There’s a mythology around today’s factories that says everything is automated by robotics, and while there is some truth to that, it’s hard to bring that level of sophistication to every facility, especially those producing relatively small runs. Today, Bright Machines, a San Francisco startup announced its first product designed to put intelligence and automation in reach of every manufacturer, regardless of its size.
The startup, which emerged last fall with $179 million in Series A funding, has a mission to make every aspect of manufacturing run in a software-defined automated fashion. Company CEO Amar Hanspal understands it’s a challenging goal, and today’s announcement is about delivering version 1.0 of that vision.
“We have this ambitious idea to fundamentally change the way factories operate, and what we are all about is to get to autonomous programmable factories,” he said. To start on that journey, since getting its initial funding in October, the company has been building a team that includes manufacturing, software and artificial intelligence expertise. It brought in people from Autodesk, Amazon and Microsoft and opened offices in Seattle and Tel Aviv.
The product it is releasing today is called the Software Defined Microfactory and it consists of hardware and software components that work in tandem. “What the Software Defined Microfactory does is package together robotics, computer vision, machine handling and converged systems in a modular way with hardware that you can plug and play, then the software comes in to instruct the factory on what to build and how to build it,” Hanspal explained.
Obviously, this is not an easy thing to do, and it’s taken a great deal of expertise to pull it together over the last months since the funding. It’s also required having testing partners. “We have about 20 product brands around the world and about 25 production lines in seven countries that have been iterating with us toward version one, what we are releasing today,” Hanspal said.
The company is concentrating on the assembly line for starters, especially when building smaller runs like say a specialized computer board or a network appliance where the manufacturer might produce just 50,000 in total, and could benefit from automation, but couldn’t justify the cost before.
“The idea here is going after the least automated part inside of factory, which is the assembly line, which is typically where people have to throw bodies at the problem and assembly lines have been hard to automate. The operations around assembly typically require human dexterity and judgment, trying to align things or plug things in,” Hanspal said.
The hope is to create a series of templates for different kinds of tooling, where they can get the majority of the way there with the software and robotics, and eventually just have to work on the more customized bits. It is an ambitious goal, and it’s not going to be easy to pull off, but today’s release is a first step.