Oct 13, 2021

Digitalization and data analysis as driving force

Translation of the German article in "Möbelfertigung 06/21":

Baumer Inspection: Stefan Bickert and Stefan Eisenkohl in interview

For more than 30 years, Baumer Inspection has been optimizing many productions in the wood-based materials and furniture industry with optical inspection systems. The change from batch production to batch size 1 production is once again bringing automated workpiece troubleshooting to the forefront. "möbelfertigung" visited the company at its headquarters in Constance.

möbelfertigung: Mr. Eisenkohl, you joined the company in September 2018 and are responsible for marketing and sales, making you part of Baumer lnspection's management team. And ultimately came shortly after there was a major change in the management with the departure of Mr. Franz and takeover by you, Mr. Bickert, in June of the same year. If you will, "everything new in 2018". What was the situation at Baumer like when you started?

Stefan Eisenkohl: From my point of view, we were then in the middle of a transformation process from customer-specific individual projects to standardized solutions for customers' individual production processes. Let's stay with furniture manufacturers: Everyone produces a little differently. And yet, to a large extent, they are standardized processes. We take this new approach into account with our modular systems ,,Panel", ,,MFC", ,,Furniture", ,,Edge", ,,FIooring" and ,,Paint", as well as solutions outside the wood-based materials industry, such as ,,Facade" or ,,lnsulation". Baumer lnspection's goal is to offer the customer the optimum solution and to provide him with an overall concept. Today - also due to our many years of experience - we use standardized systems, which we then individualize in detail. The basis, however, is a "methodology box". 

"Behind us lies a transformation process from customer-specific individual projects to standardized solutions." Stefan Eisenkohl

möbelfertigung: What were the most pressing tasks after you joined?

Stefan Eisenkohl: In addition to providing excellent support to our regular customers, we identified growth opportunities on the Chinese market, for example. Together with our colleagues from Baumer China, we then pushed ahead with this. It was very important to have a well-trained technician on site who responds to our customers in the local language, is located in the same time zone, and that we offer 24/7 service. All of this has already paid off to date, as we have been able to sell some equipment to China as a result.

Thanks to my previous professional activities and my 5-year stay abroad in China, I was able to bring a lot of know-how into the company. Stefan Bickert: The step to intensify sales in China was important for us and came at the right time. Namely, when the awareness for quality increased in China and the degree of automation in production increased as well.

"Our increased involvement in China came at exactly the right at exactly the right time: when the for production increased there." Stefan Bickert

möbelfertigung: At the beginning of 2019, there was a distribution agreement with Electronic Wood Systems (EWS) North America LLC for the USA, Canada and Mexico. Did you set that up and was North America a "white spot" for Baumer before that?

Stefan Eisenkohl: We were active in North America before that, and there were already about 50 installed systems on the market. However, our experience has shown time and again that customers prefer a local contact, so it was obvious to define a closer cooperation with EWS, which has already been operating successfully on the market for many years. A significant success from this partnership is certainly the joint project at the company Norbord, which now belongs to the West-Fraser Group - probably the largest producer of OSB, particleboard, MDF and other wood-based materials today.

We are not yet "finished" in North America, either; we are currently building up our own
Baumer inspection technician there as well. 

möbelfertigung: What is the overall structure of the sales department? 

Stefan Bickert: Our goal is, of course, to be as close as possible to our customers and to provide them with the best possible support and advice. To put it simply, our sales department is organized according to customer requirements, i.e. we have both a regional division, for example Asia, North America, suitable regions in Europe, as well as key account management installed for major customers with worldwide activities. There are six sales employees in total. 

Stefan Eisenkohl: What's important for us - also in order to decide whether a market is getting a lot of interest - is basically the degree of automation of the companies. Let's take South America, for example. It is certainly an emerging market and a region where a lot of wood is processed. But for larger activities and from the producing companies there not yet so far that our systems become interesting. Wherever processes are largely automated, where we are approaching unmanned production and a consistent level of quality is mandatory: that's where our inspection systems are right.

"Our scanners often pay for themselves within a year, thanks in part to the reduction in complaints." Stefan Eisenkohl

möbelfertigung: What are the distinguishing features of Baumer Inspection's systems? 

Stefan Bickert: Our product philosophy is "see", "think" and "act". By "see" we mean finding a defect, i.e. deciding defect yes or no. And our systems distinguish a large number of defects, even if they can ultimately all be assigned to a handful of process steps. The systems find fine cracks, scratches, solid as well as loose contamination, a wide variety of defects such as missing decor, wrinkles, dents and overlaps or even defects in the edge area as well as drill hole anomalies. Depending on the application. With digital analysis, "see" then becomes "think", a comparison. This can be plants, entire production lines or even factories. And this brings us to "act", namely the step of generating expert knowledge from the data analysis. For example, by giving the operator of a line a concrete instruction to change a milling cutter, clean an area or similar. Ultimately, we pursue one goal with everything we do: Our systems should prevent rejects and ensure the level of quality. 

möbelfertigung: You reported on the change of course, away from individual solutions to modular systems. At what point are the solutions adapted to customer requirements? 

Stefan Eisenkohl: Our systems offer standardized inspection systems designed for the respective production processes. And individualization then takes the form of a user's specific quality requirements. Defects can certainly be assessed differently. All in all, of course, the customer requirement is in the foreground, but we have found a good way to meet it. 

möbelfertigung: With which technology are you ahead in the market? 

Stefan Bickert: We offer a very broad spectrum for many areas - from a single source. And ultimately not only the scanner, i.e. the detection of a defect, but also an intelligent evaluation of the data in order to draw conclusions about processes or the entire production in real time. So that processes can be permanently improved. We are pursuing digitization very systematically here and are trying to use it in such a way that the customer has a decisive added value. We call this technology the analysis and QA tool "Q-Live" and are also increasingly using artificial intelligence here.

Stefan Eisenkohl: We are most broadly positioned in image processing as a means of defect detection. This means that we have a so-called "acquisition channel" for almost all applications for color, gloss effects, topography in 3D and UV. We are particularly proud and certainly by far the leader with our ,,FlashingSky" technology, which is the way we evaluate surfaces and detect defects independently of decor, structure and transport direction. 

möbelfertigung: Finding defects means fewer rejects in the direction of the processor or customer. How much does the complaint rate drop on average when you use your systems? 

Stefan Eisenkohl: That's difficult to quantify, because it depends on the conditions on site - for example, is it series or batch 1 production - and also varies greatly within customer groups. What we can say, based on our experience from many discussions with our customers, and thanks to various analyses by consulting firms such as L'Engineers or Schuler Consulting, is that the reject rate is immediately reduced by the process improvement. And a reduction in rejects of just 0.5 percent is usually enough for the investment in a Baumer scanner to pay for itself within a year. We also offer a webinar specifically for this purpose, which we have called "Added value of Baumer systems". Interested customers are welcome to contact us. 

möbelfertigung: Baumer systems are widely used for measuring paper growth in "embossed in register" processes. Is the process securely under control? 

Stefan Bickert: This is exactly where our "FlashingSky" technology comes in, where we inspect the structure separately from the decor. Ultimately, there are six different measuring points after pressing that are used to check and enable conclusions to be drawn about the pressing process. Of course, we cannot influence the individual paper growth during pressing, the pressing process and the application of the press plate are also fixed. But we can make recommendations based on the measurements, for example to apply the papers for the pressing process with an offset. In this way, we can fundamentally improve the process and eliminate the defect.

"Our systems collect data, analyze it and thus help to improve production processes on a lasting basis." Stefan Bickert

möbelfertigung: In which direction do you think there are still unsolved technical challenges, and why? 

Stefan Bickert: We still have to get better at differentiating between decors that are very close together. For example, different oak finishes. I'm now back to batch size 1: If the wrong board was cut here and the wrong workpieces were created, then the systems must be able to recognize it. Because if the end customer has ordered "Riviera Oak", then this is what he wants. And not "Beaufort Oak". Or that the system can definitely distinguish cream white from pure white. In terms of image processing, this is no easy task. But of course we face up to it, especially in view of the fact that the camera systems are produced in our group and we are therefore "sitting right at the source. 

Stefan Eisenkohl: Of course, we are constantly working on our products. In terms of digitization in particular, there will certainly be interesting innovations in the near future, i.e. self-learning systems, classifiers that can be trained and the like. Another important buzzword is "predictive quality": when we become better and better at predicting "negative" events based on the data we collect. 

"The use of artificial intelligence plays an important role in our product development." Stefan Eisenkohl

möbelfertigung: Is there a project or implementation that you are particularly proud of? 

Stefan Bickert: We are proud of every project in which the customer places its trust in us - however, we have currently actually acquired the largest project, in which we are allowed to cover all relevant production processes, i.e. starting with the panel material up to the finished furniture component, with scanners from Baumer lnspection in a greenfield project at the company VMG in Lithuania. With a high degree of automation and a focus on digitalization. This is a lot of fun and one of the biggest projects in our company's history.

"We have acquired a great greenfield project in Lithuania. Lithuania. Probably the biggest in our company history." Stefan Bickert

möbelfertigung: Another brief digression on Corona: What was the past year like for Baumer from the first lockdown? 

Stefan Bickert: Especially in the capital goods sector, where we are at home, there was a drastic slump in incoming orders from March to August. Fortunately, due to the good order situation, we were able to compensate for this to a large extent. Since September, we have had a continuous upward trend in incoming orders and were able to compensate for the initial effects of Corona - which we are of course pleased about. The cohesion among the employees was very good; a lot of work was done from the home office, which we want to maintain to some extent in the future. Travel will also come under greater scrutiny. In this respect, we are also learning positive lessons from this period; the pandemic was an accelerator for some interrelationships. 

Stefan Eisenkohl: All of our digital formats have received a major boost. Whether it's customer webinars, a redesigned website, or increased social media presence - we've repositioned ourselves in a completely new and different way. And we'll be taking a lot of this into the future, such as hybrid events.

möbelfertigung: Were there any supply chain issues related to the pandemic? 

Stefan Bickert: Not with this, fortunately we have so far always been able to deliver all systems as agreed. Now, however, we are experiencing increasing difficulties. For example, we have a framework agreement with Intel and had asked whether we could get certain parts earlier. We received a clear refusal and were also told that we could not expect to receive other parts for another 50 weeks. 50 weeks! As a producer, you can't think of much more... And the effort to compensate for this is enormous. 

möbelfertigung: How were you ultimately able to conclude the past year and how are things going in 2021? 

Stefan Bickert: We were still able to end last year quite satisfactorily due to the high order backlog. Fortunately, only one order was cancelled at one point. And we are seeing that the topics of digitalization, quality assurance and automation are playing into our hands. From this point of view, we will also end the year 2021 well.

Doris Bauer, Tobias Lorenz

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