogue processes
BAM is glad about this positive response. But Marco Bauer and his team have not yet completed the digitization challenge. “We still have numerous analogue processes. We are certainly a pioneer in the area of sales and component costing. We use robotic systems on the machines, which form the basis for automated
production. The next step is the automatic generation of the NC code in design and the automation of quality assurance and shipping. Digital and analogue processes come together in the CAM segment.”
The company’s CAM specialists also deploy additive manufacturing techniques. “Additive manufacturing complements existing processes. Surface quality remains a problem, and the finishing steps have yet to be automated,” says Bauer. In particular, there is a shortage of designers who are familiar with additive manufacturing. “Our vocational schools and universities are still very much focused on traditional machining.” Will factory automation pave the way for a breakthrough in additive manufacturing? “This is an important aspect, but surface quality, speed, topology optimization and other factors play an equally important role. The more finished the component emerges from the printer, the more worthwhile this technology becomes.”
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