Can metal shields be ordered on-demand and on time? Probably no one would think that this is very likely. However, one company can do this. The plug-in company Smart Bending Factory (SBF), situated in the Netherlands, developed and implemented a web-based portal through which customers can order their metal sheets and tubes on-demand through the Internet. It allows to offer one dedicated product almost at the production cost of a product from a series of 500 products. The three guiding principles for the SBF are community thinking and working, joint exploration of physical processes in a physical SBF and last but not least, applying the web-based SOPHIA technology.
The SOPHIA technology calculates how many parts are required, analyses all the characteristics of the parts, and how it can be manufactured. SOPHIA analyses the product design drawing to indicate for example whether the design is feasible and gives feedback. Thus engineers’ work can be focused on designing the product in an optimal way in line with the latest production machines. SOPHIA provides the customer with feedback about the design. It therefore often uses animated movies to indicate any problems or inefficiencies in the design. This enables the customer to make smart choices. Also, draft designs are uploaded in a very early stage, which makes the process increasingly efficient.
It implies that SBF allows for maximum flexibility and customer orientation, first-time-right mentality, while keeping the costs of the development to a bare minimum.
The ambition of the SBF in the region is that a large number of non-competing OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in the metal processing industry are put together in a community environment for sharing knowledge, experiences, resources, and information, while exploiting metal product manufacturing process steps together. The broad goal is to stabilize, if possible increase the competitive position of the region and its companies.
Key reasoning is that it does not make sense that it is possible for consumers to order a product at home online at a web shop and receive the product the next day, while that is not possible for business customers for their metal products. Those business customers generally have to wait weeks. The SBF vision is to allow for on-demand 3D metal manufacturing.
This also provides a solution to the current, regional problem of a shortage of engineers and creating interesting job opportunities, offering young people good work to keep them in the region and stop the brain drain, while at the same time having an eye also on increasing the female participation in this branch.
At present there are eight key partner organizations connected to the SBF. Two are (vocational) educational institutes, which train the potential employees, and six metalworking firms, some small and one large firm, making very diverse products such as for commercial greenhouse farms, for animal fertilization, for enriching uranium, etc.
The sharing and cooperation mindset also delivers some cross-overs in this project, more particularly unexpected cooperation between companies and extra (outside the project) cooperation between companies. Sharing knowledge is important in SBF:
“The SBF organizes regular meetings throughout the year where participants meet up and can learn together … The advantages are: knowledge exchange on particular choices for materials, suppliers, etc. This way there are cross-overs at the level of engineers which is very useful and otherwise difficult to accomplish.”
The SBF is a loose partnership offering many possibilities not tied towards specific conditions or structures. It makes it very flexible to strive for above-mentioned advantages. Among different parties there is much openness.
Apart from the advantage of sharing and knowledge gain when engaging in SBF from a participating company’s standpoint, the SBF contributes to beneficial and sustainable impact along various areas like business, social, and environmental dimensions. Indeed, the SBF is heading to make not only economic-oriented impact through preparing (smaller) steel-related companies for the future. Obviously the SBF does also have positive environmental effects when manufacturers make smarter use of their raw materials such as steel plates, and achieve a higher efficiency, with less waste, shorter transport routes, etc.
The more long-term vision is to copy the SBF idea in other regions, setting up ‘mushrooms’ implementing the SOPHIA software and connecting local firms.