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Enhanced computer vision, sensors raise manufacturing stakes for robots as a service

RaaS is defining the second generation of robots that work alongside humans

For more than two decades, robotics market commentaries have predicted a shift, particularly in manufacturing, from traditional industrial manipulators to a new generation of mobile, sensing robots, called “cobots.” Cobots are agile assistants that use internal sensors and AI processing to operate tools or manipulate components in a shared workspace, while maintaining safety.

It hasn’t happened. Companies have successfully deployed cobots, but the rate of adoption is lagging behind expectations.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), cobots sold in 2019 made up just 3% of the total industrial robots installed. A report published by Statista projects that in 2022, cobots’ market share will advance to 8.5%. This is a fraction of a February 2018 study cited by the Robotic Industries Association that forecasted by 2025, 34% of the new robots being sold in the U.S. will be cobots.

To see a cobot in action, here’s the Kuka LBR iiwa. To ensure safe operation, cobots come with built-in constraints, like limited strength and speed. Those limitations have also limited their adoption.

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As cobots’ market share languishes, standard industrial robots are being retrofitted with computer vision technology, allowing for collaborative work combining the speed and strength of industrial robots with the problem-solving skills and finesse of humans.

This article will document the declining interest in cobots, the reasons for it and the technology that is replacing it. We report on two firms developing computer vision technology for standard robots and describe how developments in 3D vision and so-called “robots as a service” (yes, RaaS) are defining this faster-growing second generation of robots that can work alongside humans.

What are robotics sensing platforms?

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Why a startup with $10M in annual revenue took 18 months to get VC funding

Back in 2006, Joseph Heller went to China where he spent the next decade learning about the manufacturing business. Based on that experience he eventually built a startup called The Studio. The idea was to help connect people with a small business idea to manufacturers in China in a fully digital way.

By 2016 he had grown his startup into a $10 million annual business with 100 employees around the world. But when it came to fundraising back in the U.S., Heller found it wasn’t easy for a Silicon Valley outsider to get in the door without connections.

He persevered and in 2018 landed an $11 million Series A from Ignition Partners, which allowed him to expand his business. But he still wondered if he would have done even better with the capital and guidance that comes from working with an early-stage VC firm in Silicon Valley much earlier in the process.

We sat down with Heller recently to learn how he built a company from the ground up with little outside help and what it was like to raise those funds.

Starting out

While Heller was in China, he learned how to navigate the manufacturing landscape and was able to build up a nice consulting business by helping big brands get goods manufactured there. But he saw an opportunity to do more, and especially to help smaller businesses looking to manufacture goods in China in much smaller batches than the big operations would typically require.

The latter was much more difficult to do, and Heller sensed there could be a business opportunity to work with small companies empowered by platforms like Shopify with a way to sell goods online. What they lacked was a way to manufacture them.

“I just felt that it’s crazy that we’ve democratized the ability to set up a web store with Shopify, and use Instagram to get the message out there. Everything’s been democratized for these small brands, but the manufacturing piece was still really hard to penetrate,” Heller told TechCrunch.

He decided to build on that idea by creating a company that would make it easier for small businesses to order custom goods from micro factories in China, giving them access to the same opportunities as big brands, but in much smaller batches. That idea became The Studio.

“We basically ended up building relationships with these small micro factories in China that we trained to run smaller batch manufacturing, and then we built software that enabled these SMBs to place orders with these factories. So instead of having to order 30,000 pieces, they can order 100 pieces,” he explained.

Image Credits: The Studio

Struggling to get meetings

When Heller went looking for funding, he had built the business to $10 million in annual revenue, and he believed that he had a solid enough organization to draw the attention of venture capitalists.

After all, this was a business he had painstakingly built and grown into a healthy early-stage company based on years of experience in the field. He had taken it to market. He had proven product-market fit. He had customers. Seemed like it would be a slam dunk to get funding.

In reality, though, he struggled to get meetings. While Heller, who is Black, says that it can be difficult for Black founders to get access to venture capital firms, he sees it as part of a larger issue of general lack of access for those who don’t have the right connections.

“For starters, there are certain people that just don’t have access to VCs. And it’s not just a Black issue. I think it’s more of an issue of VCs just being very exclusive and it tends to be mostly White people that have those types of connections,” he said.

He added, “If you’re not in Silicon Valley and not in that very exclusive VC club, it’s basically almost impossible to raise money and so that was never even an option for us [early on],” he said. Instead he bootstrapped the company with his own money, but when he had built the company to the level he had, he wanted outside capital, and he believed he was in a good position to get it.

Climbing the mountain

Heller was able to get a meeting through a connection from his days at the University of California, Berkeley, who had been a venture capitalist. That led to other meetings, which led mostly to a lot of disappointment. To be fair, it’s hard for anyone to break into this system and present a compelling case, but Heller had built his business to $10 million in revenue. That had to count for something.

“It was very clear that I was an outsider in Silicon Valley trying to penetrate it, and this was already a $10 million business with a very competent engineering team. We had proven out a lot of things, and I feel that if I were part of that kind of exclusive VC network, we would have raised money a lot quicker,” Heller lamented.

He did note that he believed being Black was at least a factor in his struggle to get attention from VC firms. “It is particularly difficult for African American and other founders to just get initial capital to start their business. I spent a lot of my personal money, and years making mistakes, because I was so far away from the centers of capital,” he said.

Heller says he felt he might have lost something along the way because of that.”I’ve seen countless founders that have good VC connections able to raise $1 million to $5 million seed rounds, with literally no product and just an idea,” he said. “This option was not available to me.”

Getting to yes

After 18 months of meetings, he finally received $11 million from Ignition Partners. He said because of his struggle and the time and energy he took to keep pitching, it was a great feeling of accomplishment when Ignition finally funded his company.

“This was something that I really wanted, and it kind of validated that we did have a real business that was worthy of being funded,” he said.

Although Heller says this year has been difficult for international manufacturing due to the pandemic, he has built his business to $20 million in annual revenue and around 150 employees since getting his A round in 2018.

He also launched a new business earlier this year called SuppliedShop.com, which allows very small businesses to buy ready-made inventory from factories. He reports that the new business is already growing 50% month over month.

Connections certainly count as Heller found, but sometimes it also takes grit and determination and a good idea to build a company. That’s what Heller brought to this process. He still believes that it’s best to look at the outcome, rather than focus on the struggle it took him to get there.

“I do think that, although there is racism and there are these real struggles, I also think people should be recognized for trying to make changes, and hopefully this will be a catalyst for people making more change,” he said.

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Here are four areas the $311 billion CPPIB investment fund thinks will be impacted by COVID-19

The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, an asset manager controlling around $311 billion in assets for the Canada’s pensioners and retirees, has identified four key industries that are set to experience massive changes as a result of the global economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The firm expects the massive changes in e-commerce, healthcare, logistics, and urban infrastructure to remain in place for an extended period of time and is urging investors to rethink their approaches to each as a result.

“It really ties into the mandate that we have in thematic investing,” said Leon Pedersen, the head of Thematic Investments at CPPIB.

There was a realization at the firm that structural changes were happening and that there was value for the fund manager in ensuring that the changes were being addressed across its broad investment portfolio. “We have a long term mandate and we have a long term investment horizon so we can afford to think long term in our investment outlook,” Pedersen said.

The Thematic Investments group within CPPIB will make mid-cap, small-cap and private investments in companies that reflect the firm’s long term theses, according to Pedersen. So not only does this survey indicate where the firm sees certain industries going, but it’s also a sign of where CPPIB might commit some investment capital.

The research, culled from international surveys with over 3,500 respondents as well as intensive conversations with the firm’s investment professionals and portfolio companies, indicates that there’s likely a new baseline in e-commerce usage that will continue to drive growth among companies that offer blended retail offerings and that offices are likely never going to return to full-time occupancy by every corporate employee.

Already CPPIB has made investments in companies like Fabric, a warehouse management and automation company.

The e-commerce wave has crested, but the tide may turn

Amid the good news for e-commerce companies is a word of warning for companies in the online grocery space. While usage surged to 31 percent of U.S. households, up from 13 percent in August, consumers gave the service poor marks and many grocers are actually losing money on online orders. The move online also favored bigger omni-channel vendors like Amazon and Walmart, the study found.

The CPPIB also found that there may be opportunities for brick and mortar vendors in the aftermath of the epidemic. As younger consumers return to shopping center they’re going to find fewer retailers available, since bankruptcies are coming in both the US and Europe. That could open the door for new brands to emerge. Meanwhile, in China, more consumers are moving offline with malls growing and customers returning to shopping centers.

Some of the biggest winners will actually be online entertainment and cashless payments — since fewer stores are accepting cash and music and video streaming represent low-risk, easier options than live events or movie theaters.

LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 30: General views of tourists and shoppers returning to the Hollywood & Highland shopping mall for the first weekend of in-store retail business being open since COVID-19 closures began in mid-March on May 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Healthcare goes digital and privacy matters more than ever

Consumers in the West, already reluctant to hand over personal information, have become even more sensitive to government handling of their information despite the public health benefits of tracking and tracing, according to the CPPIB. In Germany and the U.S. half of consumers said they had concerns about sharing their data with government or corporations, compared with less than 20 percent of Chinese survey respondents.

However, even as people are more reluctant to share personal information with governments or corporations, they’re becoming more willing to share personal information over technology platforms. One-third of the patients who used tele-medical services in the U.S. during the pandemic did so for the first time. And roughly twenty percent of the nation had a telemedicine consultation over the course of the year, according to CPPIB data.

Technologies that improve the experience are likely to do well, because of the people who did try telemedicine, satisfaction levels in the service went down.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 12: Healthcare workers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment check in with people waiting to be tested for COVID-19 at the state’s first drive-up testing center on March 12, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. The testing center is free and available to anyone who has a note from a doctor confirming they meet the criteria to be tested for the virus. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Cities and infrastructure will change

“From mass transit to public gatherings, few areas of urban life will be left unmarked by COVID-19,” write the CPPIB report authors.

Remote work will accelerate dramatically changing the complexion of downtown environments as the breadth of amenities on offer will spread to suburban communities where residents flock.  According to CPPIB’s data roughly half of workers in China, the UK and the US worked from home during the pandemic, up from 5 percent or less in 2019. In Canada, four-in-ten Canadian were telecommuting.

To that end, the CPPIB sees opportunities for companies enabling remote work (including security, collaboration and productivity technologies) and automating business practices. On the flip side, for those workers who remain wedded to the office by necessity or natural inclination, there’s going to need to be cleaning and sanitation services and someone’s going to have to provide some COVID-19 specific tools.

With personal space at a premium, public transit and ride hailing is expected to take a hit as well, according to the CPPIB report.

New York City, NY is shown in the above Maxar satellite image. Image Credit: Maxar

Supply chains become the ties that bind in a distributed, virtual world

As more aspects of daily life become socially distanced and digital, supply chains will assume an even more central position in the economy.

“Amid rising labor costs and heightened geopolitical risk, companies today are focused on resilience,” write the CPPIB authors.

Companies are reassessing their reliance on Chinese manufacturing since political pressure is coming from more regions on Chinese suppliers thanks to the internment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang and the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic and open society. According to CPPIB, India, Southeast Asia, and regional players like Mexico and Poland are best positioned to benefit from this supply chain diversification. Supply chain management software providers, and robotics and automation services stand to benefit.

“Confined to their homes for months and subjected to a rapid reordering of their perceived health risks and economic prospects, consumers are emerging from a shared trauma that will change their priorities and concerns for years to come,” the CPPIB study’s authors write.

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Elementary Robotics is making its quality assurance robots commercially available

Two years and more than $17 million after it first began working on its robots for quality assurance, the Los Angeles-based Elementary Robotics has finally made its products commercially available.

The company already boasts a few very large initial customers in the automotive industry, consumer packaged goods and aerospace and defense, including Toyota, according to chief executive Arye Barnehama. Now, the robotics technology that Barnehama and his co-workers have been developing is broadly available to other companies beyond its six initial pilot customers.

The company’s robots look like a large box with a gantry system providing three degrees of freedom, with vertical and horizontal movement as well as a gimbal-mounted camera that can visualize products.

Image credit: Elementary Robotics

As objects are scanned by the robots they’re compared against a taxonomy of objects provided by the companies that Elementary works with to determine whether or not there’s a defect.

Barnehama also emphasizes that Elementary’s robots are not designed to replace every human interaction or assessment in the manufacturing process. “Machine learning paired with humans always performs better,” says Barnehama. “At the end of the day the human is running the factory. We’re not really a lights-out factory.”

Behind the new commercialization push is a fresh $12.7 million in financing that Elementary closed at the end of 2019.

The lead investor in that round was Threshold Ventures, and the firm’s partner, Mo Islam, has already taken a seat on the Elementary Robotics board of directors. Existing investors Fika Ventures, Fathom Capital, Toyota AI Ventures and Ubiquity Ventures also participated in the round, which will be used to allow Elementary Robotics to continue developing and deploying its automation products at scale, the company said.

“Robotics and particularly robotics applied to manufacturing has been an interest of mine,” said Islam. In Elementary Robotics, Islam saw a company that could compete with large, publicly traded businesses like Cognex. The low complexity and ease of deployment of Elementary’s hardware was another big selling point for Islam that convinced him to invest. 

Elementary says that it can be up and running at a site in a matter of days and with businesses emphasizing cost-cutting and enabling remote work to ensure worker safety, companies are embracing the technology.

“That’s where we’re really excited to be launching it,” said Barnehama. “If we get parts or data examples we can get that up and running the same day. We can usually show customers within that week we can start showing them the value of that as we get more and more data through the system.”

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No-code industrial robotics programming startup Wandelbots raises $30 million

Dresden, Germany-based Wandelbots – a startup dedicated to making it easier for non-programmers to ‘teach’ industrial robots how to do specific tasks – has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by 83North, an with participation from Next47 and Microsoft’s M12 venture funding arm.

Wandelbots will use the funding to help it speed the market debut of its TracePen, a hand-held, code-free device that allows human operators to quickly and easily demonstrate desired behavior for industrial robots to mimic. Programming robots to perform specific tasks typically requires massive amounts of code, as well as programmers with very specific, in-demand skillsets to accomplish; Wandelbots wants to make it as easy as simply showing a robot what it is you want it to do – and then showing it a different set of behaviors should you need to reprogram it to accomplish a new task or fill in for a different part of the assembly line.

The software that Wandelbots developed to make this possible originally sprung out of work done at the Faculty of Computer Science at the Technical University of Dresden. The startup was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition in 2017, and raised a $6.8 million Series A round in 2018 led by Paua Ventures, EQT Ventures and others.

Wandelbots already has some big-name clients, including industrial giants like Volkswagen, BMW, Infineon and others, and as of June 17, it’ll be launching its TracePen publicly for the first time. The company’s technology has the potential to save anyone who makes use of industrial robots many months of programming time, and the associated costs – and could ultimately make use of this kind of robotics practical even for smaller companies for whom the budgetary requirements of doing so previously put it out of reach.

I asked Wandelbots CEO and co-founder Christian Piechnick via email whether their platform can overcome some of the challenges companies including Tesla have faced with introducing ever-greater automation to their manufacturing facilities.

“The reversals regarding automation were caused by the inflexibility, complexity and cost introduced by automation with robots,” Piechnick told me via email. “People are usually not aware that 75% of the total cost of ownership of a robot comes from software development. The problems introduced by robots were killing the benefit. This is exactly the problem we are tackling. We enable manufacturers to use robots with an unseen flexibility and we dramatically lower the cost of using robots. Our product enables non-programmers to easily teach a robot new tasks and thus, reduces the involvement of hard-to-find and costly programmers.”

TracePen, the device and companion platform that Wandelbots is launching this week, is actually an evolution of their original vision, which focuses more on using smart clothes to fully model human behavior in real-time in order to translate that to robotic instruction. The company’s pivot to TracePen employs the same underlying software tech, but meets customers much closer to where they already are in terms of processes and operations, while still providing the same cost reduction benefits and flexibility, according to Piechnick.

I asked Piechnick about COVID-19 and how that has impacted Wandelbots’ business, and he replied that in fact it’s driven up demand for automation, and efficiencies that benefit automation, in a number of key ways.

“COVID-19 has impacted the thinking on global manufacturing in various ways,” he wrote. “First there is the massive trend of reshoring to reduce the risk of globally distributed supply chains. In order to scale volume, ensure quality and reduce cost, automation is a natural consequence for developed countries. With a technology that leads to almost immediate ROI and extremely short time-to-market, we hit a trend. Furthermore, the dependency on human workers and the workplace restrictions (e.g., distance between workers) increases the demand for automation tremendously.”

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Internet of Everything vs Internet of Things: What’s the Difference?

Illustration: © IoT For All

Unless you’re an expert, there’s little difference between the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Everything (IoE). However, the latter term is broader, semantically. In this post, we’ll go into the details to explain why IoT software development companies use the term IoE comparatively rarely.

The Difference

The term IoT was coined in 1999 to refer to machine-to-machine, or M2M, communication. IoE appeared a few years later, to describe interrelated elements of a whole system, including people. IoE entails not only M2M communication but also P2M (people-to-machine) and even P2P (people-to-people) communication.

To understand the differences between the three types of communication, let’s consider several examples. Say it got dark outside and you turned on a light in the office, then you sat and typed on a keyboard. This scenario provides P2M examples of IoE.

We are so used to these things that we don’t even realize they are part of a system. Another example: You make a Skype call to your colleague. That’s a simple human-to-human, or P2P, communication. An example of M2M communication, on the other hand, is the process of data exchange between your office temperature sensing devices and the HVAC mainframe.

You might think M2M communication, being technological, is the most progressive means of interaction. but IoE focuses on P2M and P2P interactions as the most valuable. According to a Cisco analysis, as of 2022, 55% of connections will be of these two types. 

IoE is now considered the next stage of IoT development. Maybe this is why there are so few IoT development companies offering IoE development services at the moment. Internet of Things solutions are now more common and widespread.

4 Main Elements of the IoE Concept

 Thing

By thing, we mean an element of the system that participates in communication. A thing is an object capable of gathering information and sharing it with other elements of the system. The number of such connected devices, according to Cisco, will exceed 50 billion by 2020. 

What are things? In the IoT, a thing could be any object, from a smart gadget to a building rig. In the IoE, that expands to include, say, a nurse, as well as an MRI machine and a “smart” eyedropper. Any element that has a built-in sensing system and is connected on a network can be a part of the IoE.

People

People play a central role in the IoE concept, as without them there would be no linking bridge, no intelligent connection. It is people who connect the Internet of Things, analyze the received data and make data-driven decisions based on the statistics. People are at the center of M2M, P2M, P2P communications. People can also become connected themselves, for example, nurses working together in a healthcare center.

Data

In 2020, it’s projected that everyone using the internet will be receiving up to 1.7 MB of data per second.

As the amount of data available to us grows, management of all that information becomes more complicated. But it’s a crucial task because, without proper analysis, data is useless. Data is a constituent of both IoT and IoE. But it turns into beneficial insights only in the Internet of Everything. Otherwise, it’s just filling up memory storage.

Process

Process is the component innate to IoE. This is how all the other elements — people, things, data — work together to provide a smart, viable system. When all the elements are properly interconnected, each element receives the needed data and transfers it on to the next receiver. The magic takes place through wired or wireless connections.

Another way to explain this is that IoT describes a network and things, while IoE describes a network, things, and also people, data, and process.

Where Is IoE Applied?

As to the market, we can say confidently that IoT is a technology of any industry. IoE technology is especially relevant to some of the most important fields, including (1) manufacturing, (2) retail, (3) information, (4) finance & insurance, (5) healthcare. 

IoE technology has virtually unlimited possibilities. Here’s one example: More than 800 bicyclists die in traffic crashes around the world annually. What if there was a way to connect bike helmets with traffic lights, ambulances, and the hospital ecosystem in a single IoE. Would that increase the chances of survival for at least some of those cyclists? 

Another example: Do you realize how much food goes to waste, say at large supermarkets, because food isn’t purchased by its best-before date? Some perishable products like fruit and vegetables are thrown away due to overstocks even before they get to the market. What happens if you find a way to connect your food stocks with the racks and forklifts of the supermarket in-stock control system using IoE?

There are endless variations on uses of IoE right now, and many of them are already becoming familiar in our “smart” homes.

Summing up

In our industry, few would deny the value of IoE in improving our standard of living. Luckily, there’s a flourishing market of IoT development services. Who knows, maybe one day soon, you’ll be a “thing” in the IoE environment.

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Innovating during COVID-19: A Story of Collaboration

Connected World’s Peggy Smedley recently sat down for a webcast with Eddy Van Steyvoort, VP, business line automotive and on-road, IGW/VCST, which is a part of BMT Group, Kevin Wrenn, EVP, products, PTC, and Filip Bossuyt, CEO, Ad Ultima, for a discussion about innovating in a time of COVID-19, a story of collaboration.

Van Steyvoort shares the smart factory project, which started in 2017, in silos and realized quickly that it needed to think in an end-to-end scenario. He says it recognizes it had to change its systems, the organization, and its way of thinking to a more end-to-end focus to improve efficiency, reliability, quality, and the way it supports customers. The question became how does it change; and which tools to use? It decided to go to PTC and Ad Ultima to help support it.

“PTC’s PLM Software was known already in the BMT Group and that was a very, very, very strong asset and also a very strong signal from the beginning that we had already the relation, which was already there,” Van Steyvoort says. “We could build on that relation. That was the reason why we established a total plan as partners, and not let’s say as a customer supplier, but as partners,” he adds.

Then the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hit. Van Steyvoort opines the automotive industry has been shook by coronavirus, but it didn’t want to stop the strong drive on the project and decided not to change the long-term strategy.

He insists it now knows what AR (augmented reality) is and what it can bring during COVID-19, explaining that it can support people locally from a global perspective to show them how to do things. This is one of the lessons learned during this time—that it needs to invest even more in augmented reality tools.

Ad Ultima’s Bossuyt adds it is helping VCST to think end-to-end and to realize its digital transformation. “Becoming digital is a challenge today because you have to do it end-to-end. You cannot do it for only a part of your business.”

Adding to the conversation, PTC’s Wrenn says PTC can help with openness. “We are open on multiple dimensions. Our technology is open. It enables people to do digital transformation, as Eddy was talking about, connections all the way from engineering, all the way to the factory floor, and even out to their customers. Wwe are also open from a partnership standpoint. Ad Ultima is a really important partner of PTC’s and likewise of VCST. So we are used to working in these environments both from a technology standpoint and a partnership standpoint.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, PTC’s first response was to reach out to its customers and partners to make sure they could work from home. Wrenn says the technology is made to work from home and not have to be physically on site to be able to operate the technology. “It was much more important for us to figure out how our customers could create business continuity, and at the same time we were doing it for ourselves.”

In all of this, each individual learned something very important. Van Steyvoort says it is important to create a very strong sense of urgency from the very start and keep communicating this through the whole organization that it is a future-based strategy. “Instead of focusing on the change, focus on the alternative of doing nothing, because doing nothing that means you will lose the game.” Also, don’t be afraid to express the hopes and fears.

Ad Ultima’s Bossuyt notes the most important thing is the power of the network and working together with different partners where there is a lot of trust and all the stakeholders are aligned, which has created very good results. PTC’s Wrenn adds the new normal after COVID-19 is it will make people think about the kind of projects because digitalization is going to be a requirement in the new normal.

Going forward, the next steps for VCST is to link the CAD (computer-aided design) information to the PLM (product lifecycle management), that it goes through visualization in ThingWorx, and that the whole picture will be a completely integrated solution for the future. As Van Steyvoort says, “The sky is the limit. The technology is not the limit anymore.”

Want to tweet about this article? Use hashtags #IoT #sustainability #AI #5G #cloud #edge #digitaltransformation #machinelearning #futureofwork #PLM #CAD #AR

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OTTO Motors raises $29M to fill factories with autonomous delivery robots

When Clearpath Robotics CEO and co-founder Matthew Rendall looks at the “miles” of roads inside industrial factories, he sees them filled with autonomous vehicles.

And in the past five years, the company has inched toward that goal through its industrial division OTTO Motors. The division, which launched in 2015, has landed a number of customer contracts to bring its autonomous mobile robot platform into factories, including GE, Toyota, Nestlé and Berry Global.

OTTO Motors is preparing to expand with a fresh injection of $29 million in funding. The Series C funding round announced this week was led by led by Kensington Private Equity Fund, with participation from Bank of Montreal Capital Partners, Export Development Canada (EDC) and previous investors iNovia Capital and RRE Ventures . To date, the company has raised $83 million in funding.

OTTO Motors’ autonomous mobile robot platform, or AMRs, are used to handle materials within warehouses and factories. These robots, which were once viewed as a luxury, are now a necessity, according to Rendall, who believes the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for companies to enhance work safety will only accelerate the trend toward robots.

Robots, and more broadly automation, are often viewed as job killers in manufacturing. But Rendall argues that AMRs help fill roles that are currently sitting vacant and allow humans to take on the higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs.

“We tend to see more situations where the operation is not at peak output, not operating peak performance because they just can’t find the people,” Rendall said in a recent interview, noting that one of its customer shut down an entire wing of its facility because they just can’t get people.

Factories are often located near smaller towns or sprawling communities with a limited labor pool, a shortfall that can be compounded when Amazon opens up a facility nearby.

“There’s a kind of vacuum that pulls qualified talent out of the established manufacturing or warehouse base,” he said.

A 2018 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute forecast that a skills gap is projected to leave 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028 in the United States. The skills gap has popped up in other countries where OTTO Motors is now focused, including Japan, where the aging population is larger than the younger generation. Even China, which has historically been viewed as a place with an expanding labor pool, now has a national robotics strategy, Rendall said.

The company developed its AMRs to help manufacturers outsource the lower-value tasks to robots. “One of the least valuable things you can pay your people to do is walk from Point A to Point B,” Rendall said. “If you’re strapped for talent you want to have that team focused on what is at Point A or at Point B, like assembling an automobile. Walking to a warehouse with a part is something that can be outsourced to a machine.”

OTTO Motors’ initial customer base grew out of the automotive and transportation industries. It now works with six of the 10 OEMs. But Rendall says it has also seen success in the medical device and healthcare sector, as well.

COVID-19 has spurred demand, Rendall said, as essential businesses in the food, beverage and medical device industries attempt to lessen risks associated with the disease.

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TinyML is giving hardware new life

The latest embedded software technology moves hardware into an almost magical realm

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

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Elon Musk just put a new person in charge of production at Tesla’s Fremont factory

On the same day that Elon Musk defied local regulations and reopened Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, the CEO put a new person in charge of production.

Musk named Richard Miller, who was director of paint operations at Tesla, to head of production at the factory, according to an internal email sent to employees Monday and viewed by TechCrunch. It appears that Miller replaces Jatinder Dhillon, who was the company’s manufacturing director. CNBC reported in March that Dhillon had left the company, although his LinkedIn profile still shows he is at the company and in the same role.

An email has been sent to Musk and Tesla for comment.

“Due to excellent performance as head of paint operations in Fremont, Richard Miller is hereby promoted to overall head of Fremont Production. Congratulations!,” the email reads.

The promotion comes at a chaotic moment for Musk and Tesla. Production at the company’s Fremont factory — where its electric vehicles are assembled — has been suspended since March 23 due to stay-at-home orders issued by Alameda County and Gov. Gavin Newsom. Musk restarted production Monday in direct conflict with county orders.

Tesla had planned to bring back about 30% of its factory workers May 8 as part of its reopening plan, after Newsom issued new guidance that would allow manufacturers to resume operations. However, the governor’s guidance included a warning that local governments could keep more restrictive rules in place. Alameda County, along with several other Bay Area counties and cities, have extended the stay-at-home orders through the end of May. The orders were revised and did ease some of the restrictions. However, it did not lift the order for manufacturing.

Musk has been at war with Alameda County, specifically aiming his ire at health officials, ever since the order was extended. Over the weekend, he threatened to sue and pull operations out of California. Tesla filed a lawsuit later that day against Alameda County seeking injunctive relief.

On Monday, Musk escalated matters further and announced on Twitter that he had restarted production.

Musk wrote he would  “be on the line,” a reference to the assembly line at the factory where Tesla makes the Model X, Model S, Model 3 and Model Y. He added “if anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

Alameda County issued a statement Monday acknowledging that it had learned that the Tesla factory in had opened beyond “minimum basic operations,” which was allowed.

“We have notified Tesla that they can only maintain Minimum Basic Operations until we have an approved plan that can be implemented in accordance with the local public health order,” the statement sent to TechCrunch said. “We are addressing this matter using the same phased approach we use for other businesses which have violated the order in the past, and we hope that Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures.”

The county added that since April 30 it has “continued to collaborate in good faith with Tesla to present a plan for reopening the Fremont plant that ensures the safety of their thousands of employees and the communities in which they live and work, and that also aligns with local and state requirements.”

“We continue to move closer to an agreed upon safety plan for reopening beyond Minimum Basic Operations by working through steps that Tesla has agreed to adopt,” the statement continued. “These steps include improving employee health screening procedures and engaging front-line staff on their concerns and feedback regarding safety protocols.”

The county said it expected Tesla to submit a site-specific plan later Monday as required under the State of California guidance and checklist for manufacturing issued on May 7.

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