The secret to relevance

As BM Aluminium celebrates its tenth birthday, Glass Times editor Nathan Bushell met managing director Dean Hodges to learn about the challenges and triumphs of the last decade.

Reading back through the interview notes, it appears as though BM Aluminium’s existence is down to one of necessity rather than of design – being at the right place and the right time. Managing director Dean Hodges even had a pen ready (and another spare) when Glass Times’s pen ran dry.

What’s more, it looks like the company has filled its role so successfully that it is unlikely that a competitor could compete on an equal footing.

That’s not to say that BM Aluminium’s success is an accidental one. Far from it, and it has the numbers prove it: despite having 450 aluminium fabricator customers – suggesting that it is unlikely to achieve significant growth from winning new customers – the software company has reported an average annual growth of 18% for the last ten years, and it does this by expanding its services and offering new products.

However, BM Aluminium arguably does owe its success, in part, to a chance meeting with the German software development company Orgadata at Glassbuild America in 2005.

“I was working at Business Micros at the time, alongside Graeme Bailey, and we were visiting Glassbuild in Atlanta,” Dean explained. “Back then, we were starting to get requests from customers to develop a system that was CAD based, rather than the rules-based system that were using at the time.”

In a nutshell, PVCU fabricators typically use software that sends a series of instructions to the machinery, which tells it what to do with the profile: cut, route, weld, etc. These instructions are contained within a series of ‘rules’.

However, because of the way aluminium systems are machined and fabricated, a CAD-based software programme is preferred because it gives the designer and the operator greater control over the finished product. All the elements are recreated by the software, which essentially allows the operators and machines to ‘see’ what is being made.

“Orgadata is a very successful European software company, and it had already developed a software package that was CAD based – LogiKal,” Dean said. “When I met them in 2005, they were looking to enter the UK market, so it was a match made in heaven.”

A second chance meeting at an open day at Elumatec’s premises got the ball rolling, and Dean quickly set up a new aluminium department at Business Micros that was run out of offices in Tewkesbury. In 2007, it became clear that it was a completely separate enterprise from the PVCU side of the business – even the payment models are different – so BM Aluminium was hived off as a separate company.

What began with Dean and Dan Etheridge as office manager is now a thriving operation with 12 employees, with more expected to join this new year.

“20 years ago, many aluminium fabricators only used one system. Therefore, they could use the software provided by their systems supplier with no issues,” Dean said.

Today, however, the situation has changed, which has increased the need for LogiKal.

“It’s very easy to dual source with LogiKal,” Dean said. “Because we work with all the systems companies, and all of their products are loaded on to our database, you can run several systems through your factory and LogiKal will take care of it all. More than 70% of our customers dual source.

“Today’s fabricators are more product focussed rather than systems focussed, especially those who are turning to aluminium from the PVCU market. Therefore, you need software that can work across different systems.”

Dean’s background also puts him in a better position to understand the intricacies behind aluminium fabrication than many other software engineers because he started his career machining bar lengths with a Stuga router on the shop floor of Glostal (now Sapa).

“When people know your background, it makes a real positive difference to the working relationship,” Dean laughed.

Today, Dean focusses on expanding BM Aluminium’s offering. For example, version 11 of LogiKal will be released in the UK later this year, and will be previewed at the FIT Show.

“The feedback at BAU was really positive, particularly on clever new features such as a hardware wizard which improves the interface and overall user experience, and faster processing of reports,” Dean said.

During our interview, the office outside the boardroom was being moved around.

“We are launching a new Infoserver module, which we will be featuring on our stand at the FIT Show,” Dean said. “It is a factory process control (FPC) option that we think adds a very significant new dimension to LogiKal, and gives customers a solution they’ve been asking us for.

“We are building a demonstration suite in the office where we can simulate a factory with individual scan points to show how the system will work. It will help us to sell the module, while offering a training tool for our staff and customers.”

BM Aluminium is in an interesting place, primarily because of the data that it has accumulated over the years.

“Products are getting more complex as companies look for that killer niche product with ever lower U-values,” Dean said. “But what they never do is rationalise their product ranges.”

This means that if a competitor were to launch a software system against LogiKal, they would have to include a mountain of data just to remain relevant.

“We employ people just to input and check to make sure the data we hold is accurate,” Dean said. “It’s almost a barrier to entry.”

But that’s not to say that BM Aluminium is resting on its laurels. The firm continues to prove that it remains as relevant today as it did when it started business ten years ago.