Repairing and reusing things is better than tossing them out. The same applies to electronic car parts. Leon Kleine Staarman (47) from Bornerbroek recognised the earnings potential of this early on. Through his company ACtronics, he hopes to earn reconditioned electronics a permanent spot in the automotive chain.
Tekst Leonard van den Berg
Fotografie Lars Smook
You come from a family with a car dismantling business?“Yes, I grew up with the trade, but I began to specialise in reconditioning electronics in 2005. That was the year I started ACtronics. Today, we have production facilities in four countries – the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and China – and a total of 250 employees, 120 of whom work in Bornerbroek. Each year, we repair some 140,000 electronic components for some 16,000 clients; 85,000 of those repairs are carried out in the Netherlands.”
What did you have in mind when you founded ACtronics?“The salvage and reconditioning market is extremely dynamic. For years, we’ve been seeing a trend among manufacturers towards greater sustainability, circularity and client retention. Reconditioning is the ideal way to achieve these aims. We started out working from a spare room at home. Thirteen years ago, there were a handful of sketchy electronics repair companies around — but many times, you received the parts back in worse condition than when you sent them in. We immediately decided on an approach that involved a great deal of investment up-front, for things like proper testing equipment, in order to deliver quality.”
What are the main types of components you repair?“ECUs, TCUs and ABS units. Highly specialised stuff that’s hard for competitors to master in a hurry, on behalf of dealers, car manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers all across Western Europe. We recondition parts for virtually every European brand, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, the French carmakers, Opel, BMW and the VAG group.
“A half-billion euro’s worth of electronic components are tossed out each year, despite the fact they’re not even broken!”
One of the brands we see most often is Mercedes-Benz; I like to say they’re the best at making bad electronic parts. Which is understandable, since as a premium brand they’re expected to be first in bringing new innovations to market. And so for a long time, they were far and away the brand we dealt with most. Still are, in fact, although the French carmakers are holding their own as well.”
Which parts are relatively easy to repair and which are most challenging?“They all have their own specific tricky bits. ABS units are difficult because of the strict safety requirements. With TCUs, it’s because they’re installed way down in the transmission, meaning the costs of installation and retrieval are high and it’s especially important that we get it right on the first try. ECUs, on the other hand, are incredibly complicated and come equipped with anti-theft systems. And for all three, the real difficulty comes in the testing phase. That’s because we’re dealing with digital rather than analogue signals. You can’t just download those from somewhere, and the manufacturers don’t provide us with access. As a result, we have to reverse-engineer the signals in house. That takes a lot of manpower and time and poses a really challenging puzzle. Which also works in our favour, as it means it’s quite tough for newcomers to break into the market.”
Have you ever sat down and done the math on how much money and material you are saving?“Absolutely. Each of the approximately 140,000 components we handle each year has, on average, a new value of 650-700 euros. That represents about 90 million euros in new value. Unlike many car dismantling companies, by the way, our prices aren’t linked to new value or market value. Instead, they’re based on a calculation of our average time and investment – actual cost plus a margin.”
What do you see as possible next steps in this market?“My ambition is to see reconditioned electronics earn a permanent place in the mobility chain. That needn’t be in the automotive sector alone: it could just as easily apply to trucks, trains and electric bicycles.”
Does your company work closely with OEMs? For instance: do you supply them with feedback regarding specific malfunctions?“In Germany we do. Our clients there are two major manufacturers: a Tier 1 supplier and an OEM. We’ve been making electronic parts as good as brand-new, in terms of both hardware and software, for them since late February. In the future, we’d like to further expand on this kind of cooperative partnership. There are many possible combinations. Reconditioning for car manufacturers is especially attractive, as is providing auxiliary products and services for Tier 1 suppliers. Where OEMs are concerned, we’re in talks about how we can help them meet their delivery obligations for electronic parts at the end of the life cycle of a specific production model. If that pans out, we will have a permanent role as an automotive industry supplier. That would be fantastic. There’s no way back for us: this is where our future’s at.”
What percentage of the components that come in are you able to repair?“In virtually 99 per cent of cases, we’re able to send the reconditioned part back in good working order, or are otherwise able to provide an alternative plug-and-play solution. Only about one per cent of the time does this prove impossible. We’ve maintained that success rate for years without much fluctuation at all. Whatever can’t be repaired is simply sent back, as clients generally prefer the part be returned to them.
“We’re able to offer a solution in 99 per cent of cases. Whatever can’t be repaired is simply sent back”
And by the way: a thorough intake test shows that 28 per cent of the parts we receive have nothing wrong with them whatsoever. In those cases, you’re dealing with a faulty diagnosis on the other end. We send those parts back with a friendly note explaining the situation and then it’s up to the client to track down the real problem. It’s been calculated that a half-billion euro’s worth of electronic components are tossed out each year, despite the fact they’re not even broken!
At ACtronics, we’re pleased that we can return so many electronic car components to the chain, and in doing so, truly contribute to both a circular industry and the prevention of waste.”