Robots Leading the Future of Manufacturing

12283097494?profile=RESIZE_400xAindrea Campbell knows more than most about high-tech production.  In her previous role, she was senior director of iPad operations at Apple, helping to run the sophisticated assembly lines in China that produce tens of millions of tablet computers each year.  As chief operating officer of Agility Robotics, Campbell will oversee the production of pioneering products in the US.  In September, the company announced that its 70,000 sq ft RoboFab, the “world’s first factory” for building humanlike robots, would be located in Salem, Oregon, less than an hour’s drive from the start-up’s headquarters in Corvallis.[1]

 “What’s most attractive is being close to the engineering team and having that connection with engineering, so we can address issues and gain learnings, and cycle the product through our production development process much faster,” says Campbell, who took up her role in January.  Within the next 12 months, Agility plans to start building its Digit model bipedal, autonomous robots, which are designed to handle warehouse and logistics work alongside human employees. Beginning in the hundreds, the factory can produce 10,000 Digits a year to work on the assembly lines of Fortune 100 companies.

The decision to build Digit at scale in the US might not have been considered twenty years ago, not just because robotics was not so advanced.  Manufacturing wages in China have jumped tenfold since 2001.  Shipping disruptions amid the pandemic have also compelled Western companies to shorten their supply chains and de-risk from China.  Corporate board members are now prioritizing actions to mitigate climate change.  Vietnam, India, and Mexico are primed to capitalize, especially in labor-intensive areas.

The US is unlikely to compete in sectors such as high-volume electronics because of higher wages and a widespread skills shortage.  However, advances in 3D printing and artificial intelligence are helping to build the pathway for a US manufacturing renaissance based on robotics and automation.  “The US is not going to build the same type of manufacturing China has built for the last four decades,” says Lior Susan, partner at Eclipse Ventures, which backs physical industries at the forefront of what it describes as the next industrial revolution.  “You can’t put 80,000 people on a campus in the US.  That’s just not going to work,” he explains. “But we’re going to use technology a lot of automation, software, and manufacture in Charlotte, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, and outside of Boston.”

The trend is being reinforced by start-ups developing “enabling technologies” to help factories run more efficiently.  Everyone who is building physical products has realized that the way that they’ve been doing it needs to change. Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, Instrumental One is a Palo Alto-based instrument that uses AI-enabled cameras and sensors to help factories cut down on waste and increase their manufacturing yield, the percentage of perfect goods.  Its chief executive, Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, says clients are moving roughly 10% of their production from China yearly and rethinking every facet of their operations.  “Everybody building physical products has realized in the last two to three years if they didn’t realize before that the way that they’ve been doing it for the last two decades needs to change,” she says.  “They are essentially restarting from a blank sheet.”

Another company, Fictiv, is in San Francisco.  It connects different factories’ idle machines remotely to work as one digital contract manufacturer.  “We take the factories that are at 20-30 percent utilization, and we bring them up to be more like 50-60 %,” says Dave Evans, co-founder.  “Or we take the factory that’s overwhelmed, and we redistribute that work to help them survive.”  Potential for success: sectors including AI and robotics are areas where the US can advance.

VulcanForms, a Massachusetts-based start-up, last year raised $355M to pioneer 3D-printing of metal parts at an industrial scale.  John Hart, chief executive, says its machines can be quickly reformatted with just a few lines of code to build for different industries.  “So, in one factory, you can make components for jet engines and rocket engines, consumer devices, or medical implants,” he says.  “That’s never been possible before. Think of what that means for managing supply chains, for restructuring the relationships between organizations.”

Industry experts say Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla have played catalyzing roles over the past decade, demonstrating that advanced manufacturing can be executed in the US.  Alumni of the two have founded 154 companies, raising $18.9B, according to Rick Davis, a climate tech investor who produces a database tracking launches.  Venture capital, however, still flows overwhelmingly into software, IT and cloud infrastructure, and Fintech rather than heavy-duty machinery and automation.

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