Two years ago, Hollandsteel started producing metal parts for the Dutch market in a brand-new factory. Its machines are running 24 hours for an ever-increasing number of clients and its concept could be trendsetting for the industry. An interview with Ruud Appel of Holland Steel and Christoph Lenhard, sales director of Lantek Germany.
Picture: Mr Ruud Appel and his partner, Dennis Oud, owners of Hollandsteel
Lantek: Mr. Appel, would you please tell us a little bit more about you and your company.
RUUD APPEL: We are a rather young company. My partner, Dennis Oud, and I founded Holland Steel in 2016 and built a completely new plant in Opmeer in North Holland. We started producing sheet metal parts in 2017. We have three machines working around the clock: a Durma HD-TC 60170 fiber laser for tubes and profiles made of steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass and copper, a Durma HD-FS 3015 flatbed laser, and a Prima Power Platino 1530 HS laser for thicker and wider sheets of steel, stainless steel and aluminum. Our customers are located all over the Netherlands and the number is growing daily.
What was and is the nature of your cooperation?
APPEL: We wanted our machines to run around the clock. We knew that this can´t be done without digitalization. So, we were looking for a software specialist partner not only with a comprehensive portfolio but also with the expertise to adapt it to any company in whatever stage of development. We found Lantek through the software on one of our machines. We thought it would be a good idea to work with specialists whose software we are already working with. From first contact we realized that they were the perfect partners for our journey. Lantek provided us with the complete software for sales, work preparation, and warehouse management.
LENHARD: As software experts we mainly support companies in their digital transformation. In this case it was fascinating to design the digital architecture for a new company and during its formation. Right from the start Ruud Appel and Dennis Oud told us that they wanted lean structures and an online presence as soon as possible.
APPEL: Thanks to Lantek´s digital processes my partner and I can run the whole factory with only eight employees.
So, you say that these few people are handling everything from offer preparation and production planning all the way to quoting and warehouse management?
APPEL: No not at all – the software system does a great part of it. With the support of Lantek we were able to automate most of our processes and get maximum productivity from our machines. Right from the start we knew that only speed could help us conquer our niche in the Dutch sheet metal market – and 24/7 availability. We wanted to have an online shop which is now the essential tool in our box. We think that having an online portal is absolutely necessary to serve our clients in the way they want.
Our customers place their requests on the platform and receive their offer almost instantaneously, accept them just as quickly, and get their invoices the same way. The web portal is becoming more and more important for us every day and besides our reliability and customer service the web portal is attracting more and more customers who like working with it. During business hours 80 percent of orders are placed with 20 percent placed outside business hours.
Please do not misunderstand me: we installed the web shop to offer our customers another way of placing their orders – we adjusted to our customers and we do not expect them to adjust to us. They do not have to work with the web portal. If they prefer to send us an e-mail with their order or give us a sketch on paper it´s fine with us – and we turn it into a metal part.
How did you conceptualize this project?
APPEL: We were lucky Lantek already had an idea of an online shop which we developed together and adapted to our needs. Our partner M. E. Solutions, a Dutch software company, designed the front end for us. Lantek took care of the back end and all processes needed for a valid calculation all the way to electronic invoicing.
LENHARD: At Lantek we have been considering some sort of online shop for a while because our customers kept asking for a solution. We had some sort of draft at hand when Holland Steel came up as the ideal partner to realize it and turn it into our product Metal Shop. They were not only two creators of a start-up with an open mind for digitalization, but they had a clear vision of their goal and how to reach it by means of digitalization.
Thanks to the integration of the web shop with the entire software suite we can offer our customers accurately calculated prices, reliable delivery times, and a view of their orders with access to previously produced parts – plus we can implement individual tariffs for each customer. For us it was a logical step to finish the concept of our cloud-based platform Lantek 360.
What were the challenges reaching your goal?
APPEL: We needed to make a quick, reliable and, most importantly, easy to use portal for our customers for 2D and 3D parts – and without errors in calculations for us and our customers. We had a lot of testing, writing calculation rules, and thinking about the best workflow in order to get the most out of the portal for the customer and make it profitable for us.
LENHARD: First of all, there was the uncertainty of the data volume our customer was about to be confronted with. We had to be prepared for all sizes of data volumes. We also wanted to develop a solution which can guide users with little to no technical knowledge through the process of placing a request and generating an offer. To enable them to do this we had to find an online solution which can use data without always having to enter the database which would surely slow down processes. We realized this by developing a system which is dissociated from the data base in the foreground and synchronized with it in the background.
Plus, we had to develop a certainty in the calculation rules and cost structure so that the calculation process can be repeated with the same result or – in case of different results – an explanation with which parameters have changed. Having achieved this, we realized one of the main advantages of Metal Shop versus calculation by a human – it makes the calculation process easy, repeatable, and reliable.
Understanding that the web shop is helping Holland Steel to increase the number of orders managed, in what way have your sales increased?
APPEL: I am afraid I cannot answer this because we started like this and have no database for comparison before and after. That said, the number of customers is growing every day and I am convinced the web portal is helping a lot.
LENHARD: From talks with our customers I have learnt that younger professionals use this tool to raise awareness in the industry, win new customers, and generate orders.
Are you worried that an online quoting tool could be used to negotiate low prices?
APPEL: From my point of view not at all since this is the main way our customers obtain offers – and you can´t discuss with a binary system, right?
I think you should make your prices based on what the company needs and not adapt prices to competitors. I like to think that the customers will order their products at the company offering best price and quality – and if your price or quality is not good enough, you should change the way your company works.
But yes, it is easier for the customers to compare prices between companies. This is a logical consequence of the digital world and we should adapt to this world instead of thinking the old-fashioned way.
LENHARD: Online quoting surely increases transparency and makes knowledge that used to be the privilege of well-established purchasers available for everybody. Customers of the job shops surely knows by now what a certain part may cost. This knowledge will gradually enter the whole market the more customers use this tool to find out about prices.
Is this the future of the sheet metal industry?
APPEL: No doubt, automation will play an increasing role in the industry. We do not want to speak for the whole industry but can surely say that in our case digital processes are the way to save time and cost.
LENHARD: Tools like Metal Shop are ideal not only for contract manufacturers like Holland Steel, but other companies as well. For other companies it can be another way of reaching more customers or serving established customers better by offering them an unsophisticated way of ordering simple components or repeat parts.
Is this the point where your cooperation ends?
LENHARD: Surely not. Even after the successful implementation of a system Lantek is at the customers´ side to assist them whenever they have problems and to accompany them on their path to digitalization, adapting to their individual maturity in digitalization.
APPEL: From our point of view the possibilities of digitalization in our industry are nowhere near exhausted and have more in store for more offers for our customers. We are already heading for our next project.