Text Meinolf Droege ––– Photography
Mr van der Ham, what made you decide to enter a market that is more than well served and promises very thin margins, as is the case for U and C profiles for dry construction? I come from a company that bought in huge volumes of steel profiles like these and installed them, so I know the market really well. The products have hardly changed at all for decades and the market is dominated by a very small number of companies, at least in the Netherlands. We had a few new ideas, saw an opportunity and – after careful preparation – seized it.
“In our collaboration with Stahlo, we benefit from technical expertise, worldwide sources and insider knowledge when it comes to quality.”
What exactly do you mean by careful preparation and new ideas? It was clear to us that if we were going to do something, we needed to do it well and, most importantly, better than the biggest players. That applies to the plant engineering, materials, processes and products. After contacting Stahlo initially in 2014, we developed a possible strategy for the supply of sheet steel. We also discussed strategies beyond the start-up phase, such as reducing sheet thickness from the current standard of 0.6 millimetres without sacrificing strength. As we buy in the steel by the ton, but sell it by the metre, every hundredth of a millimetre counts in this low-margin market. We made use of the technical expertise Stahlo offers, as well as the independent dealer’s access to worldwide sources and insider knowledge of costs and grades. In terms of plant engineering, we very quickly settled on the leading Italian manufacturer, Dallan. The company also offers the option of retrofitting the latest technologies from the machine manufacturer so that – when profile rigidities are increased – additional modifications can be made to wall thicknesses. That will require technical collaboration with Stahlo as well.
Getting back to the sheet steel, standard grades are in use at present. What requirements do you have that extend beyond that? Even relatively minor deviations in certain mechanical values change the way the steel coil runs through the plant – even if it satisfies all the standards. When it comes to strength, yield strength, elongation at rupture and coating thickness, Stahlo offers steel coils with more precise specifications. That’s what we need if we’re going to be able to run the forming plant reliably at maximum output.
Reliability – that’s what it all comes down to. You mentioned earlier that one of the keys to success is better processes. What did you mean by that? We almost exclusively supply interior fitters and a number of dealers who specialise in interior fit-outs. We offer these customers an extremely fast and flexible service for ordering custom profile lengths. It takes them just a few mouse-clicks to order profiles that are cut to length with millimetre precision. That’s how you turn a simple standard product into a highly customised one. Customers make direct savings because they only have to pay for as many metres as they actually need. What’s more, work at the construction site goes much faster and disposal costs for waste are completely eliminated. When they place an order, customers are told the price and delivery date, which is typically within a few days. We’ve put a lot of effort and expense into fully automating the process chain from custom ordering and capacity planning to delivery and invoice creation. We started thoroughly testing out these complex processes with one customer in October 2016. Since the start of 2017, production has been running continuously at a high level.
How high? By the end of the year, we’ll have manufactured and sold well in excess of 1000 metric tons of profiles. Next year, I think we’ll see a growth rate in high double figures. We’re currently talking to Stahlo about measures that could support even more flexibility. In fact, that’s something Stahlo has always been good at. In the really early days, Stahlo supplied us with material even though our company had not yet been established in legal terms. Very pragmatic solutions were found for problems like those.
Besides making the sheet steel thinner, are there any other areas where you can see potential? There’s a lot of value that can be added to a profile as a standard product. In principle, it’s always about making the product easier to work with on site, so that labour costs can be kept down. Being able to use custom profile lengths is a very important step in that direction. We’re also currently experimenting with innovative, much faster assembly systems so that the costs per square metre of space can be significantly reduced. Another step we could take is to put together and supply complete room fit-out packages to cater for the growing trend of converting office buildings into flats and for renovation projects in hotels. We’ve got more ideas in the pipeline, too.