Manufacturing just might be the most exciting sector for software engineers right now

This interview was conducted by Kristel Kont, Communications Manager for Digit and sTARTUp Day.

Rein Torm is the co-founder and CTO of Fractory, a Tartu-founded cloud manufacturing platform that connects engineers to manufacturing capacity. After completing his IT studies at the University of Tartu, Rein worked at SportID (today known as Stebby) and Skype, before joining the fledgling Fractory as the third member and co-founder in 2017 to take on the challenge of digitising manufacturing as a CTO.

We spoke with Rein about why he thinks manufacturing right now is one of the coolest and most impactful sectors for software developers to work in, how there is room for innovation in the field, and what Fractory is doing to fill that void.

How did you come to join Fractory?

Back in 2017, I was working as a software developer at Skype. One evening, I met Martin, whom I had known for years, at a pub. Martin told me about his idea for a platform where engineers could get instant prices and delivery times for their CAD files (files that host 2- or 3D designs that are used to create models, and are used in various industries). However, he'd been unable to solve the challenge of how to read the geometry of CAD files and said he wanted to take up programming to tackle the problem. I suggested he’d look into other options, as learning programming would be too time-consuming.

The following day, Martin shared some CAD files with me. I started to play around with them and worked out the first solution. After that, I was invited to join the team, and the rest is history.

How much did you know about manufacturing at the time?

I had zero knowledge about manufacturing. When Martin said he wanted to do laser cutting, images from Star Wars started popping up in my head. To be honest, manufacturing had always seemed a bit dirty and dull to me, and not something I imagined myself being involved with.

However, Martin, who is a mechanical engineer, made manufacturing sound exciting. Today, after working in the sector for five years, I can tell it actually really is an incredibly cool field.

There are a lot of FinTech startups grown from Estonia that people know and love, but most people don’t know much about manufacturing, or manufacturing startups. I would say that this meeting point of software and the physical world might be the most interesting field out there at the moment. We are not just moving bytes around but thanks to our software, physical products will be produced and shipped around the world more efficiently.

For example, the very table we are sitting by has been made with the help of Fractory - we uploaded the designs to the platform and ordered just the kind of metal tables we wanted for our office.

Besides manufacturing being dull, what other myths have you had to dissolve as a CTO of a cloud manufacturing platform?

Sometimes developers think that we are a manufacturing company dabbling in software, while in fact, Fractory is a software company creating a digital platform for the manufacturing sector.

Also, some developers might feel a bit intimidated thinking that what we do here is highly complicated and requires complex work with algorithms. But everything can be learned. And in addition to people who work with algorithms, we also have regular full-stack developers on board.

Let's talk about the Fractory platform. How would you describe it to fellow developers?

In just one sentence - Fractory is a platform that connects engineers to manufacturers in their region and allows them to get instant quotes and delivery times for their orders and submit the orders.

Yet the interface for obtaining quotes and making orders is just the tip of the iceberg. In the background, there are various systems that make it run. For example, there's the algorithm for calculating quotes, which means finding the right price for the right market, selecting the manufacturer, and making sure that the design can be manufactured in the first place.

Typically, you'd email your quote request to the manufacturer and, in two days, get a reply, perhaps saying that some features cannot be manufactured at all. Instead, we give you instant feedback if you need to change your design, and you will get a quote and delivery time within seconds, not days.

Also, the platform has a CRM component where the manufacturers can manage the orders, allowing them to reply faster to requests and accept automatically generated orders. All in all, it's an extensive ecosystem with different features and functionalities for both engineers and manufacturers.

Technology-wise, we use React, PHP, Node.js, C++ for reading CAD files and some machine learning.

Which features will be added to the platform next?

At the moment, the biggest issue in the sector is the availability of raw materials. Because of the war, the supply chains have broken. As we have very good relationships with material providers in different countries we’re operating in, we decided to buy 300 tons of steel ourselves so that we can sell it to our manufacturers and they can fulfill the orders from our customers. This undoubtedly is an interesting decision for a software company, but a very necessary one to help keep our customers and manufacturing partners afloat.

We saw the need for it already during the pandemic, and now we are doing the first test and will see how it goes. So, perhaps this could be one additional functionality in the future.

Currently, we are focusing on business customers for whom we provide different metal fabrication processes, like laser cutting, tube cutting, CNC machining, bending and coating - which are the most widely used manufacturing processes. We can also do CNC milling and turning for plastic. In the future, we will also add 3D printing for metal and plastic.

Our mission is to become a one-stop-shop where engineers can get everything they need - just like software engineers can get it today from Amazon.

On the business side, we are in an active scaling phase, too. We just opened an office in Chicago and continue to expand activities in the Nordics and the UK. After the US, the next new markets will be Italy and France.

How does the Fractory platform today differ from its initial version?

We have kept to our original idea on a large scale and have not made any big pivots or steered off the course. But of course, the platform has evolved enormously over the years, and we have discovered the need for additional features. As Fractory has grown, we now have bigger clients with different needs, which allows us to spot new opportunities.

What are Fractory's killer features or main advantages over competitors?

Our biggest competitor is located in the United States, where we just opened an office ourselves. They started with 3D printing and initially focused on hobby customers.

On the other hand, our focus has been from the start on business customers, which means we don't have any legacy and can move faster. As a result, we can provide value to business customers that other competitors cannot yet offer.

On the software side, we've been using an open-source CAD system to build our own CAD file reading system, which gives us more flexibility in our manufacturing and pricing algorithms. Our quotes tend to be more accurate because we can emulate manufacturing very closely.

I also believe Fractory stands out with its UX. Because we started with sheet metal fabrication, where you need to order more details, we've had to focus on the user experience from the very beginning.

But the manufacturing sector is enormous, and both Fractory and our competitors are still only scratching the surface. So there are plenty of opportunities for innovation and work for everyone.

What makes working in Fractory attractive for developers?

We currently have 12 developers and 18 people in the product and software development team. Our goal is to get closer to 30 people. What makes work in Fractory interesting is that in the manufacturing sector, machines have been automated, but everything on the office side is still extremely archaic. Most companies still rely on Excel and email, so there's loads of room for innovation and more efficient processes.

Thus, it's a great place for developers who want to do something that really changes the world, not just help someone make a selfie or a payment that’s a millisecond faster. In our sector, a software developer can save people whole days of work and help them produce physical things faster.

So, we're talking about sustainability in the broadest sense. On one hand, we can make manufacturing more sustainable by aggregating similar orders and saving on material and transport costs. On the other hand, sustainability also has a time dimension. When our bright engineers waste 20-40% of their time requesting quotes or submitting orders, it's really not an efficient use of their time. If we want to be competitive in manufacturing, we must be efficient in each process. As a developer in Fractory, you can cut these massive inefficiencies and speed up things in the whole sector.

We also have a team of very cool people with different backgrounds and hobbies. Our product teams are small, which allows us to move fast. We might come up with an idea one week, and the next week, it will be up and running. So, the developers on our team can test their ideas on customers and have to think actively about how to create better solutions. Everyone has a lot of autonomy and can take responsibility.

Rein will be talking about software development in the manufacturing sector in a talk titled "How I Fell in Love with an Ugly Beast" at Digit Conference on 22 April.