CloudNC, the U.K. startup and Entrepreneur First alumni that is developing AI software to automate part of the manufacturing process, has quietly raised £9 million in Series A funding, TechCrunch has learned.
According to sources — and since confirmed by the company — Atomico, the European VC firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, has led the round. A number of existing investors, including Episode 1 and Entrepreneur First, also participated. We first heard a term sheet had been put on the table as far back as March, and last week the investment finally closed.
With the broader aim of using AI to dramatically reduce the time and costs associated with manufacturing, CloudNC is developing software and a cloud computing service that hopes to automate the programming of CNC milling machines.
These machines work by carving blocks of solid metal into useful shapes, where a useful shape could be anything from a Macbook body, to bits of a car, to jet engine turbine blades. Unlike 3D printing, this happens in a ‘subtractive’ way; metal is cut out until what is left is the resulting component.
The problem is that to instruct a CNC machine to turn a 3D design into a finished part requires it to be fed pre-programmed sequences of machine control commands, which currently is a highly skilled and manual process. You have to instruct the machine not just precisely where and how to cut, but also which of its hundreds of tools to use. Programming a CNC machine can also be time-consuming, taking up to 100 hours for more complicated parts.
Related to this manual labour, there’s a second problem CloudNC thinks it can solve, which is the speed of manufacturing itself. That’s because, the startup claims, a human can’t possibly calculate the most efficient way to cut out a block of metal for each bespoke part being manufactured, even though it is currently extremely well-educated guess-work. However, in theory, AI combined with ‘super computing’ in the cloud, can. The result: halving the time needed to manufacture parts and therefore halving the costs (minus the raw material costs, of course).
“We’re applying breakthrough AI methods to control these machines automatically, which will revolutionise how the things around us are made,” CloudNC co-founder and CEO Theo Saville told me after I called him yesterday to confirm the startup’s Series A. “Our mission is to make milling machines one click devices that can produce a part easily, efficiently and with minimal human intervention”.
Meanwhile, a person familiar with Atomico’s investment tells me it plays into the VC firm’s strategy around “industry 4.0,” and that we can expect further investments in the space.
Specifically related to CloudNC, the thinking is that we are heading towards a future where there will be less emphasis on mass production and a move towards just-in-time manufacturing, where certain kinds of products are produced closer to where they are sold and can benefit from near zero inventory. Consumer trends such as product personalization and an appetite for innovative design-led products, enabled by new technology, business models and startups, are helping to drive this.
If CloudNC can deliver on its promise of halving the cost of CNC machine-based manufacturing, it stands to make a major contribution to — and benefit from — that future.