In this edition, we meet co-founder Suryansh Chandra of Automata, who shares the company vision to democratize robots for SME & consumer markets.
Automata Technologies vision is to democratize robotic automation by providing affordable and easy-to-use robotic arms. The company was founded by myself and Mostafa Elsayed in May 2015. We are both trained Architects, and at the time worked for the same company, focused on design, technology and digital manufacturing. Our journey started when we were researching using robotic arms in the construction industry, which highlighted the lack of affordable, easy-to-use robotic arms for research. This marked the start of our frustration, and that's when we decided to go into robotics and build something for ourselves.
Most of the investment funding happened early 2016, and customer trials are now running with Eva™, our first robot, followed by a planned launch in July 2017 where we will take commercial orders. We’ve gone from two to eleven people, and our launch will encompass updating our website with full details of our robots, what they can do, customer case studies, and the option to buy one, from what it is now – a landing page to capture interest.
The industrial automation market or generally any automation market is mostly only suitable for extremely high volume manufacturing. When manufacturing in high volume, automation of the process generates significant efficiencies and benefits. However, automation is generally very capital intensive, takes a while to set up, and the technology is complex and requires specialist resource. Only very large supply chains can manage this, but they are a very small percentage of manufacturing (think automotive, consumer electronics, large food and beverage brands). Most contract manufacturers work on different jobs each day or each week and require a lot of flexibility. Traditionally, only OEMs have been able to afford the high-volume requirements of automation. About 93% of small manufacturers do not have the demand to produce in high volume, so automation doesn’t make sense when you are changing your job frequently as the robots or setup will constantly need to be reprogrammed. The problem is the automation promise has only served a very small group of manufacturers that are in that top 7%.
We are solving this problem in two ways. First, our solution is extremely affordable. Right now, the cheapest industrial robot you can buy is roughly £15,000 but our robot is going to enter the market at approximately £3,000. Secondly, our robot is extremely easy to set up. You can programme and set it up by just guiding it through a motion, and the software observes you doing it and repeats it. You can set up really simple things without even using a computer. It would take you 30 minutes in the morning to set it up again for a new job. The software runs from a browser including a tablet or a phone, you don't have to take time installing the software or setting up a computer. Additionally, the robot is very lightweight. It weighs 7kg including the controller. Normally, industrial robot it would weigh 15/20kg and a controller would weigh another 20kg. So you have this 40kg piece of equipment to move around which is not easy as it's heavy, and it would need its own concrete base and a specific engineer to program it.
All these little details increase your overheads and installation time. With our robot you don’t need a special base and you can set it up very quickly. It is quite portable and you can carry it around in a gym bag! Our robot runs on just 24 volts, so you can just run it off a wall socket unlike most industrial robots that need 3-phase power and need special supply.
We’ve had a huge amount of interest from organisations wanting to become resellers or distributors. We work in sectors such as metal manufacturing, pharmaceutical, education, with a lot of interest from aerospace and automotive. Metal manufacturing often requires parts to be made via many separate processes. With multiple stages of parts being passed through different machines, each stage requires a human to load and unload the machine every few minutes. This is where a robot can help. In the pharmaceutical industry, laboratories are often space constrained and have specialist equipment which runs overnight, requiring a human to transfer parts from one area to another. With education and R&D, the interest is in exploring robotics and applying to new processes and tasks. They’re interested in trying new things and exploring instead of operating in a rigidly defined way to find clever things that can be done with software or cameras or grippers. They often don’t need big industrial robots to do this.
There is a vision for the manufacturing sector of ‘On Demand Manufacturing’ where through systemization and automation, something only begins to get made after you have ordered it, and it happens quite quickly – in other words, to able to economically manufacture a batch size of one. We all know the manufacturing industry works with economies of scale because the more you make of something, the cheaper it gets. If you could have the flexibility to make things quickly, that is very agile, then you wouldn't need too much investment or effort to make a single item. Once you get there, the cost of one product would be the same as making several the same. That would mean you could have a lot of things customized to suit your needs and tastes whether out of necessity or fancy. The possibilities are endless.
Another distant dream is applying machine learning to robots so that they would perform better in unstructured environments. For example, if a robot picks an item off a conveyor belt but something goes wrong, the robot wouldn't know and wouldn't pick it up. Minor adjustments with robots can already be made using vision. In the long run though, this could be of benefit in many environments, maybe even a domestic environment where a robotic arm could help with household chores such as laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc.
This has been tried many times before but no one has done it yet. Not that we’ve done it, but we’re very close and almost certain that we will pull it off. That will be a proud moment.