This article was originially published in German in the Handelsblatt. Please follow this link to view the original content.
The factory of the future is digital. To make this path easier for medium-sized companies, three founders are developing software for networked production.
Düsseldorf When it comes to the digitization of German industry, pessimistic heckling from the start-up scene has become a habit. Maximilian Fischer, co-founder of the software company Actyx, is an exception. "It is often said that Germany, as a business location, is lagging behind in the development of software," says the graduate mechanical engineer.
But this is not true in general. "When it comes to the digitization of the factory, we are leading the way," the 31-year-old states, "this is also due to our industrial ecosystem." Nowhere else in the world is there such close interaction between manufacturing companies and suppliers, who usually cooperate closely when introducing new technologies.
Fischer knows that. Even during his mechanical engineering studies, the founder traveled the world. Starting at the ETH in Zurich, further stations followed at the EPF in Lausanne and at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the Los Angeles area. In 2016 he finally founded the start-up company Actyx in Munich together with Roland Kuhn and Oliver Stollmann - and has been working ever since to accelerate the digitalization of industry.
Kuhn and Stollmann also bring many years of industry experience to the table: For example, Stollmann, whom Fischer met as a fellow student in Zurich, has already worked for Miele, Audi, ABB and Xerox. Kuhn, on the other hand, comes from the aerospace industry and led a development team at the software company Lightbend, which is primarily active in the cloud business.
The trio's business is the heart of the digital factory. The Munich-based company does not just develop programs for individual machines, but a complete operating system. This enables every machine in a factory to be monitored, controlled and thus improved. The investment is expected to pay off after just a few months.
The founder Fischer explains the complicated business model with a parable. "A factory is a complex system that can be compared to an orchestra." Many different musicians have to be brought together. "Today, this orchestration in the factory works in a very analogous way - with slips of paper and tables. But with intelligent software this interaction can be coordinated much better."
With its operating system, which can run on all kinds of machines, Actyx provides software developers with a framework: Based on this framework, they develop specific programs for companies, for example to accelerate communication between factory workers and sales. Manufacturing instructions on paper are no longer necessary.
Because Actyx does not develop most of the apps itself, the company works with several partners who develop software solutions based on the operating system on behalf of their customers. These include companies such as Nordcloud, Actemium and, more recently, Alleantia, whose main business is supporting industrial groups with digitisation projects.
Thomas Baus, responsible for the global product launch at Nordcloud, praises the simplicity of the system: "The Actyx platform enables us to build reliable solutions for our customers with incredible speed". For example, the developers were able to complete a mobile worker assistance app for the Swedish bearing manufacturer SKF within just three weeks. It is also a matter of making better use of the resources of these currently highly sought-after specialists, Fischer adds. "Our operating system offers them easy access to the digital factory, where they can start developing their own apps." This should relieve the burden on medium-sized companies in particular, which often find it more difficult than large corporations to acquire appropriate personnel or service providers due to the lack of IT specialists.
Actyx software is currently in use in 15 factories worldwide, including SKF, the Swabian scaffolding system manufacturer Peri and Stölzle Glas. The Duisburg-based steel trader Klöckner has also implemented the system at individual locations, with all plants throughout Germany scheduled to follow suit this year.
Klöckner's German head, Sven Koepchen, is convinced after the first few months in which his company has been working with Actyx. "With the new set-up we have been able to increase our productivity in laser cutting by ten percent so far," he told Handelsblatt. "All in all, we expect an improvement in efficiency of 20 to 30 percent".
During the introduction of the operating system, Klöckner was supported by Actyx, starting with the acquisition of the appropriate equipment, through the installation of the software, to the training of the employees. Previously, he had held talks with several companies and "thoroughly investigated the Actyx founders", says Koepchen. "Another decisive factor was the easy connection of the software to our existing systems". Actyx earns money with its software primarily through the sale of licenses that are billed monthly or annually.
Fischer and his colleagues were also able to convince investors of their idea. Among the start-up's investors are the Berlin-based early-stage investor Paua, who specializes in B2B companies, and the pre-seed investor System One.
Paua founder Christian Buchenau also sits on the company's supervisory board - as do Rolf Mathies, one of the founders of the VC fund Earlybird, and Jürgen Jasperneite, professor for computer networks at the Technical University of East Westphalia-Lippe. Even though the company is not yet profitable, Actyx and its 30 employees have now completed the early phase of its establishment.
Maximilian Fischer hopes that the Corona crisis will give a further boost to digitalisation in production. Many companies are currently considering how they can make their production more crisis-proof in the future, and some are therefore considering relocating production back to Germany. "In order to be able to rebuild or expand production in high-wage countries competitively, automation and digitization will undoubtedly gain in relevance."