“Our firm has a broad stance”
B+D Laserworking demonstrates how healthy growth works. General manager Achim Dittrich tells us about the strategy behind that growth and about his visions for the future.
Constant growth brings about opportunities. But it also harbors risks. How do you deal with that?
The risks can be mastered, even in a turbulent market environment, by finely tuned risk management. Right in the early years of our company’s history, we adopted the premise that the largest customer was to account for a maximum of 15 percent of total sales. Whenever a single client contributes more than that share, then it is time to grow. And grow we did: from 350 square meters and five employees in 1991 to the current 9,900 square meters of production floor space and a staff of 220.
How can job shops distinguish themselves from the competition? B+D has been very successful at that…
The most important decision was the one to realign the company. Following the founding of the firm as a laser cutting operation, we expanded by adding welding and bending work. Today, delivering completed assemblies is in the foreground. We begin assisting our customers in the engineering phase. We then continue, not only to materials scheduling, but also to supplying complete groups. This is also reflected in our motto: “So that ideas become products”.
Does a broad customer structure make for healthy growth?
I’d say so. We serve 220 customers, but about 50 to 60 clients account for the majority of sales. We are also broadly based as regards products and industries. The range starts with large forklift trucks and construction machinery and continues on to delicate components used in medical technology.Continuity is of prime importance to us. We strive to make products that are called for repeatedly instead of one-off jobs. The parts vary widely in terms of their complexity and we manufacture more than 12,000 unique products each year. These could be simple brackets or even complete hydraulic tanks for wheeled loaders or preassembled housings for laboratory technology. In regard to pure laser cutting operations, we turn out up to 700,000 items a year. That is a very important part of our business, but not our mainstay.
How is this variety in the parts reflected in your technological orientation?
We cut blanks in a very classic fashion with the laser beam and always use TruLaser machines for this purpose. That is followed by straightening and then bending using TRUMPF press brakes in a number of different sizes. To achieve greater flexibility and smaller batch sizes, we have quite consciously decided on a modest automation level. The subsequent welding operations are carried out manually by 75 tested and licensed welders. Long production runs are turned out in parallel by three robots located at a manufacturing island.
What challenges are you confronted with at present?
We are working on making the procedures within the organization better and more transparent. Expanding our production floor space by 50 percent while adding new machines and 60 new employees in the past two years has made that necessary. The topic of lean management is of great significance. Thanks to the “b+d way”, worked out together with our staff, and our “SystOp” production optimization system, we are infusing the entire company with the idea of lean management.
Do you underscore your quality claim with the physical isolation of the areas where stainless steel and mild steel are processed?
That’s right. We process construction steel in a separate shop. All the way from storing the material to shipping it to the customer, we are absolutely accurate in segregating these types and produce on separate machines in order to prevent contamination. You will never find a “black” component in the shop devoted to stainless steel and aluminum. This is one way in which we satisfy the stringent expectations of the medical and foods industries.
What does that mean for your investment strategy?
It is important that we use modern machine tools built by TRUMPF, and that includes both the CO2 models and those with solid-state lasers. Owing to the high degree of machine utilization and since we strive to always use the latest technology — in order to achieve an edge in productivity, we replace all our machines after four to five years. Just as we do with our customers, we attempt to achieve long-term relationships with our own suppliers, based on mutual trust.
For that very reason, only TRUMPF can be considered as a systems supplier. That is why we fully rely on innovative technologies devised by TRUMPF whenever we replace machines or buy new ones. There the entire package is true to the mark — technology, service and financing concepts. That is why, at the close of 2012, we also invested in a TruMark laser. We use this machine to mark components and apply customer logos to them. That’s true not only for sheet metal. Ceramics can also be readily processed with the laser. In regard to laser welding, we put our full faith in the TruLaser Robot 5020 — once again a product made by TRUMPF.
Many people shy away from making the entry into laser welding…
We were encouraged by the requests put forth by customers — and of course by our own interest in new technologies. When making the change to robot-assisted laser welding, the construction of jigs is important. Working with TRUMPF, we staged a workshop event right here on our own premises. There, customers received information about the possibilities the technology offers. We are already envisioning products that we will be able to weld with the laser in the future.
So this means that — as a job shop — you are taking on an ever wider range of services. Are there any other fields where this is the case?
Logistics — warehousing and shipping — have indeed become important pillars of the business. Our customers find themselves faced with severely fluctuating demand and small batch sizes. This naturally also has significant effects on upstream links in the supply chain, and that includes job shops. That is why we just commissioned our new logistics center with its 4,100 storage spaces. That gives us a competitive advantage. We can store products for our customers and then dispatch them as needed. In combination with dynamic optimization for the minimum reserve level or reorder point, we can respond to our customers’ needs even though the frequency of the calls varies.
This is complemented by our own delivery fleet. In this way, we can establish the most complex make-and-call delivery systems and set up uninterrupted supply chains. We also offer our customers a further service in the field of logistics by supporting them in the development of intelligent transportation equipment and when optimizing supply chains.
What do you see as the future for B+D?
Right now, we are undertaking efforts to expand our geographic throw. We concentrate on the German-speaking regions at present, along with a few customers in eastern Europe and the USA. We are also sending out feelers toward Scandinavia. Our first step there will be to establish a foothold in Denmark. We already have a local partner there.
So you have decided on a long-term strategy?
Our plans extend on to the fifth expansion phase, in 2025. We are striving for sales of 70 to 86 million euros and a staffing level between 650 and 750 employees. 45,000 square meters of property have been earmarked for expansion at the Garbsen site. A plan for succession is already in place. My son has joined the company and will continue and further develop the business. When he told my about his decision, I asked: “Why?” His answer was simple: “Because I want to assume social responsibility.” That is a statement that you can build upon because, in my view, a sense of responsibility for society is one of entrepreneur’s most important qualities.
Contact us: MastersofSheetMetal@trumpf.com
This article was first published in summer 2013.