In certain industries and in some situations, the straightforward solution that consists in manufacturing a part in a traditional factory environment is not always the most efficient one. In situ manufacturing is often the ideal solution but its effective implementation in industrial or non-industrial environments is not that simple. The team at Bionic Production GmbH has seen the bigger picture and has brought to the market a solution that opens up more opportunities for industries we rarely see as major users of AM. This solution is the Mobile Smart Factory.

For this Opinion of the Week, we sat down with Dr. Johannes Schmidt, Senior Project Manager at Bionic Production GmbH to discuss their concept, the issues it addresses, and the industries that are uniquely positioned to take advantage of it.

Interestingly, at the beginning of his career, Schmidt was involved in an interdisciplinary research group that aimed to explore solutions for sustainable and digital mobility concepts; and prior to joining Bionic Production GmbH, he worked as Team leader “Sustainability” at HPC – Hamburg Port Consulting GmbH. A useful experience as he now leads the Mobile Smart Factory’s activities at Bionic Production GmbH, an independent provider of AM services that welcomed Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG as a major shareholder in 2019.

The Mobile Smart Factory and the reasons that led to its development

As the name suggests, the Mobile Smart Factory is an on-site production unit that can manufacture spare parts and other components on demand.

First, I would like to stress that Mobile Smart Factory is a division of Bionic Production GmbH which is a provider of a broad range of services dedicated to industrial additive manufacturing. Our solutions range from strategy to engineering and manufacturing. We produce prototypes for several customers across several industries, the well-known industries such as aerospace, automotive, railway, and other industries. Besides these solutions, we have also developed our system that enables industries to leverage AM on-site and that is the Mobile Smart Factory”, Schmidt states from the outset.

Like many companies that operate in this field, the team at Bionic Production asked themselves: “what is needed in the AM market?” A question that led to in-depth research that sheds light on three main realities:

  • Spare parts management brings many hurdles to operators across industries [who must continuously take into account the current inventory, availability of resources that can be scarce, and other variations].  A mining operator in Kenya, for instance, or an operator in Russia might urgently need an offshore part located in a very different region and for some reason, he could not get that part as fast as he needs and in a very reliable way. In remote locations, we cannot predict the numerous and limited logistics capabilities that operators might face, hence the need for an onsite solution.
  • Furthermore, we came to realize that some of our customers currently operate in remote areas that are very difficult to access. They usually need repair services for some of their damaged parts. The lack of a solution that can accurately produce a dedicated component, can easily cost several millions of dollars per day in some industries.
  • Not to mention that companies that are willing to leverage AM technologies want to do it in a very easy way. As you know, AM is not only about the machine, it also includes pre-processing and post-processing stages that still need to be mastered to get the desired part”, Schmidt explains.  

With all these issues to address, the team at Bionic Production GmbH has worked on a “plug-and-print” approach that would meet each of these needs.  Available in a modular container, the factory is equipped with all the required equipment to ensure flexible and reliable production needs.  

Be it through the production of polymer and/or metal parts on-site, we have designed a solution that covers the entire AM process, from pre-processing to post-processing”, the project manager ensures.

To do so, Schmidt explains that the collaboration with any customers starts with an identification stage. “We must first identify what kind of applications the customer wants to achieve. Thereafter, we select all the parts that can be 3D printed in the Mobile Smart Factory. The digital files are then stored in a digital warehouse. We have worked on the digital programming part so that once the data are transferred to the 3D printer for the production, the operator just needs to push a button to get the final product”, our guest notes.   

As far as manufacturing processes are concerned, depending on the application, the operator can opt for a Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) process, which includes a milling and drilling unit, the metal AM technology from Markforged with materials such as steel, or even an FDM technology.

If the Mobile Smart Factory ensures all stages of the fabrication within one machine, the team behind this solution did not forget the need for some operators to get some quality assurance at the end of the production. For those cases, operators can rely on tactile measurement or the use of a 3D scanning system to inspect the fabricated component.  

Because each factory is tailor-made for each customer, it’s hard to give accurate details regarding the weight and dimensions of a Mobile Smart Factory. To give indicative measures though, the project manager states that standard containers can weigh between 12 and 15 tons. “Our containers are also CSC-certified, which means that we can transport the containers on a vessel, a truck, a ship, or a train”, he adds.

Opportunities for new industries & regions  

We have always known the aerospace, automotive, railway, and even medical industries as the fields that drive the growth of AM technologies. It’s only been a few years that professionals have started exploring the advantages AM can bring to other industries such as the Maritime, Oil, and Gas (MOG).

Our conversation with Johannes Schmidt highlights a wide range of industries that we do not always see as potential adopters of AM technologies. In addition to the MOG industries, the expert sees great opportunities for the shipping, energy, mining, offshore wind, construction industries. In a nutshell, “industries where parts production can easily cost millions of dollars a day – Indeed, depending on the number of parts that need to be produced and the requirements of certain industries, the Mobile Smart Factory can easily become a cost-saving solution for production”.  

 To date, the Mobile Mart Factory’s team is currently building their network of resellers across the world. In this vein, Schmidt cannot help but mention the opportunities he sees through their collaboration with TiziriTech. Thanks to their understanding of the African market and their network, their South-Africa-based partner will increase the availability of the intelligent production unit across various industries such as mining, power generation, or agriculture where professionals work in remote locations.

Moreover, Priit Kull, owner of Inchworm Machines will represent the Mobile Smart Factory in Estonia. In this partnership, both partners share the same vision for the future of logistics; a vision where there is no reason to maintain stocks or rely on large factories that will not be able to match the ever-fluctuating demand.

Whether it is directly from Bionic Production GmbH or via our partners, by purchase or by lease – for a minimum of 6 months -, the first step in acquiring a Mobile Smart Factory is the preparation. It’s a collaborative work that requires parts screening, test parts, feasibility study, and finding the appropriate business model to deliver a customized solution. It’s only after this stage that we can envision production, delivery, deployment in daily operations and even training of operators”, Schmidt concludes.

Moving forward, to meet the diverse needs of customers, the team at Bionic Production GmbH has worked and continues to explore various AM technologies and other equipment that can be integrated into the Mobile Smart Factory; their ultimate goal being to provide the most intelligent and tailor-made factory solution, each time, wherever and whenever it will be needed.

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