An Interview with Jan Harmen Wiebenga
with the Inside Story
Following our last post we wanted to go more into the TriboForm story. It was after all fascinating to find out how two young entrepreneurs transformed their research into a sheet metal forming business.
If you missed our last post ‘The TriboForm Story that Brought Tribology Forward for Simulation Companies Stuck Using Fixed Friction Values’ we recommend you read part one.
The big question we wanted to know is how exactly did Johan Hol and Jan Harmen Wiebenga move from doing consultations with their new ideas, to developing a commercial software product?
It turned out TriboForm ‘had ambitions to develop a software product from the start’ which makes sense of why they first built up a financially sound company. Their consultation solution is what enabled them to build their customer network and there is something to learn here for startups in the metal forming and simulation industry. During this time ‘we found out what our customers wanted in a software product and from there we could move ahead.’ says Jan Harmen.
Tribology is obviously a complex subject and ‘most customers didn’t realize yet that there is a better alternative to using a fixed friction coefficient in stamping simulations.’ For a new business like TriboForm how could a startup insert themselves into the market? Jan Harmen provided the key, saying ‘The first challenge was to describe the problem clearly and subsequently offer an alternative solution that provides much greater simulation accuracy.’ He does make success sound simple.
The next step was to turn their income stream, gained from their consulting business, towards developing a market-wide solution. It was time to hire a development team. ‘The next difficulty was to develop a product that was easy to use and broadly applicable in the sheet metal forming industry. We were inspired by the way AutoForm approaches the market with their products.’
What does this ultimately mean for entrepreneurs? It means use what works. ‘AutoForm provided the best example of how to make complex simulations accessible for a broad user base. Following suit, we didn’t want to address only expert users, so being user friendly was one of our main goals.’
Another important lesson was to let the market guide the solution. Their in-house consultation solution not only allowed them to receive input on the look & feel of the TriboForm prototype, but ‘customers indicated that having a clear and easy workflow in the product is of key importance. As a result, the user can now build a TriboForm simulation by simply clicking on the red button. If you have solved something it becomes a green button. With all due respect, our goal from the start was to build a solution – that is for want of better words – monkey proof.’
AutoForm recognized the brilliance of the pair and their product early on, and granted them access to AutoForm’s products for free. Perhaps another lesson is the benefit of mentoring, as ‘we sometimes had lunch with Bart Carleer, Corporate Technical Director at AutoForm, and with the Dutch AutoForm offices to help share our ideas with on the business and technical side. As time went on, our relationship grew and the benefits of joining AutoForm became clear.’
From its first release the TriboForm Analyzer was quite mature. It was TriboForum 2013 that inspired them to specialize in tribology, but it was actually the repeat of the same event in 2016 where they launched their product to the public. And what a success it was. Daimler gave a keynote talk showing their TriboForm results live to the audience. The second launching customer was Volvo and they allowed TriboForm to demonstrate their joint-project results.
The TriboForm Analyzer enables users to access a database of tribology related material data, visualize friction coefficients, and export the results for direct use in stamping simulations. When asked how exactly they went from consulting projects to a functional software the interview became extremely interesting. You might say the database behind the scenes is TriboForm’s ‘secret weapon.’
Throughout the years the team created a library of tribology data now provided inside the software.
‘Our customers can take the product and directly apply it in their daily processes. The data and recommended settings in the TriboForm software are based on a lot of measurement and hands-on testing. Everything is verified with real-world stamping applications, observed throughout years of testing and cooperation with many partners globally. Since joining AutoForm, we are in the position to further extend the Library which comes out in each new major release.’
We also had to ask about celebrating along the way. ‘I can tell you we didn’t drink any champagne, but there were some real moments of success. It sounds an ideal story from the outside and it is indeed fun, but it’s also hard work and you always have another challenge to tackle next.’
And it really does seem like the message here is all about networking and positive partnerships. ‘We are working hard on intensifying our customer relationships and improving the products. As an example, we are working closely with Tata Steel R&D and the University of Twente, key partners of TriboForm from the early beginning, to take it to the next level. In this partnership we are building a TriboForm Library including Tata Steel materials. This enables Tata Steel to optimally support their customers and demonstrates their technology leadership as a material supplier in this area.’
From a product point of view TriboForm is just getting started. ‘We have other Tribological phenomena to integrate next, such as wear and galling. These are two major topics in this field at the moment for which we will provide a virtual simulation.’ Here ‘wear’ implies the wearing off of the tool face through repeated use, while ‘galling’ relates to loose particles polluting and sticking to tool surfaces. Both create distortions. ‘These are features that we are currently developing and will be released in future, which shows you the potential for the future.’