We’re in uncharted territory, and it’s especially fraught for start-ups. In normal times, establishing product-market fit, finding customers and closing sales contracts are key challenges for any young company. Now, with commerce all but extinguished in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, everything a start-up must do in order to succeed has gotten exponentially harder.
Indeed, we’re already seeing many ventures stumble, make painful cuts or hunker down in other ways. But there are at least two trends that should give hope to those firms fighting to survive. One is that some of today’s most successful start-ups (yes, that term gets an asterisk in the current climate) rose from the ashes of past economic crises.
The other trend is that this unprecedented moment is accelerating innovation in fundamental industries that have experienced massive disruption due to reliance on antiquated processes. A perfect example of this is manufacturing, an industry that anchors global GDP and has certainly seen advancements in automation and other technologies in recent decades.
But perhaps because of this industry’s incredible complexity, some aspects of manufacturing have been insulated from modernization and remain rooted in tradition. Those protocols are now proving to be untenable under the current lockdown, causing negative consequences that ripple all the way out to the everyday consumer.
Take the process universally known in the industry as “new product innovation.” This deeply entrenched methodology encompasses every stage of a new product’s journey to market: from its initial design, to prototype development and assembly, to its debut on store shelves. Critically, the NPI process also establishes the timeline for the progress and launch of new products.
Up until now, the standard approach to this process seemed sufficient. But what about when you get to the stage where the engineers need to leave headquarters and fly across the globe to inspect product assembly for themselves in the factory? In the age of COVID-19, no one is booking flights to Asia for the foreseeable future.
This is exactly what’s endangering many a product launch in the consumer-electronics space and causing widespread anxiety among companies about whether their shiny new devices will be ready in time for the 2020 holiday shopping season.
The solution? These engineering teams need remote-collaboration tools, similar to those that office workers are using right now to communicate with each other and carry on with business. The company Instrumental offers just the solution through its manufacturing optimization platform and its remote capabilities for identifying issues, doing failure analysis and validating fixes.
How it works: With the use of inspection stations installed on assembly lines, Instrumental’s platform captures data and uses AI software to pinpoint anomalies at an unprecedented level of traceability for manufacturers. Instrumental’s clients can set up AI-based monitors, see a 20-megapixel image with just one click, and track down defects based on serial number and other granular details.
Instrumental was founded in 2015, way before the current crisis. Its co-founders are Anna-Katrina Shedletsky and Samuel Weiss, both former Apple mechanical engineers with world-class credentials and direct knowledge of the inefficiencies in manufacturing.
During her six years at Apple, Anna designed mechanical components for three iPods, led system product design for the first Apple Watch, and spent over 300 days in China finding and fixing issues in one of the most admired manufacturing supply chains in the world. At Instrumental, her company’s mission is to help manufacturers build better.
But that isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially not in this environment. In a recent conversation with her — yes, over Zoom — Anna described how Instrumental rapidly developed a process that enables its industrial customers to easily install the inspection stations themselves.
However, the company’s recent focus on remote deployment and monitoring is more than a business strategy to continue showing value in an era of self-isolation. The risk of a co-worker catching the coronavirus is something Instrumental takes very seriously — several of its employees travel to Wuhan regularly to service customers there.
“This is not some faraway thing for us,” Anna said during our conversation. “This is something we’ve been thinking about for a while.”
She feels equally strongly about elevating her field. Manufacturing doesn’t have an iconic celebrity leader like other industries do, or even much of an online community. So Anna decided to step into the void, and in so doing, is now providing the world with trustworthy insights into a sector that previously got little coverage in the mainstream media.
Now her articles appear in Forbes, and she is being cited in the New York Times and other publications. Most recently, she was interviewed by the EconomistForbes, and she is being cited in the New York Times and other publications. Most recently, she was interviewed by the Economist — and once you meet Anna and come to appreciate her affinity for the industry that shaped her, it’s not surprising.
Her message has been consistent that manufacturing is composed of problem solvers who are rising to the occasion, will overcome this terrible chapter in our history, and come out stronger on the other side.
In our view, Anna’s poignant comment to the Economist is exactly what old-line industries across the board should be telling themselves right now:
“We’re going to do five years of innovating in the next 18 months.”
Let’s do this.