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My engineering journey: Protolabs Europe managing director Bjoern Klaas

Professional Engineering

'Running a plant with 120 people at the age of 27 definitely wasn't easy': Bjoern Klaas
'Running a plant with 120 people at the age of 27 definitely wasn't easy': Bjoern Klaas

Beginnings

I always wanted to be an engineer since I was young. I grew up in the industrial Western world – I was born in Germany and lived in Switzerland – and I wanted to see how things function, how they are created, and to see and understand the function behind why things are the way they are. I started as an apprentice in a coal mine as a mechanical engineer, and it became apparent to me after one year that I wanted to understand things better. 

1990-96  Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany

I took mechanical engineering in my bachelor’s degree, but during my studies I discovered another arm of the industry, the chemical side. As well as understanding how a gearbox does what it does, I wanted to understand the chemistry behind plastics and what materials you choose. After a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, I did my master’s in chemical engineering.

1996-2000  Project manager, Clariant (Deutschland)

I had two offers – one from Porsche and one from Clariant, one of the big-three chemical companies. After six months, I was running a plant producing chemical derivatives, colour pigments and additives. That was a challenge, I have to say – running a plant with 120 people at the age of 27 definitely wasn’t easy. For the first time I learned how to deal with my peers, from the workers up to vice-president level. 

2000-02  Executive MBA, Northwestern University

Like a lot of engineers, I did an executive MBA. It was brilliant, and I would highly recommend it. It gives you five to 10 years of experience in a short period – and teaches you this business acumen in an accelerated time frame. You come together with people and find engineers, marketing majors, psychologists – people from all different continents. 

2000-08  Clariant International

After some years at Clariant, we had a fire at the factory, which made the news. I was the young engineer responsible for getting the plant running again, and we ended up running a plant without a roof for half a year with the approval of the authorities. Then I stepped up and took on global responsibility. I liked that part of my career, but it was a difficult time for the industry and I didn’t like the fact that I had to close many plants. 

2008-12  Managing director, Colorant Chromatics

I left Clariant to run a global business for a very specialised colour concentrate for plastics. There were very few suppliers, and it was quite a good market position. The plastics are only used for special applications – the insulation of the antenna in the iPhone, for example. I travelled the world for 15 years in total, dealing with companies like Foxconn in China, and got more involved with customers and bringing products to market.

2012-17  PolyOne

The small Colorant company was bought by PolyOne, one of the big two or three producers of all plastic additives in the world. So from this small company I went to a big North American company and took up the position of general manager. We created an instant colour system, where colour is injected during the manufacturing stage and the end user can adjust it on-site, taking a significant amount of cost out of the system. 

2017-Present   Vice-president and managing director, Protolabs Europe

Now I’m in the rapid-prototyping industry with Protolabs – again working on shortening the production cycle and making parts that were not able to be made before in a rapid way. We can cut the time from idea to first prototype from 13 weeks with injection moulding down to less than 10 days, and this will change a lot of industries – food, medical, automotive. As an older engineer, I’m still sometimes caught up in the old ways of doing things – but the next generation of engineers will think additive.


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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