Startup gets ready for factory robots working alongside humans


By Pavel Alpeyev

Veo Robotics Inc., a startup developing sensor technology that lets industrial robots work safely side-by-side with humans, closed a funding round as it prepares to roll out the product in May.

The company raised $15 million late last month, bringing total financing to around $28 million, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Patrick Sobalvarro said in an interview. Veo’s proprietary technology uses lidar sensors to create real-time maps of factory work spaces, so that robots can slow or stop completely when human workers get too close.

There are more than 2 million industrial robots in operation worldwide, mostly toiling inside metal safety cages. The seclusion is fine for repetitive tasks that can be done entirely by machines, such as arc welding, but the majority of work even in the most automated factories requires involvement of people. Embedding force sensors into industrial limbs is one way to prevent them from plowing through obstacles, but the same technology that makes the arms safe also makes them weak.

Most so-called cobots cannot handle weights heavier than 10 kilograms (22 pounds). Computer vision offers a way to get robots into more complex environments, without compromising their strength.

“Where you see a lot of robots, that’s just the beginning of assembly,” Sobalvarro said. “Those welding robots make for flashy pictures, but what you don’t see is another 250 to 500 process steps that are entirely manual.”

Another obstacle is that manufacturers increasingly have to make multiple products on the same assembly line and are constantly retooling their production to accommodate shifting consumer tastes. An automotive line worker might handle an SUV, followed by a minivan and a sedan at a pace of one a minute, the kind of variety that robots don’t handle well, Sobalvarro said.

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“It just doesn’t make any sense to automate further because of mass customization,” he said. “We let manufacturing be more flexible and adopt to increasingly tighter product cycles.”

There are also not enough workers to do the job. About half a million jobs were left open in manufacturing in the U.S. last year, and the shortage may widen to 2.4 million over the next decade, according to a report by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute. “Anywhere you can find a place to introduce robots, it helps,” Sobalvarro said.

Veo, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, is working closely with the world’s biggest robot makers Fanuc Corp., Yaskawa Electric Corp. and Kuka AG. But Veo’s first customers are likely to be car companies, manufacturers of durable goods such as household appliances and oil and gas equipment makers, where the shale revolution created demand for more customization. The technology could be used to get machines to present parts to human workers, for loading and unloading fixtures and in palletizing.

The company’s existing shareholders Google Ventures, Lux Capital Management, and Next47, a venture firm started by Siemens AG, contributed to the latest funding round. They were joined by new investors Nikon-SBI Innovation Fund, SBI AI & Blockchain Fund, and Baidu Ventures. Saman Farid, a partner at Baidu Ventures, joined Veo’s board.

While Veo does not disclose its valuation, it could be worth tens of billions of dollars, according to Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital. To get to that level, the company would have to scale their technology so that it can watch over an entire factory floor, Zuberi said.

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“Veo could take an industrial environment, fuse all of that data and diagnose the health of the whole factory on a real-time basis,” Zuberi said.





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