More than the Sum of Its Parts: Replique Co-founder and COO Henrike Wonneberger Discusses Company Spin-out
One theme that highlights the additive manufacturing (AM) sector’s overall transition from startup to scale-up is the sheer proliferation of AM-centric software platforms over the last couple of years. It is an especially useful representation of how such scaling up is broadly taking place, for one thing because it conveys just how much competition there is across the board in the AM sector.
The competition in the AM software market segment is about to intensify even further, because Replique, the supply chain digitalization platform, has just spun out of BASF, the world’s largest chemical company. Replique’s co-founder and chief operating officer (COO), Henrike Wonneberger, recently shared with me what it’s like to work on the software side of the sector, as well as the challenges and rewards of running a startup. Based on our conversation, the company certainly has what it takes to separate itself from the increasingly large pack of digital spare parts inventories.
A big reason for that is that Replique is not just a spare parts inventory platform. Fittingly, given the startup’s BASF ties — which include the fact that Wonneberger and her co-founder, Replique CEO Dr. Max Siebert, both started out at BASF over a decade ago — materials qualification is one of Replique’s greatest strengths. Materials qualification is currently one of the most urgent priorities for supply chain digitalization, if the overall digitalization push that’s currently in the process of accelerating across the globe is ultimately to succeed.
“I was talking to somebody the other day about how we have different 3D printing platforms now that are very successful — and that have been there a long time already — where you can upload a part, and you say what material you want and what technology you want, and then you print on-demand and you have your part. And I think that’s great for prototyping, but there’s so much more to it if you want to go into serial production.Since we focus on spare parts and serial business, it’s essential in the beginning to take the time to qualify the parts with our customers, or for our customers. And once they’ve approved the test print and they say it’s exactly the quality they want, whenever they reorder the part, that’s what it’s going to be. To focus on quality and quality assurance processes is definitely something we learned from working for BASF.”
At the same time as the startup benefits from its background with BASF, Replique’s recently-announced decision to go the spin-out route is noteworthy, since, as Wonneberger explained to me, there is also the option for companies to spin in once they’ve succeeded at the level of the BASF incubator.
Thus, Replique has had to focus from its outset on striking a balance between the advantages of having access to an established brand, and the flexibility that can be achieved when starting a new company from scratch. Although it is certainly a difficult needle to thread — it’s just as easy to end up having to endure the worst of both worlds as it is to find synergy between the complementary positives — it is also a reality that many other startups in the AM sector are having to figure out how to navigate. In turn, Replique should be in a better position than most other young AM companies to maneuver a landscape that so often involves mediating between legacy behemoths and disruptive newcomers.
Such a scenario is increasingly likely to come up in day-to-day operations as more and more legacy manufacturers begin to expand their AM divisions, and as others start to incorporate AM technologies for the first time. Along those lines, much of the mediating between old and new interests that will be required will probably occur at the level of singular organizations, for instance, in terms of smoothing out friction between the legacy and AM divisions within the same company. This is a consideration that should make more and more large corporations turn to a company like Replique, as it’ll simply be easier to avoid the scenario in the first place by subcontracting out.
“Digitalization is a topic that is slow for large companies in general — understandably — and, having worked at a large company, I know what it takes to change the process. It’s not like people don’t see that digitalization is interesting, but it’s like trying to move an elephant, right? It’s not something that takes off within a year or two. We’re often asked the question, though, ‘why would people work with you? Why not do it on their own?’ There are many companies that do print themselves, and we love those customers, because they know exactly what they want to print, and exactly how to print. But if you really want to scale, and you want to scale globally, this requires buying printers, devoting facilities around the world to them, staffing the facilities with workers capable of running the printers, constantly adding to your materials portfolio and inventory, etc. So, I think it’s very natural that companies will outsource at some point, just as they outsource other forms of manufacturing.”
An excellent example of Replique’s success on that front is the Eternal Spare Part, a product that I wrote about two years ago, in one of my first articles for 3DPrint.com. Replique partnered with Siena Garden, a leading German patio furniture brand, to begin digitally storing the company’s spare parts in forms that can be 3D printed by any of Replique’s in-network manufacturers. This ensures that customers buying a new chair now won’t have to buy an entirely new chair in a few years just because they’ve lost one of its foot caps, for example. And, of course, the underlying concept can be applied to virtually anything else:
“We’ve already printed quite a few foot caps, so that’s one side of the spectrum. And on the other side, if you think about a company like [French rail manufacturer and Replique customer] Alstom, it’s in transportation, and wherever you have big machinery, that is costly in itself, and downtimes, especially, are costly. That’s true about aerospace, as well as things like agricultural machinery,” said Wonneberger, explaining that the business model remains the same despite the extreme diversity of industries involved. “So while that seems like a lot of different verticals, what they need is parts, and a cover for something on a train can look very much like a cover you have on a tractor, for example.” The key to doing it right is a familiarity with the full range of constantly growing portfolio of AM materials, which is what makes Replique’s role so important: “Some parts are very specific to their applications, and others you could find anywhere. Coming back to the materials, you have to be very careful when choosing what material to print with, because that’s where it makes a huge difference if you print a cover for a train or you print one for, say, a consumer application.”
As Wonneberger pointed out to me, the fragmentation of the materials market, in particular, in the AM sector can make quality assurance most difficult of all precisely in this context where standardization is perhaps most important. Interestingly, the accelerated push for decarbonization could be a huge catalyst in standardization of AM materials, because of the requirements for carbon footprint transparency that will transcend all industries:
“The general support for sustainability is of course getting stronger and stronger. It’s on the one hand the wish of the consumers, but it’s also more and more required by regulations. In that context, there’s reduce, reuse, and recycle, but there’s also repair. I think people are starting to realize repair has a huge impact. And sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about economic sustainability. Industrial companies already realized long ago that it’s worth repairing valuable machinery, and now, the more expensive that consumer products become, it’s more and more on the consumer’s mind. I think there’s a turning point now because there were lots of external costs, above all carbon dioxide, that no one was factoring in.”
Despite having such a clear outlook on what Replique’s place is in the broader AM ecosystem, Wonneberger also mentioned that anyone starting a company or thinking about starting one should remember that everything can’t always be accounted for ahead of time. She knows this as well as the executives at any other company, given that Replique was established in 2020 right before the pandemic started.
“You can never foresee what’s going to happen,” Wonneberger concluded. “When we started, there were some big events happening around us that we couldn’t have foreseen. So it’s important to realize that you can make business plans, but it doesn’t mean that you have all the possibilities on your radar. You have to be bold enough to say this may have been my original plan, but things have changed so much that we have to adapt.”
Understanding that is exactly the sort of thing that could give Replique a significant edge over the crowded pack of digital inventory platforms.
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