I hadn’t heard of aerospace/defense manufacturer JPB Système, based in France with additional offices in the US and Poland, until about a month ago. This isn’t a reflection on JPB Système, which has certainly been increasingly active over the last decade, but simply because when it comes to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), I’m mostly familiar with pure play additive manufacturing (AM) companies.
However, JPB Système is an excellent reminder that I need to start paying more constant attention to the SMEs that have footholds in multiple emerging technology spaces. That particular category of companies looks like it’s about to make a major impact on the AM sector’s future trajectory and, as was affirmed for me by my talk with JPB Système’s CEO, Damien Marc, this seems to have everything to do with automation.
Bringing Production In-house
Originally, JPB Système was exclusively an engineering company. It performed the R&D and design for the parts that it sold, then used subcontractors for the manufacturing side of things. However, by around 2017, the company was conducting too much business for its suppliers to keep up. This highlights one of the most overlooked facts regarding globalization’s intractable supply chain crisis, which is that, across a variety of critical industries, the problems were already mounting well before the onset of the pandemic.
Finding his business in the simultaneously fortuitous and panic-inducing situation of outpacing his suppliers’ growth capacity, Marc was quite ahead of the curve in his approach to the problem of filling the gaps that existing suppliers can’t keep up with. He took JPB’s manufacturing into the company’s own hands. This is what I find most interesting about JPB’s path, that it was forced by external conditions to accelerate its automation efforts, a matter of necessity and not of choice.
Marc’s plan was to use CNC machines, with the business logic behind the idea that the equipment cost more or less the same no matter the country, but hiring the higher-salary workers in the French market could allow JPB to get the most value out of each machine. Marc quickly ran into trouble with this idea, as well. Much like in many of the other most heavily industrialized nations, good CNC operators that don’t already have jobs are just hard to come by. He finally settled on using CNC robots for the low-value tasks, so he could “center the operators in high-value operations.” This was a promising turning point, although it came with its own set of challenges:
How Automation Led to Hiring More Workers
If it sounds like this was no big deal, I should point out that it took about eight months from start to finish. They eventually got it done, and the turn to automation helped JPB manage the most uncertain macroeconomic conditions in about a half a century, without losing a single worker. In fact, Marc says that the more robots they incorporate into production, the more workers they’ve had to hire, which is another broad Industry 4.0 theme that JPB encapsulates. Since all of the laying off of manufacturing workers in the most industrialized nations has already more or less happened gradually over the last 40 years, there aren’t nearly as many jobs for robots to take in those countries as one might initially think:
Marc then described how he was able to motivate the team to learn to make the robots work overnight, which allowed them to ultimately return to 100 percent overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), even improving upon that on their best days by 20-40 percent. “We are competitive on the French market, from the French market because of that,” Marc concluded.
3D Printing Robots
His initial success with automation in robotics is one of the key factors that led Marc to think ahead and start looking into additive manufacturing (AM), which is ultimately why I first heard about JPB. After exploring the technology for prototyping for a few years, JPB started looking into metal binder jetting (MBJ), and in June, the company acquired a stake in Addimetal, a French startup that manufactures MBJ platforms, founded in 2021. Then, also in June, JPB received a France 2030 government grant for R&D into the decarbonization potential of MBJ in the aerospace sector.
Marc emphasized that, in addition to JPB’s own particular interest in AM, the company’s gradually increasing focus on MBJ was being driven by the interest from JPB’s customer base. This includes some of the world’s largest aerospace manufacturers, including GE Aerospace, Rolls Royce, and French multinational Safran SA:
Along with Addimetal’s being headquartered in France, Marc was also impressed with the openness of the platform. As Addimetal’s website notes, its machine parameters “…are open in an easily accessible interface, allowing testing and qualification of new materials.” And, Marc said, there is also JPB’s experience in succeeding at scaling up, which the company is eager to share with other young companies — not just to build JPB’s portfolio, but to contribute to the establishment of France’s smart manufacturing ecosystem:
When I asked Marc if JPB was planning on only using MBJ for its own existing product line, or if the company might use it to branch out into other areas, he gave a characteristically bold and unhesitating response: “We’re open to any growth strategy around 3D printing.” It seems reasonable to imagine that decarbonization will be at the forefront of any such strategy, given both the reason behind the company’s France 2030 grant for MBJ, as well as the significance of France’s decarbonization push, in general.
Most intriguingly, Marc reiterated multiple times throughout that he’s seen JPB make a shift from a traditional manufacturing operation to something that looks much more like a tech company. This includes serving as a startup incubator, with JPB having an entire building devoted to that goal.
Damien Marc and JPB are certainly onto something, and I think that the track record of Marc’s foresight bodes well for the AM sector. Beyond that, JPB is exactly the kind of company that will have to successfully adopt metal AM for technologies like MBJ to scale up on schedule. The fact that Marc has come up with a successful roadmap for incorporating new technologies in stride suggests that many other companies are going to be paying attention to what JPB is doing.
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