Actuator: Robots and their human co-workers, future pills and fundable forklifts

“Jidoka” is a new one to me. TRI (Toyota Research Institute) CEO Gill Pratt described the concept as “Automation with a Human Touch.” The anglicized version of the notion is “Autonomation” — both are modified forms of “ automation,” in their respective languages. The word was originally applied to Toyota’s Production System, highlighting the need for human participation in the process.

Quoting from Toyota here:

Employing Jidoka principles throughout the production process is a vital element of the Toyota Production System, forcing imperfections to be immediately addressed by self-inspecting workers and thereby reducing the amount of work added to a defective product. Some automated machines can also function in the detection process, allowing human operatives to only be engaged when alerted to a problem.

It’s a nice sentiment — a kind of harmony between robots and humans that ultimately plays to their respective strengths. There is, of course, a very real question of how fundamental that human element will continue to be going forward. How soon we can expect truly lights-out factories is a conversation for some future newsletter. But as I write this, surrounded by humans occupying TRI’s South Bay offices, at the very least, I certainly appreciate the notion of “Amplifying human beings, rather than replacing them,” as Pratt said at the beginning of the event.

Yesterday, TRI opened its doors to the media for the first time. I’ll have a lot more on that next week, including an interview with Robotics SVP, Max Bajracharya. And because I didn’t want to fly 12 hours for a 24-hour trip, I’m meeting with a few robotics investors while I’m out here, to discuss the state — and future — of robotics startups in these uncertain times.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Lots of great insights from today’s event. Meantime, here’s a bit of what Pratt told me when I asked how macroeconomic headwinds impact a division like TRI that develops long-tail technologies, which require long runways:

Toyota is a company that has tried very hard not to have employment follow business cycle. The car business is one that has booms and busts all the time. You may know that the history of Toyota is to try not to lay people off when times are tough, but instead go through a couple of things. One is shared sacrifice, where people take up the cause. The second is to use those times to invest in maintenance, plans and education to help people get trained.

I will say, it’s worth paying attention to companies that take a more measured approach to hiring. Covering layoffs is never easy — and listen, our own parent company is going through it. Yahoo capped off last week by announcing it will lay off what amounts to 20% of staff (1,600 people), when all is said and done. I believe I’ve been spared this time, but I’ve been unlucky in the past and assume I will be again at some point in the future.

Vicarious Surgical this week counted itself among the unlucky. On an investor call this week, the medical robotics company confirmed that it’s laying off 14% of staff. The company currently employees fewer than 200, but a hit of that size is never easy. Co-founder and CEO Adam Sachs noted on the call:

In the current market environment, fiscal discipline requires a much more lean approach, focused on growing equity value and minimizing dilution. With that in mind, we have taken thoughtful steps to optimize our burn and extend our cash runway. We have streamlined our internal teams via a measurable reduction in total headcount, predominantly across SG&A, and we have reduced external spending as well. In this way, we are reducing our burn while focusing investment on our critical business initiatives.

Robotics firms that are hiring:

Rigorous Technology (3 open roles)

Addverb (6 open roles)

third wave automation

Image Credits: Third Wave Automation

Not a lot of funding news this week, though autonomous forklift startup Third Wave Automation announced an investment from Qualcomm Ventures and Fetch-owner Zebra Technologies that brings its total funding to date up to $70 million. The company cites your garden variety supply chain issues and labor shortage as a big boost in its fundraising.

“After successfully deploying our solution with key pilot customers, we are excited to expand the TWA Reach pilot program. This enables us to explore additional automation workflows and continue deploying flexible forklift automation technology,” founder and CEO Arshan Poursohi, said in a release. “With the strategic investment from Qualcomm Ventures and Zebra Technologies, we look forward to scaling production of our forktrucks, deploying them with new customers in a wide variety of sites, continuing to innovate with new applications and additional materials handling vehicles, and perfecting our fleet management.”

Barcelona-based Scaled Robotics, which competed in our 2019 Berlin Battlefield, recently announced a big rebrand. The company is now Naska.AI. While still operating in the construction industry, its primary focus is now offering AI-based risk assessments of projects.

Co-founder and CEO Stuart Maggs notes, “Over the years, Scaled Robotics has evolved into an AEC AI powerhouse, focusing on extracting and delivering valuable insights on construction sites worldwide. As we have grown, we feel that the name today does not fully capture the company’s identity or our future.”

Ingestible medical sensor on a penny to show size

Image Credits: MIT/Caltech

Lastly, some research out of MIT/Caltech this week. I’ve got a soft spot for tiny pill-shaped devices. This is one of the less-complex applications. Here the system features sensors, which can be detected outside the body with an electro magnetic device. It’s a non-invasive method that doesn’t require X-rays to spot things like constipation, gastroesophageal reflux disease and gastroparesis early on.

“Using an external reference sensor helps to account for the problem that every time an animal or a human is beside the coils, there is a likelihood that they will not be in exactly the same position as they were the previous time,” says co-author, Khalil Ramadi. “In the absence of having X-rays as your ground truth, it’s difficult to map out exactly where this pill is, unless you have a consistent reference that is always in the same location.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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