How on-demand manufacturing turned a German startup into an innovation machine
Germany is the land of inventors. Clever minds that not only dream up new ideas but also bring them to technical perfection are the cornerstone of our prosperity. Young companies with well-trained employees in particular are drivers of innovation. But a lot has also happened in recent years in terms of collaboration with innovators.
The value of innovation, implementation and a sensitivity to the zeitgeist have also been recognized by many corporations in recent years. Accelerators, venture funds and innovation clusters have sprung up to keep pace with the competition for the business models and technologies of the future. It is clear that purely technically oriented contract research at research institutes is becoming less important. The trend is toward holistic development, which requires business models, rapid validation via prototypes and an entrepreneurial mindset. Who could be better suited for this than startups that have lived and experienced entrepreneurship themselves?
A prime example here is the company WMT from Stuttgart, where they develop, implement and test. Here is an interview with the team regarding founding a hardware startup, the role of manufacturing-as-a-service (MaaS)
Running a Hardware Starup
Paul: What is your history with WMT?
We had previously developed, produced and marketed the electric rollator ello in the tech start-up eMovements. After the financial difficulties of the company and its liquidation, we simply wanted to continue what we had been doing for years with heart and soul: developing innovative products. WMT Gmbh with the slogan “We make technology” was founded in 2019 and was able to start directly with customers, partners and suppliers from the existing network.
Paul: What have you been able to learn from your two business ventures so far?
Basically, our learnings can be condensed into three slogans: 1. Entrust yourself to specialists — you can’t handle all development issues yourself. 2. keep the fixed costs for your business small. 3. design products that are sensitive to the market at an early stage — both economically and functionally.
Paul: You mainly develop products for eMobility and bring in your mechatronic know-how for customers. What is particularly challenging about hardware and mechatronic concepts?
Each trade has to be informed about the big picture. So good project management is part of it. We work collaboratively and remotely a lot, and there are many templates and automations that make life easier. So the team behind such developments must also consist of broad-based specialists. In this respect, our experience makes us a well-coordinated team that is on call for customers.
Paul: Which customers work with you and how did you convince them?
We are very fast. Both quickly available and with project submissions. Changes are incorporated literally overnight. A spontaneous presentation at the customer’s can come in between and we really step on the gas for it. In general, we are always hungry for new projects and exciting developments. That’s when the spark tends to fly. Accordingly, our customers can hardly be reduced to individual industries; the mindset and the speed currently appeal to many industries undergoing change to expand their products.
Paul: Which project from the past are you particularly proud of?
Currently, the third generation is in the workshop: the autonomous scooter of the IST of the University of Stuttgart. A masterpiece of disciplines: mechanics, electronics, software, control engineering, sensor technology.
Basically, however, we are proud of all projects. We put our heart and soul into them from the first sketch to the final delivery. The engineers develop and build at the same time. That trains pragmatism in development.
The Role of On-demand Manufacturing while running a Hardware Startup
Paul: You mention the assembly of the prototypes. As a startup, what particular challenges do you face in manufacturing when you’re developing hardware?
There’s usually a lot of pressure from stakeholders to meet expectations. That can be investors, funding bodies, approaching trade fairs, customers… So the development time window is already kept small, the budget anyway. There is often not much time left for the very important phase of procurement. Production data must be exported cleanly, drawings created, manufacturers found and informed. The focus is on profitability as well as on the timeline.
Paul: How do you solve the problem of procuring manufacturing parts as a start-up?
The transparent prices of online manufacturers are sometimes available in seconds and are unbeatable in terms of price. Many selection options make sourcing components child’s play. Communication is a plus point with traditional regional suppliers — not that you don’t have a contact person. But online, of course, it’s significantly more anonymous. We can decide for ourselves which components to procure where and at what stage. That’s an enormous competitive advantage, being able to procure and test components quickly and dynamically.
Paul: You are based in Stuttgart. A region that lives strongly from manufacturing. Do you think Stuttgart has the potential to transfer its strengths in manufacturing into digital solutions?
I can only speak from experience of a few partners in the region who have set themselves up wonderfully digitally. In general, even more providers would be happy to do this. In any case, there is massive potential on the technical side. For our generation, it will soon be a matter of course to order online — I hope the manufacturers hear the signs of the times.
Paul: Will the change come from startups like Laserhub and Instawerk or rather from big players?
Each provider has its advantages and disadvantages. The processors grow along with their own requirements. I think the market will be shaken up by the young guns. However, as with well-known broker platforms, they will initially rely on established manufacturing partners until the change is suddenly just around the corner.
Paul: Digitalization and mechanical engineering: What further potential do you see in the digitalization of manufacturing from the end customer’s point of view?
As end customers, we don’t really care where our parts come from. However, the transparency mentioned above is a great benefit for everyone involved. Costs in development, small series and even for series can be better estimated. Production times are also visible, which is also important in today’s times of delivery bottlenecks.
This interview first appeared on my MaaS-Blog and can be read there in German.