By Bilal Zuberi
The tension between factory workers, manufacturers and technology — building since the first robot began working the line at GM in 1961 — has reached a fever pitch.
Even the most tech-forward companies have struggled to find the right balance. In April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk blamed part of the company’s Model 3 delays on a “production hell” caused by “too many robots.”
New technologies are ushering in a new age of manufacturing: one that will help companies produce more high-quality goods faster and cheaper, while also enabling more innovation and economic opportunity.
At my firm, Lux Capital, we have been investing in automation technologies for many years. Here are ten trends and innovation spaces we see that are changing manufacturing for the better:
- Sensors. Precise, high-quality, low-cost sensors are making it possible to measure just about everything. The number of cameras in the world is increasing exponentially; depth sensing and perception are now affordable for consumer devices; sensors and arrays can pick up directional sound with high accuracy; and tension, torque, stress, pressure, temperature, location, humidity, and touch sensors have become so affordable they’re being commoditized. We are living in a highly sensorized world.
- Connectivity. Distributed sensors are more powerful when they are connected: They can share data, enabling sensor networks to work in swarms. Similarly, low-latency networks enable bi-directional communications between robots and humans. And ultrafast, high-bandwidth 5G and satellite based communications are almost ready.
- Intelligence. Connected sensors generate vast amounts of data that need to be deciphered, and system-level decisions need to be made in real-time. Advances in CPU/GPU chip architectures and computational algorithms are providing new insights, and increasingly doing so both in the cloud and on edge-based devices. Machine vision and machine intelligence make it possible for machines to do what they do better, rather than just mimicking human behavior.
- Additive Manufacturing. 3D printing and AI-based generative design technologies are changing what and how we design and create, while disrupting global supply chains. Desktop Metal is building metal 3D printers for studio-scale prototyping and large-volume manufacturing, making it possible to design a product on one continent, and then 3D print it on another continent moments later — avoiding complex and expensive logistics and long-distance shipping. There is change afoot in end-to-end manufacturing, from design tools to production techniques to materials that are used.
- Collaborative Robots, AKA “Cobots.” Today, industrial robots and humans are segregated because many robots are powerful, yet dumb and dangerous. New robots are smarter and safer to be around, making it possible for people and robots to work together. Machines made and powered by companies such as Veo Robotics, Embodied Intelligence, Rethink Robotics and Universal Robotics, are taking on the heavy, repetitive, dangerous work, allowing people to focus on higher-level work, such as solving problems and managing the machines.
- Warehouse Automation. This trend is powering the rapid growth in e-commerce and home delivery. Amazon acquired Kiva Robotics, an early pioneer, for $800 million in 2012. The second wave is bringing better vision, lidar sensors, indoor location systems, and collaborative robots mounted on autonomously moving platforms — made possible by companies like 6 River Systems, Locus Systems, Fetch Robotics and Grey Orange. If cheap sensors and compute became available for other industries as ‘peace dividends of the cell phone wars’, we should anticipate highly complex sensing and navigating technologies becoming accessible to industries as ‘peace dividends of the autonomous car wars’.
- Aerial Imaging. Satellites and drones provide unparalleled aerial imagery data, driving manufacturing and economic intelligence, productivity, and worker safety across industries including construction, oil and gas, telecom and agriculture. We can now image the entire earth every single day using satellites from Planet. We can also hire a drone to capture high-resolution images on short notice using Hangar. Drones from DJI and Skydio can fly autonomously. Kespry and others are automating the pipeline of aerial data collection. Orbital Insight, Cape Analytics, OpenSpace, Clarifai, SpaceKnow, and Descartes Labs are using neural nets and AI to extract 4D insights from images.
- AR/VR/Projected VR. Augmented and virtual reality is not just about entertainment. In fact, such technologies are already seeing reception in industrial environments faster, and in more profitable manner, than consumer use cases. From Oculus, HTC, Sony to Lightform, Daqri, and Vuzix are enabling experiences to train workers, provide information and guidance when navigating complex or dangerous work environments, and eventually enabling learning data sets to train robots to automate certain repetitive tasks.
- Wearable robotics. Exoskeletons give factory workers superpowers to become stronger and faster. Sarcos Robotics has built exoskeletons with arms that extend out 7 feet and lift 1000 pounds. Ekso Bionics and SuitX are building robotic exoskeletons. BIONx built intuitive control + active robotic prosthetics for the lower limbs and was acquired by Ottobock last year.
- Automating Manufacturing Lines. From consumer electronics to spacecraft, manufacturing lines are automating discrete processes and bringing in sensors, software and analytical tools to facilitate continuous automation. Tempo Automation is automating the manufacturing of electronics, while Plethora is using software to optimize CAD designs and automate CAM processes in machine shops. Instrumental, Tulip, Drishti, Landing.ai, as well as companies such as Flextronics and FoxConn, are using distributed sensors, cameras, machine vision and software to detect manufacturing flaws.
When coupled with human insight and intuition, robotics and automation can be positive forces in society, making it possible for billions of people to join the global economy. The nature of work, jobs, and how machines + humans work together is changing rapidly and we will be better off if we anticipated, and prepared for such shifts.
Disclosure: Companies with hyperlinks indicate Lux portfolio companies.