Capturing this week's zeitgeist
Manufacturing in America isn’t guaranteed even with new forms of automation and heavy government incentives. The high cost of American labor makes automation critical for companies to maintain a positive cash flow and turn a profit.
- Stanley Black & Decker recently announced it was closing its high-tech Texas factory because all the new technologies simply didn’t work.
- A printed circuit board manufacturer, Tempo Automation, despite attempting to lower costs through developing automation, gets rid of nearly all employees.
- Even a manufacturer of advanced robotic systems, Sarcos Robotics, announced a huge optimization plan recently.
- Beehive Industries, an aerospace parts additive manufacturer, has also seen an abrupt reduction in its workforce.
All companies in the manufacturing value chain must validate the ROI their technology provides. This week’s newsletter focuses on how companies are selecting technology that makes them more efficient.
This week's most influential Industry 4.0 media
🖨️ Work and play: How Mattel uses 3D printing to dream up new toys
“3D printing allows us to use our time more efficiently and effectively,” said Peach, Key Lead Innovation Engineer at Mattel. “We really don’t want to print every single concept that we brainstorm but when the idea is right, 3D printing is definitely a time saver, and allows us to focus on other aspects of the concept. Instead of manually fabricating it or working out toolpaths for the CNC, you can spend that time developing your concept pitch, or maybe working on the electronics, hardware, electronics software, or maybe the audio that’s going to go into that model. So you could be multitasking and then all your parts come off, you can put it together and you’re ready to go to show it to the brand team.”
While it may have offered its young customers the tools to print their own toys from home, Mattel isn’t currently deploying 3D printing for mass production applications, though Peach does have some interesting thoughts on how that could look. “I think maybe far into the future,” Peach says, emphasising the ‘far’, “perhaps we’ll have a virtuous cycle where toys can be printed at home and then played with and then the material could be recycled or part of it could be recycled and maybe you could reprint that into a new toy.”
While injection moulding may still be the way to go given Mattel’s huge production volumes – its products are available in 150 countries – Peach emphasises that for new toy development, which typically takes around 18 months depending on emerging trends and complexity, “3D printing has been a game changer.”
Barbie's surprising role in Moon exploration
In recent experiments, scientists used the dolls to test methods of removing Moon dust from spacesuits. Wearing a tailor-made spacesuit, Barbie was coated in volcanic ash by a team from Washington State University and sprayed with liquid nitrogen. They found this technique is more effective than previous cleaning methods.
Wells and the team from Washington State University were inspired to tackle this problem following research into the “Leidenfrost effect”. This physical phenomenon is akin to dropping water onto a hot saucepan, causing the water droplets to bounce around the surface, propelled and encapsulated by their own evaporating vapour.
📦🦾 DTC startups are breathing new life into dying American factories
When DTC startups like Warby Parker, Everlane, Away, and Allbirds popped up in the early 2010s, they were skilled at connecting with a new generation of customers online. When it came to product, however, most outsourced their manufacturing to factories overseas. Across industries, the number of U.S. factories has fallen by 25% since 1997. That decline is steeper in apparel manufacturing, which has decreased by 85% since the early 1990s.
Jonathan Miller, Breeo’s co-founder and CEO, had no experience in manufacturing before he launched the company; his background was in marketing, enabling him to build a digitally-native business. But his partner, Andy Kaufman, had spent years in metalwork, which gave him the skills to invent Breeo’s smokeless fire pit technology. “We’re a DTC business but also a very traditional manufacturer,” says Miller. “Marrying the two brings unique opportunities, but also unique challenges.”
One way that the company kept up with demand was by investing in technology. In 2021, Breeo invested in robotic welding machines that could automate some of some strenuous and repetitive labor. Miller says this has improved the efficiency of the company’s workforce. “We can put our craftsmen towards tasks that require more skill,” he says.
Meanwhile, Miller says he is on Breeo’s factory floor almost every day. “When the customer service team hears of an issue, they walk over to the factory to talk to the workers who can fix the problem immediately,” he says. “This happens daily.”
Behind the A.I. tech making BMW vehicle assembly more efficient
🏗️ What The Rapid Repair of I-95 in Philadelphia Says About America's Infrastructure
This was true of funds (the estimated repair costs range from $25-$30 million), labor (Crews have work nearly around the clock since the day of the accident, first clearing the debris, and then rebuilding), and materials. This included some interesting alternatives like that of foamed glass aggregates which is an ultra-lightweight product made from 99% recycled container glass diverted from landfills and processed by Aero Aggregates, a Delaware Country, PA, company that specializes in the product.
Over 8,000 cubic yards of foamed glass aggregate were used to rebuild the collapsed corridor. The aggregates’ light weight ensures aging utility lines beneath I-95 are protected during the reconstruction process. The amount of foamed glass aggregate utilized for this project alone diverts approximately 6.5 million, 12-ounce glass bottles from landfill.
This incident sheds light on an alternative method of infrastructure thinking when it comes to design. The reduction in available capacity, led to a small but measurable reduction in volume. It means the possibility of reducing traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, excess heat, noise pollution, and doing so while making our communities healthier economically.
🧠📹 What Sets Toshiba’s Ceramic Balls Apart? The AI Quality Inspection System
Bearings cannot be easily replaced once a vehicle is assembled. In the U.S., bearings used in EVs are expected to be of high enough quality to withstand long distances. One issue that can occur with EVs, however, is the “electric corrosion” of the bearings that mount the various vital parts of the vehicle onto the motor—a serious issue, as it can lead to the breakdown of the vehicle. High-performance bearings would drive the widespread use of EVs, and contribute to the push towards carbon neutrality. The electrical corrosion phenomenon had hampered these efforts, but not anymore—therein lies the beauty of Toshiba’s ceramic balls.
“Our ceramic balls go through slight changes about every year and a half due to changes in material and other factors. To keep up the accuracy of the quality inspections, we have to continually update the AI system itself. The MLOps system automates that process,” says Kobatake.
“We’ve been able to dramatically reduce the time spent on these inspections. Ceramic balls are expensive compared to their metal counterparts. They have so many different strengths, and yet they haven’t been able to replace the metal ones precisely because of this particular issue. If we’re able to reduce the cost through AI quality inspection, we’ll be able to lower the price of the products themselves,” says Yamada.
🧀 Conceptualizing the sustainable dairy plant of the future
Depending on the type of dairy processing plant — cheese, milk, butter, etc. — the Stellar Group makes specific recommendations. “In cheese factories, there’s an opportunity to recover the water and use for other purposes like hot water, potable water. This will help to reduce biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) for wastewater,” Kolla, Goode and Smallwood suggest. “Solar panels will provide as an alternative source to reduce energy costs and a combined heat and power (CHP) system, also known as cogeneration, will recover heat from the systems (cooling tower, heat exchangers) and produce an alternative energy source.”
Kolla notes that once the factory is built, it can be extremely expensive to retrofit it into a sustainable factory. However, “It’s very cost effective to design the factory from day one with a sustainable strategy,” he advises. “Leverage state and federal government energy rebate programs. Some states provide incentives based on energy used per ton of product.”
Dark Automation: Dollars and Sense
🦾 Kicking RaaS with Robotics as a Service
One major difference between robotics as a service and more traditional models of automation is financing. Typically, users purchase automation equipment, such as robots or cobots, and pay integrators to set them up if necessary. The idea of leasing or renting equipment can be a big adjustment for manufacturers who are used to buying equipment and amortizing it. And while she says that Rapid isn’t necessarily opposed to eventually selling the system to its customers, she also points out that it might not make sense. “If you’re running the system for three shifts for five years, it’s kind of coming to the end of its guaranteed life at that point. Do you really want to own it, or do you just want it to be our problem if it breaks, or something happens to it or it needs to be replaced?”
Behrens also appreciates the service aspect of Rapid’s business model, particularly the 24/7 monitoring. “When we have a problem, sometimes Rapid is calling us to say, hey, we see one of your robots is down. We’re going to do this to fix it,” Bellingham says. A lot of service can be done remotely, which helps maintain uptime. And when remote service isn’t an option, Rapid can diagnose the problem remotely, set up a replacement system in its office and bring it to the shop to swap out. Rapid takes the faulty system back to its office to fix, minimizing downtime for manufacturers.
🖨️ When to Invest in 3D Printing: Timing is Everything
Small to mid-size manufacturers are at a disadvantage when it comes to determining if 3D printing is a viable option for their business model. Take Masterclock, a manufacturer of precise timing systems equipment in St. Charles, Mo. With 25 employees, the company designs and assembles printed circuit boards and then mounts those in various types of cases for environments and customers ranging from schools to airplanes. “We have been serving both markets with very high-quality metal cases and wanted to explore the potential of using 3D printing to reduce costs for markets that don’t need truly mission-critical timing,” he says.
Billo led the analysis, which considered current market conditions, and found that the cost of equipment required to 3D print the casements that house the display clocks Masterclock manufactures outweighs the potential savings. It is not the right time for this investment. Clark says, however, that the analysis did show him that many forms of 3D printing have reached the point that there’s parity or better—on a per-part basis—with fabricated parts, which is a potentially major leap forward for a company the size of Masterclock.
Predicting congestion in fleets of robots
Many Amazon fulfillment centers use mobile robots to move shelves, retrieve products, and deliver them to workers for sorting, reducing the need for employees to walk long distances. For simplicity and scalability, the path-planning algorithm those robots currently use focuses on individual agents and ignores interactions between multiple agents.
In a paper we presented at this year’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), we propose a deep-learning model that can predict congestion on the floor in real time. We tested the model’s predictions in simulations of two downstream applications: dynamic path planning in sortation centers, where our model improved throughout by 4.4%, and travel time estimation, where it improved the mean absolute percentage error by 30% to 40% relative to the current production methods.
IOTA Data Preservation Implementation for Industrial Automation and Control Systems
Blockchain 3.0, an advanced iteration of blockchain technology, has emerged with diverse applications encompassing various sectors such as identity authentication, logistics, medical care, and Industry 4.0/5.0. Notably, the integration of blockchain with industrial automation and control systems (IACS) holds immense potential in this evolving landscape. As industrial automation and control systems gain popularity alongside the widespread adoption of 5G networks, Internet of Things (IoT) devices are transforming into integral nodes within the blockchain network. This facilitates decentralized communication and verification, paving the way for a fully decentralized network. This paper focuses on showcasing the implementation and execution results of data preservation from industrial automation and control systems to IOTA, a prominent distributed ledger technology. The findings demonstrate the practical application of IOTA in securely preserving data within the context of industrial automation and control systems. The presented numerical results validate the effectiveness and feasibility of leveraging IOTA for seamless data preservation, ensuring data integrity, confidentiality, and transparency. By adopting IOTA’s innovative approach based on Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG), the paper contributes to the advancement of blockchain technology in the domain of Industry 4.0/5.0.
Major factory investments and line commissions. Tracked in the Atlas.
🏭🇬🇧 Tata Group to Set Up a Battery Gigafactory in the UK
Tata Sons will build a 40GW battery cell gigafactory in the United Kingdom (UK). The investment, of over £4 billion, will deliver electric mobility and renewable energy storage solutions for customers in UK and Europe. JLR and Tata Motors will be anchor customers, with supplies commencing from 2026.
The battery gigafactory will produce high-quality, high-performance, sustainable battery cells and packs for a variety of applications within the mobility and energy sectors. The company’s strategic growth plans for its flexible manufacturing capacity will begin with a rapid ramp-up phase and the start of production in 2026.The gigafactory intends to maximise its renewable energy mix, with an ambition for 100% clean power. The plant will employ innovative technologies and resource efficient processes like battery recycling to recover and reuse all the original raw materials to deliver a truly circular economy ecosystem.
🏭🇺🇸 Rivian wins in Georgia as EV maker gets green light to build $5B facility
Despite opposition, the Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal contesting the legitimacy of Rivian’s expected property tax breaks for its new $5 billion EV facility in the state.
Rivian first announced plans for a massive 2,000-acre, $5 billion electric vehicle plant in Georgia in December 2021. Once fully operational, the facility will be capable of producing up to 400,000 EVs annually. In comparison, its Normal, IL, plant has a maximum production capacity of 150,000 EVs per year.
🏭🇸🇬 Silicon Box opens US$2 billion factory in Singapore
Silicon Box, a semiconductor design and device integration services start-up, unveiled its new US$2 billion (S$2.65 billion) factory in Singapore on Thursday. The 73,000 sq m facility in Tampines is designed to manufacture semiconductor chiplet interconnections that can be applied in areas such as artificial intelligence, electric vehicles and wearables.
🏭🇺🇸 Magna to be the First Supplier at Ford’s BlueOval City Supplier Park
Magna will invest more than $790 million to build the first two supplier facilities at Ford’s BlueOval City supplier park in Stanton, Tennessee. In addition to the two West Tennessee locations, Magna will also build a stamping and assembly facility in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Combined, Magna will create approximately 1,300 new jobs in Tennessee.
Ford’s on-site supplier park will allow for vertical integration that helps ensure efficient production at BlueOval City, which will be capable of producing 500,000 electric trucks a year at full production. Magna will supply Ford’s BlueOval City with battery enclosures, truck frames and seats for the automaker’s second-generation electric truck.
This week's top funding events, acquisitions, and partnerships across industrial value chains
⛓️ Dallas’ o9 Solutions Raises $116M in Latest Funding Round for a $3.7B Valuation
Dallas tech unicorn o9 Solutions—an AI-powered platform for supply chain planning and demand forecasting—announced it has raised $116 million in new funding from existing investors, led by General Atlantic’s BeyondNetZero. The raise boosts o9’s valuation to $3.7 billion, the company said.
o9 said the funding will be used to expand its AI capabilities for its growing customer base that includes PepsiCo, URBN, Nestle, ABInBev, Walmart Canada, Pirelli, New Balance, GE, and others.
☀️ PVcase Secures $100M Investment To Support Its Mission: Cut Solar’s Growing “Data Risk” Challenge
PVcase, the global leader in solar project design software, announced today it has secured a joint investment of $100 million, bringing the company’s total funding to over $123 million. Highland Europe, Energize and existing investor Elephant all participated in the round.
“Data risk is a technical problem that has become an industry-wide constraint,” said PVcase CEO David Trainavicius. “We plan to use this investment to drive more cost and time savings by offering a one-stop solar design platform.”
Beijing robotics firm ForwardX’s Series C hits $61 million
ForwardX this week announced an additional $30 million in funding, bringing the Beijing-based firm’s Series C up to $61 million. The funding follows an initial tranche announced way back in December 2021. It brings the warehouse robotics firm’s total funding up to $140 million since its 2016 launch.
For its part, ForwardX already boasts an impressive client list, including L’Oréal, IKEA, SF DHL, UNIQLO, Walmart and Mitsubishi. Those are the sorts of names that keep VCs interested. All told, the company says it’s deployed some 3,000 robots across 150 sites on four continents. Presently it’s seeking further expansion into the North American, European, Asian and Australian markets.
European high-tech shooting star Neura Robotics raises $55 million
Neura Robotics GmbH, an emerging AI and robotics startup, announced today the closing of a $55 million funding round, led by European investors Lingotto (an investment management company owned by Exor N.V.), Vsquared Ventures, Primepulse and HV Capital.
The $55 million capital increase secures the expansion of the versatile high-tech company towards the US and Japan and helps to expand the production infrastructure in Germany to meet the exponential demand of the order book, which today exceeds $450 million.
Sensorfact raises €25M investment round to improve resource efficiency of industrial SMEs
Sensorfact has successfully completed a €25 million investment round. The round was led by the European growth investor Blume Equity, with participation from existing investors FORWARD.one, Korys, and SET Ventures. The investment will help us to further fulfill our mission of enabling a more efficient and sustainable industry.
In July last year, the European Commission presented the ‘fit for 55’ package, which aims to achieve a CO2 reduction of 55% in 2030 compared to levels in 1990. As a result, companies have to deal with increasingly strict regulations. Energy prices have also risen sharply in the past year, reaching a record high last December.
Terminal Industries Emerges from Stealth; Announces $17M Seed Round to Bring AI to Yard Operations Globally
Terminal Industries emerged from stealth and announced $17 Million in seed funding co-led by 8VC, the most active supply chain investor, and Prologis Ventures, the venture arm of the global leader in logistics real estate, to develop novel AI platforms that optimize the yard. The round includes participation from strategic investors including NFI Ventures, RyderVentures, the corporate venture capital arm of Ryder System, Inc., Lineage Logistics, Vehicle Velocity Group, the Friedkin Group International, as well as world-class logistics-focused venture firms 9Yards, Northstar.vc, Amplifier, and MS&AD Ventures.
🔋 Peaxy secures $12 million series b2 funding to transform battery lifecycle analytics and digital twins
Peaxy, Inc., a leading cloud software company providing battery lifecycle analytics and digital twins, today announces it has raised $12 million in a Series B2 funding round. The investment will accelerate product development and expand the market reach of Peaxy Lifecycle Intelligence (PLI), the company’s flagship cloud-based predictive analytics platform that improves profitability by unifying battery lifecycle data.
Converting factories into intelligent manufacturing hubs, London’s Thingtrax raises £4.3 million
London-based Thingtrax has raised £4.3 million in a pre-Series A funding round. Combining cloud computing, robotics, industrial Internet of things (IIoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and computer vision technologies, ThingTrax helps manufacturers identify inefficiencies and reduce costs. According to the company, its solution can monitor 100% of production activity on the manufacturing floor and provide real-time visibility into daily management practices, all within a single system.
Thingtrax’s latest investment round was co-led by Concentric, Superseed, and Puma Private Equity, with Haatch, Portfolio Ventures, Vinci Venture Capital and several angel investors, including Charlie Songhurst participating.
🖨️ Metafold Secures $1.78M To Advance Mass Adoption of Industrial 3D Printing
Metafold, the only provider of a cloud- and API-based 3D engineering platform, today announced it has raised $1.78 million USD in seed funding to advance the mass adoption of industrial 3D printing, with sustainability at the forefront of its mission. Differential Ventures led the oversubscribed investment round, with participation from Active Impact Investments, who led the company’s pre-seed round, climate-tech focused Jetstream, and Standup Ventures.
Traditional desktop computer aided design (CAD) and engineering (CAE) software was developed for traditional manufacturing methods and relies on every engineer having access to an expensive, high-performance workstation. Meanwhile, 3D printing has unlocked new opportunities to innovate with complex shapes not possible to manufacture with traditional methods. This gap between 3D printing hardware capabilities and the software to take advantage of all their potential has prevented wide usage and adoption of 3D printing for production applications.
Safran agrees to buy Collins flight controls business for $1.8 billion
France’s Safran (SAF.PA) said on Friday it had agreed to buy a supplier of critical cockpit functions from Collins Aerospace in a cash deal valuing it at $1.8 billion, as it prepares for the next generation of increasingly computerised aircraft. The deal to buy Collins’ actuation and flights controls business marks the French engine and aircraft equipment maker’s biggest acquisition since the 2018 purchase of seat maker Zodiac.
It targets a growing market for actuators, which convert electronic instructions from the cockpit to the physical movement of parts to help control aircraft, for example by providing extra lift during landing.