Innovationquarter Anton Duisterwinkel

Anton Duisterwinkel is a senior business developer at Innovationquarter.

8 March 2023

The Dutch manufacturing sector doesn’t seem to be aware of a whole realm of revolutionary international startups in manufacturing technology, observes Anton Duisterwinkel.

On 1 February, I visited the Sixth Sense Summit in The Hague. “The future of manufacturing starts here,” was its motto. A parallel universe unfolded before my eyes. Eight international startups in advanced manufacturing were presented by the organizers, Hexagon and Unknown Group. I knew none of them. Not Unknown Group, a Dutch venture capital and business development firm that ‘ventures into the unknown.’ Nor Hexagon, a Swedish manufacturer and manufacturing intelligence provider. Nor the eight startups, all from abroad.

More disturbingly: I didn’t spot any familiar faces in the audience. Well, eventually, I discovered a distant relative. She’s a young engineer who works at a major Dutch bank on new financing for venturing. But no one from the many manufacturing and industrial automation companies I know, nor anyone from the research institutes.

Apart from the people, the language was also different. In every other sentence, words like sustainability and circularity popped up. Not as a worry or additional burden, but as an objective and even an opportunity. It was a major topic during the panel discussion, in one of the three breakout sessions and it was mentioned in all eight pitches by the startups.

Some of these pitches brought me back to slightly more familiar terrain. The winner, Gelsight, showed a technique to measure the topography of materials with elastomer tactile sensors – imitating the human finger. A truly new technology for an old issue in quality assurance and inspection: how to replace and improve upon human visual and tactile inspection – in a traceable way. I’m quite sure, however, that we have Dutch startups and SMEs with optical and acoustic methods that give better resolution. These apparently are unknown in this parallel universe.

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Runner-up Castor also addresses a familiar but newer issue: how do we decide which parts in our products can be 3D printed? Castor demonstrated software that quickly can help you decide which parts are suitable as is (roughly 10 percent, they claim) and which could be easily adjusted to become suitable (about 20 percent). Fully automated.

3D printing was also the topic of the pitch by 3Yourmind. They develop an on-demand manufacturing platform for 3D printing that closes the loop in additive manufacturing between part identification, part qualification, order management and production. Its Dutch competitor Ambrace (Rotterdam) wasn’t present but in my view is several steps ahead. Ambrace works mainly with US and German investors and clients and finds it very hard to find Dutch partners.

It seems that there are two universes: that of the Dutch manufacturers, which may develop high-tech products but largely work with traditional production methods and goals (ie profitability), versus a global universe of manufacturing companies and technology suppliers that boast high-tech production technology.

When I left the latter universe and returned to Dutch soil, my head was spinning with questions. How do we involve the Dutch manufacturing companies in this revolution? And how do we get technology suppliers to cater to the needs of these companies that typically produce small series of complex products? Why do young engineers work for banks? How can we showcase our Dutch startups in such environments? How can we get our manufacturing industry to truly embrace sustainability and circularity? What does the future hold for our firms? How can we start not more but more successful startups? How can we urge them to scale? Can we innovate to fix the future? Who dares to venture into that universe? In short: how do we bring these two universes together?