Manufacturing is at a crossroads.
Countries that became the world’s manufacturing powerhouses over the last three decades are transitioning from industrial- to knowledge-based economies and as a result, labor arbitrage is waning. This transition also means that real incomes have risen in regions typically associated with manufacturing, and rising prosperity translates to increased consumption. Furthermore, as these nations have become more prosperous, their workers have more options and fewer of them want to work in factories. Manufacturing facility owners in China, for example, are tackling unprecedented staff turnover rates and growing labor shortages.
On top of these changes, there’s another factor: increasing consumer demands for customization and speed. Henry Ford used to say people could choose any color Model T they wanted so long as it was black. Those days are gone. Consumers today want neon green iPhones delivered yesterday.
In other words, meeting the demands of a changing world not only means producing more stuff with less labor but also quickly and seamlessly adapting production to increasingly impatient and ever-changing consumer tastes.
So how does that happen? Automation and more flexible assembly lines are the obvious answers. But when the rubber meets the road, those solutions aren’t anywhere near as easy as they sound. Every day we read headlines about manufacturers struggling to meet the demands of their business resulting in us, the consumer, waiting longer than expected for cars, phones etc.
Yes, we’re living in an age where robots are growing smarter and more dexterous by the nanosecond. Fully and seamlessly leveraging those capacities, however, is another matter entirely. Transforming a $1.3 trillion-dollar legacy industry is not for the faint-hearted.
Today, in many of the most advanced factories, production is still woefully rigid and fragmented. Capital equipment is costly and inflexible. Current robotic manufacturing systems don’t support rapid changes. Set once, they seldom change. Adding to their problems, there are too many different types of machines from too many vendors each with their own software, their own computer vision platforms, their own methods of data collection and design platforms, etc.
Reinventing this ecosystem cannot happen from a component level — a single robot, vision system or even the holy grail of artificial intelligence can only do so much in isolation. Manufacturing needs an entire rethink. A full-stack makeover.
So Why Bright Machines?
All of this is why we are so excited to announce our involvement and investment in Bright Machines, a software-defined manufacturing company created to solve manufacturing challenges — end to end.
Following a collaborative effort between Eclipse Ventures and Flex Ltd, Bright Machines officially launches today. Over the last six months the company has amassed the people, technology stack, resources, capital, and connections to the software and manufacturing industries to take on an unprecedented challenge and market opportunity.
Bright Machines is the first ever full-stack manufacturing automation platform positioned to help the largest automotive, electronics, medical device and soft goods manufacturers produce faster, cheaper, more flexibly and closer to their consumers than ever.
It has the right team.
Reimagining the next-generation assembly line is not a one-person job. You can’t do this from a university dorm room or with a traditional seed round investment. It requires deep expertise and credibility in three main areas — software, manufacturing hardware (i.e. robotics) and the supply chain. It also requires an understanding of complex manufacturing processes, and proven relationships throughout the nodes of the manufacturing ecosystem.
The Bright Machines team is comprised of manufacturing and supply chain veterans, creative and cutting-edge software engineers, and industry experts in the target verticals. The team is led by Amar Hanspal, the former co-CEO and chief product officer at software giant Autodesk. Amar was the software leader that drove Autodesk’s shift from boxed, desktop software to cloud-based, SaaS over the past decade. Along with Amar and myself, the board represents the most strategic corners of the manufacturing industry at the most senior levels: Flex CEO Mike McNamara, an expert in manufacturing processes and industrial logistics; former Autodesk President and CEO Carl Bass, an expert in manufacturing and design software; Seagate Executive Chairman Steve Luczo, who understands first-hand the complexities of software, manufacturing and logistics.
It has the right approach.
First, it’s full-stack. The only way you can create lasting (and profitable) change in the manufacturing automation industry is by doing both software and hardware. Combining them allows Bright Machines to control the entire experience. Apple knows that without creating its own hardware, using its operating system could be a miserable experience and vice versa. In other words, Bright Machines’ approach solves the entire puzzle, delivering state-of-the-art hardware (its robotic manufacturing cells) defined by software that leverages its team’s deep legacy in CAD, AI, machine learning and computer vision.
Second, it’s Manufacturing-as-a-Service. Historically, equipment has been prohibitively expensive. That worked in a world where manufacturers produced high volumes of the same products — think millions of the same cars year after year. But now even in the auto industry, the fast-paced change of consumer preferences necessitates more flexible and cost-friendly assembly lines. Why pay for machines your factory can’t use in a year after your customers want totally different size phones or watches or car seats? Not unlike the subscription model of AWS, the Bright Machines’ model allows manufacturers to pay for what they’re using, and its AI- and computer vision-powered robots provide manufacturers with the flexibility to make vastly different sizes and shapes of products. These aren’t single-purpose machines. They’re programmed for human-like adaptability.
They are already doing it.
Bright Machines has raised $179 million and already employs more than 300 people who have created a low-cost, flexible end-to-end system that a dozen of the world’s largest brands now use to produce millions of electronic and automotive systems every month.
The challenge of satisfying the ever-growing, ever-changing and increasingly-impatient global consumer won’t happen with a quick fix. It requires the right talent, the right technology and the right approach. We believe the future is here and it is bright.