Apr
02
2019
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Microsoft teams up with BMW for the IoT-focused Open Manufacturing Platform

Car companies are making big investments in technology to help ensure that they are not cut out of the next generation of transportation and automotive manufacturing, and today came the latest development in that trend.

The BMW Group and Microsoft announced they would team up in a new effort called the Open Manufacturing Platform, aimed at developing and encouraging more collaborative IoT development in the manufacturing sector, focusing on smart factory solutions and building standards to develop them in areas like machine connectivity and on-premises systems integration.

The two companies have not disclosed how much they intend to invest in the project — we have sent a message to ask. The plan will be to bring in more manufacturers and suppliers — the goal, they say, is to have between four and six others with them, working on 15 use cases by the end of this year — working with open source components, open industrial standards and open data to develop both hardware and software that runs on it.

The two say that future partners do not have to be from within the automotive industry.

The OMP will be built on Microsoft’s industrial IoT platform — part of its Azure cloud business. But this is a natural progression of how Microsoft and BMW were already working together. BMW already has 3,000 machines running on Azure cloud, IoT and AI services in its existing robots and in-factory autonomous transport systems, and it said it will be contributing some of the technology that it had already built — for example around its self-driving systems — into the group as part of the effort.

“Microsoft is joining forces with the BMW Group to transform digital production efficiency across the industry,” Scott Guthrie, executive vice president, Microsoft Cloud + AI Group, said in a presentation in Germany today. “Our commitment to building an open community will create new opportunities for collaboration across the entire manufacturing value chain.”

“Mastering the complex task of producing individualized premium products requires innovative IT and software solutions,” added Oliver Zipse, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Production, a statement. “The interconnection of production sites and systems as well as the secure integration of partners and suppliers are particularly important. We have been relying on the cloud since 2016 and are consistently developing new approaches. With the Open Manufacturing Platform as the next step, we want to make our solutions available to other companies and jointly leverage potential in order to secure our strong position in the market in the long term.”

The problem that Microsoft and BMW are going after here is a longstanding one. Much of the computing in the world of IT has been built around open standards, or in any event on very widely-used proprietary platforms that can interface with each other. The same does not go in the world of manufacturing, where proprietary systems are specific to each manufacturer, making them difficult to modify and often impossible to use in conjunction with other proprietary systems.

That ultimately slows down how things have been able to evolve, and will mean that implementing new generations of technology becomes expensive or even in some cases impossible. And given the speed with which things are moving, and the increasing sophistication of the machines that are being built (cars as “hardware”), something had to change.

That is what BMW and Microsoft are addressing. For BMW it will give it a hand in helping shape how standards develop, and for Microsoft it will give it a potential window into expanding its business in this enterprise sector.

The collaborative approach has been a big one for tech companies hoping to find a common way forward in the future of computing. Microsoft may own a lot of proprietary platforms that are not open source, but it’s making efforts to collaborate more in a number of other ways. It works with SAP, Adobe, WPP and others on the Open Data Initiative; with Intel, Google and others it’s working on an open standard for connecting data centers; it’s part of an open standard initiative for software licensing; and it’s part of a new cross-licensing patent database.

Jan
24
2019
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Blue Prism looks to partners to expand robotic process automation with AI

Blue Prism helped coin the term robotic process automation (RPA) when the company was founded back in 2001 to help companies understand the notion of automating mundane business processes. Today, it’s releasing updates to that platform, including an updated marketplace for exchanging connectors to extend the main product, and, in some cases, adding a layer of intelligence.

The product at its core has allowed non-technical users to automate a business process by simply dragging components into an interface. All of the process coding has been automated on the back end. You could have a process that scans a check, enters a figure in a spreadsheet and sends an automated message to another employee (or digital process) when it’s done.

Dave Moss, company co-founder and CTO, sees a world in which companies are looking to digitization to stave off growing competition. Big insurance companies, financial services and other workflow-intensive organizations need to look beyond the automation capabilities his company has given them, and that is going to require an intelligence layer.

Today, the company wants to extend its core capability by offering more advanced tools in the Blue Prism Digital Exchange marketplace. The Exchange gives partners and customers the ability to create and share tools to enhance Blue Prism. To encourage those entities to add AI capabilities, the company also announced a new AI engine for building connectors to advanced AI tools from Amazon, Google, IBM and other AI platforms.

But the company doesn’t want to simply leave it to partners to provide the innovation. It wants that happening in-house as well, and to that end it has created Blue Prism Labs, where it will work with these same technologies looking for ways to inject its RPA products with artificial intelligence. This could lead to more sophisticated automated workflows down the road, such as using image recognition technology to add metadata about a photo automatically.

While Blue Prism has been a public company since 2016, the market has attracted a slew of startups, which have in turn been attracting big bucks from investors on gaudy valuations. UIPath, a NYC RPA company, has raised almost $450 million. Its most recent round in September was for $225 million on a $3 billion valuation. Automation Anywhere, a San Jose RPA startup, has raised $550 million, including an enormous $300 million investment from SoftBank in November on a valuation of $2.6 billion.

Dec
18
2018
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Ex-Googlers meld humans & machines at new cobotics startup Formant

Our distinct skill sets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions machine can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t require any human thinking, we’ll need software to supervise them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “help people speak robot,” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering element in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the movie Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies,” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent four years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed round from SignalFire, a data-driven VC fund with software for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a single human to oversee 10, 20 or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web,” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

A beautiful marriage

“This is going to sound completely bizarre,” Formant CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a little mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and help me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to avoid this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I would do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD program to build a startup called Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4,000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics, where he was COO, got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at,” Jules tells me.

Formant now has SaaS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “robot-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to construction, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll require precise coordination.

What’s different about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly control them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with LiDAR, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, motor torques and scalar values. The software parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human “foreman” that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For example, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a construction site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the robot to proceed or stop,” Linnell writes. “This decision is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the robot is easily interpreted by a human but difficult or legally questionable for a machine. This choice still depends on the value judgment of the human, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any single data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the different feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it also can turn their choices into valuable training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next time the machine won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rock-star talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest threat is competition from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could try to adapt to the new real-time data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics, plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with different clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that try to build their own robot management software could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure way is a pretty bad problem.” Formant is looking to squash any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With time, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface enormous societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways a continuation of the industrial revolution,” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the machine that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”

Dec
12
2018
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Wandelbots raises $6.8M to make programming a robot as easy as putting on a jacket

Industrial robotics is on track to be worth around $20 billion by 2020, but while it may have something in common with other categories of cutting-edge tech — innovative use of artificial intelligence, pushing the boundaries of autonomous machines that are disrupting pre-existing technology — there is one key area where it differs: each robotics firm uses its own proprietary software and operating systems to run its machines, making programming the robots complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

A startup out of Germany called Wandelbots (a portmanteau of “change” and “robots” in German) has come up with an innovative way to skirt around that challenge: using software built by the company, a person wearing a jacket fitted with dozens of sensors can now program the actions of robots from the 12 most popular industrial robotics makers.

“We are providing a universal language to teach those robots in the same way, independent of the technology stack,” said CEO Christian Piechnick said in an interview. Essentially reverse engineering the process of how a lot of software is built, Wandelbots has created a Linux-like underpinning to all of it.

With some very big deals under its belt with the likes of Volkwagen, Infineon and Midea, the startup out of Dresden has now raised €6 million ($6.8 million), a Series A to take it to its next level of growth and specifically to double down on its operations in China. The funding comes from Paua VenturesEQT Ventures and other unnamed previous investors. (It had previously raised a seed round around the time it was a finalist in our Disrupt Battlefield last year, pre-launch.)

Paua has a bit of a history backing transformational software companies (it also invests in Stripe), and EQT, being connected to a private equity firm, is treating this as a strategic investment that might be deployed across its own assets.

Piechnick — who co-founded Wandelbots with Georg Püschel, Maria Piechnick, Sebastian Werner, Jan Falkenberg and Giang Nguyen on the back of research they did at university — said that typical programming of industrial robots to perform a task could have in the past taken three months, the employment of specialist systems integrators, and of course an extra cost on top of the machines themselves.

Someone with no technical knowledge, wearing one of Wandelbots’ jackets, can bring that process down to 10 minutes, with costs reduced by a factor of ten.

“In order to offer competitive products in the face of the rapid changes within the automotive industry, we need more cost savings and greater speed in the areas of production and automation of manufacturing processes,” said Marco Weiß, Head of New Mobility & Innovations at Volkswagen Sachsen GmbH, in a statement. “Wandelbots’ technology opens up significant opportunities for automation. Using Wandelbots offering, the installation and setup of robotic solutions can be implemented incredibly quickly by teams with limited programming skills.”

Wandelbots’ focus at the moment is on programming robotic arms rather than the mobile machines that you may have seen Amazon and others using to move goods around warehouses. For now, this means that there is not a strong crossover in terms of competition between these two branches of enterprise robotics.

However, Amazon has been expanding and working on new areas beyond warehouse movements: it has, for example, been working ways of using computer vision and robotic arms to identify and pick out the most optimal fruits and vegetables out of boxes to put into grocery orders.

Innovations like that from Amazon and others could see more pressure for innovation among robotics makers, although Piechnick notes that up to now we’ve seen very little in the way of movement, and there may never be (creating more opportunity for companies like his that build more usability).

“Attempts to build robotics operating systems have been tried over and over again, and each time it’s failed,” he said. “But robotics has completely different requirements, such as real time computing, safety issues and many other different factors. A robot in operation is much more complicated than a phone.” He also added that Wandelbots itself has a number of innovations of its own currently going through the patent process, which will widen its own functionality too in terms of what and how its software can train a robot to do. (This may see more than jackets enter the mix.)

As with companies in the area of robotic process automation — which uses AI to take over more mundane back-office features — Piechnick maintains that what he has built, and the rise of robotics overall, is not going to replace workers, but put them on to other roles, while allowing businesses to expand the scope of what they can do that a human might never have been able to execute.

“No company we work with has ever replaced a human worker with a robot,” he said, explaining that generally the upgrade is from machine to better machine. “It makes you more efficient and cost reductive, and it allows you to put your good people on more complicated tasks.”

Currently, Wandelbots is working with large-scale enterprises, although ultimately, it’s smaller businesses that are its target customer, he said.

“Previously the ROI on robots was too difficult for SMEs,” he said. “With our tech this changes.”

“Wandelbots will be one of the key companies enabling the mass-adoption of industrial robotics by revolutionizing how robots are trained and used,” said Georg Stockinger, Partner at Paua Ventures, in a statement. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a steep decline in robotic hardware costs. Now, Wandelbots’ resolves the remaining hurdle to disruptive growth in industrial automation – the ease and speed of implementation and teaching. Both factors together will create a perfect storm, driving the next wave of industrial revolution.”

 

 

Oct
23
2018
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Bright Machines lands $179M to bring smarter robotics to manufacturing

Robotics has had a role in manufacturing since the 1970s, but even today they are aren’t often driven by the latest software. Bright Machines, a San Francisco startup wants to change that and it got a whopping $179 million Series A today to get this thing going. While it was at it, it also officially launched the company.

The startup wants to bring a software-driven approach to robotics, one that would let you take dumb robotics and program it in a more automated fashion to perform a set of tasks, taking advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning in ways that they say most manufacturing companies simply aren’t equipped to handle right now.

This is clearly not your typical Series A and Bright Machines does not appear to be a typical Series A company, feeling its way trying to get a product to market. Perhaps that’s because the company began life as incubated project inside Flex, a customized manufacturing company. It was then spun out as a startup called AutoLab AI and changed the name to Bright Machines today for the big company unveiling.

It already boast over 300 employees and brought in CEO, Armar Hanspal, who was most recently co-CEO at Autodesk to run the show. Former Autodesk CEO Carl Bass is a board member. Other board members include Mike McNamara, CEO of Flex and Steve Luszo, CEO of Seagate. Eclipse led the round.

What is attracting all of this money and talent to such a young company? Bright Machines is trying to solve a hard and expensive manufacturing problem. “We’re putting together the people, the tech stack and funding and other resources to go really go tackle this big under-served environment by bringing more automation and software to the factory floor,” CEO Hanspal told TechCrunch.

While he acknowledges we have seen a move toward automating the factor floor for decades, they are attacking an area that up until now has been underserved by robotics because the technology simply wasn’t ready to handle it. “What we’re doing that’s different is going from dumb, blind and costly robots to ones that are sensor rich, have computer vision, machine learning and are adaptable,” he said.

What’s more, they are bringing a subscription model to this approach, allowing customers to set up custom manufacturing lines on the fly with what they claim is much lower cost and fuss they faced with more traditional approaches. 

They are taking on this sum of money so early because they believe it is a huge market and if they can attract the right talent, they can bring a substantive change to manufacturing that is lacking today. Time will tell if the bet pays off.

Sep
14
2018
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Drone startup Airware crashes, will shut down after burning $118M

Drone operating system startup Airware today suddenly informed employees it will cease operations immediately despite having raised $118 million from top investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Google’s GV, and Kleiner Perkins. The startup ran out of money after trying to manufacture its own hardware that couldn’t compete with drone giants like China’s DJI. The company at one point had as many as 140 employees, all of which are now out of a job.

A source sent TechCrunch screenshots from the Airware alumni Slack channel detailing how the staff was told this morning that Airware would shut down.

Airware makes a cloud sofware system that helps enterprise customers like construction companies, mining operations, and insurance companies reviewing equipment for damages to use drones to collect and analyze aerial data. That allowed companies to avoid using expensive helicopters or dangerous rigs with humans on harnesses to make inspections and gauge work progress.

One ex-employee asked “How do I get my options sent to me on paper so I can burn them all in a fire??

Founded in 2011 by Jonathan Downey, the son of two pilots, Airware first built an autopilot system for programming drones to follow certain routes to collect data. It could help businesses check rooftops for damage, see how much of a raw material was coming out of a mine, or build constantly-updated maps of construction sites. Later it tried to build its own drones before pivoting to consult clients on how to most efficiently apply unmanned aerial vehicles.

While flying high, Airware launched its own Commercial Drone Fund for investing in the market in 2015, and acquired 38-person drone analytics startup Redbird in 2016. In this pre-crypto, pre-AI boom, Airware scored a ton of hype from us and others as tried to prove drones could be more than war machines. But over time, the software that shipped with commercial drone hardware from other manufacturers was good enough to make Airware irrelevant, and a downward spiral of layoffs began over the past two years, culminating in today’s shutdown. Demonstating how sudden the shut down is, Airware opened a Tokyo headquarters alongside an investment and partnership from Mitsubishi just four days ago.

“Airware was ahead of the game trying to build their software. So far ahead that the drone hardware on the market wasn’t sophisticated enough to actually produce the granularity of data they needed to test out their software/train their algorithms” an ex-employee told TechCrunch (emphasis ours). “So they spent shitloads of money designing bespoke hardware, including two drones in-house, one multi-rotor called an AT-28, and one fixed-wing called Cygnet. Both projects were scuttled as hardware from DJI and Ebee caught up to needs, after sinking tons of engineering time and manufacturing into them.”

Following TechCrunch’s inquiry about the unnannounced news, Airware confirmed the shut down to us with this statement:

“History has taught us how hard it can be to call the timing of a market transition. We have seen this play out first hand in the commercial drone marketplace. We were the pioneers in this market and one of the first to see the power drones could have in the commercial sector. Unfortunately, the market took longer to mature than we expected. As we worked through the various required pivots to position ourselves for long term success, we ran out of financial runway. As a result, it is with a heavy heart that we notified our team, customers, and partners that we will wind down the business.

This is not the business outcome we had worked so hard for over the years and yet we are deeply proud of our company’s accomplishments and our leadership in driving the adoption of drone powered analytics to improve productivity, mitigate risks, and take workers out of harm’s way.

As we close the book of Airware; we want to thank the partners and customers who believed in us and helped us along the way. And, while it is difficult to say goodbye to our team, we want to thank them for all they have contributed to Airware and the industry. We look forward to seeing how they will take their learnings from Airware to fuel continued innovations in the world around us.”

[Update: Since we broke the news, Airware has put up a “thank you” note about the shutdown informing clients that “A representative from the Airware team will be in touch.”]

An Airware-hardware equipped drone

Employees will get one week’s severance, COBRA insurance until November, and payouts for unused paid time off. It appears the startup wasn’t able to raise necessary funding to save the company or secure an acquisition from one of its strategic partners like Catepillar.

Airware will serve as cautionary tale of startup overspending in hopes of finding product-market fit. Had it been more frugal, saved cash to extend its runway, and given corporate clients more time to figure out how to use drones, Airware might have stayed afloat. Sometimes, even having the most prestigious investors can’t save a startup from mismanagement.

Our ex-employee source concludes that “I think having $118M in the bank led Airware to charge ahead and sink tons of money into force-it-to-work methods rather than exercise a bit of patience and wait for the inevitable advance of hardware to catch up. They had a knack for hiring extremely talented and expensive people from places like Google, Autodesk, there was even SpaceX and NASA alumni there.

They spared no expense ever.”

Jan
09
2018
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IBM led on patents in 2017, Facebook broke into top 50 for the first time

 Patents may sometimes get a bad rap for how they are abused (and misused) by some companies for commercial gain, but they also remain a marker of how a tech company is progressing with its R&D and pushing ahead on innovation. For one measure of that advance, today, IFI Claims, the patent analytics firm, published its 2017 list of companies with the most U.S. patents assigned for the year.… Read More

Sep
15
2017
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A typical day for researchers on Google’s Brain Team

 What do you and researchers on Google’s Brain Team have most in common? You both probably spend a lot of time triaging email. In a Reddit AMA, 11 Google AI researchers took time to share the activities that consume the greatest chunks of their days. Email was a frequent topic of conversation, in addition to less banal activities like skimming academic papers and brainstorming with… Read More

Sep
07
2017
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Canvas’ robot cart could change how factories work

We stopped by Andy Rubin’s Playground in Palo Alto to check out a new autonomous cart from Canvas Technologies. The startup aims to replace existing fixed and expensive factory infrastructure, like conveyor belts, with its lightweight and adaptable computer-vision-powered cart. Read More

Aug
22
2017
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The top 7 startups from Y Combinator S’17 Demo Day 1

 A stem cell cryobank, self-flying personal planes and an augmented reality data platform were amongst the highlights of the Y Combinator Summer 2017 Demo Day part 1. Based on investor buzz and what caught the eye of TechCrunch’s writers, click or scroll through to see our picks for day 1’s top 7 startups. Read More

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