Today, we launch Industrial Evolution: The Digital Transformation of Essential Industries, a series of conversations that will examine the reinvention of the complex, physical industries central to our daily lives and prosperity.
We founded Eclipse Ventures five years ago to partner with founders who are working to digitally transform the analog infrastructure of the world around us: manufacturing, logistics and supply chain, healthcare, transportation and other critical industries. Lack of investment over the years has led to systemic frailties that we can no longer ignore — and these weaknesses were only magnified by the coronavirus.
It is now incumbent upon all of us to champion innovation across the board. Rigid, deeply entrenched workflows need to be replaced with more agile and resilient processes, driven by new technology to ensure speed, flexibility, and most importantly, business continuity in the face of disruption.
The shutdown of Chinese factories due to Covid-19 has renewed national interest in bringing more manufacturing back to the United States. It may seem counter-intuitive, but accelerated adoption of automation could play a major role in reinvigorating the industry and generating jobs.
Be it a pandemic or something man-made, like a trade war, our essential industries must be positioned to adapt to the next crisis. A company working toward this transformation is Bright Machines, a leader in Software-Defined Manufacturing that Eclipse Ventures co-founded in 2018. Originally an advanced engineering unit within the electronics-manufacturing giant Flextronics, Bright Machines leverages computer vision, machine learning and adaptive robotics to build a wide array of products commonly found in our cars, homes and offices.
On that note, I asked the company’s CEO, Amar Hanspal, to talk about several initiatives that Bright Machines recently launched to increase access to automation throughout the industry.
Over the years, veterans of manufacturing have seen new technologies fail to live up to their promise. For the skeptics out there, what’s your best example of how Bright Machines automation has done work that a manufacturer previously off-shored, but better and/or more cost effectively?
Last month, we installed one of our fully automated assembly lines in a factory here in California making a network security appliance less than eight miles from the company’s HQ. This line couldn’t have happened a few years ago without software-defined automation. We have another automated assembly line going into a different California factory next month with a similar story. In that case, their output will be eventually be able to scale by 10x compared to when assembly was being done manually.
Automation allows manufacturers to build closer to their customers and to their engineering teams. This improves both speed to market and overall responsiveness to customer needs. It also reduces overseas logistics costs not to mention a reduction in transit inventory by at least one month.
How easily can Bright Machines automation be incorporated into assembly processes or factories, especially now that safety protocols dictate fewer humans working on a line?
We’re talking to dozens of companies who understand that they need to make their factories more resilient to disruptions. In fact, manual factories, have either slowed or paused altogether in response to the pandemic while automated production lines at our customers have largely continued to run. The ease of remote operation is a big part of automation’s attraction and the growth in interest we are seeing.
There are also new guidelines, such as the OSHA regulations that demand greater spacing between people on a factory floor that can be met either by increasing floor space or reducing the number of humans required through automation. With Bright Machines Microfactories, they can deploy automation with fewer people and operate with few to no people on the assembly part of the line.
For example, one project (security control panel for homes/small offices) that we’ve just put into play increased the number of units produced per shift by more than 70 percent, while reducing the number of operators from eight people to three. Just as importantly, those three people are always positioned more than six feet apart, meeting OSHA’s new workplace guidelines. This is a huge deal in the new normal and wasn’t the case when this factory had eight people working in the same footprint.
With the cost of operations expected to rise due to added safety measures such as expenditures on PPE, testing and physical-distancing requirements, is the ROI on Microfactories accelerated?
With Bright Machines Select, our manufacturing-as-a-service business model, we’ve actually taken ownership out of the equation. The economics of Bright Machines Select allows companies who are challenged by constraints in the labor market to meet production demands using market-leading automation without incurring additional costs. This means a smaller upfront commitment and just like labor and other direct production costs today, automation costs are treated as OpEx, not CapEx. The instant ROI is hard to pass up. No more waiting two or three years to see a return on investment. That’s a game changer in the world of manufacturing.
The pandemic’s disruption to manufacturing is the worst we’ve seen in living memory. But those who’ve spent their career in the field say it’s just a matter of time before the next crisis — whether it’s a natural disaster or man-made like a trade war. Is the Bright Machines Select program a solution for manufacturers to future proof their factories?
Absolutely. Bright Machines Select provides future-proofing to manufacturers at a reasonable cost. For no more cost than employing labor, companies can fully automate their assembly operations. At a time when companies are facing uncertain demand and limited access to cash, this flexible approach lets them deploy automation without high upfront costs. And, I’m proud that last month we announced the Bright Machines Factory Resiliency Fund specifically to enable manufacturers to automate their assembly line today and not have to pay until 2021.
Your COO, Tzahi Rodrig, recently said that when a product gets built in an entirely different location, it’s highly likely to look and feel different to the customer. How does Bright Machines address this issue of consistency?
Since our automated assembly lines are software-driven, our technology enables the exact same set of manufacturing instructions to be executed in every location. The technology automatically adjusts for any variability in factory environments and components. Bright Machines is enabling the “copy exactly” method known to semiconductor manufacturing to the world of product manufacturing.