Manufacturing has been one of the biggest and earliest adopters of robotics innovations in the last several years, but with that early movement has also come entrenchment: the industry is rife with expensive, oversized machines that often run on proprietary operating systems, making them hard to upgrade and use in consort with other robots.
Now a startup out of London called Automata is hoping to tap into an appetite for change, with the launch of a “desktop” robotic arm called Eva that it says is smaller, cheaper and easier to use than the rest — under $5,000 compared to a pricetag of $25,000 for the piece of equipment it’s aiming to replace — and it’s raised $7.4 million to help do that.
The funding, a Series A, is being led by Hummingbird Ventures, with participation also from firstminute Capital, Hardware Club, LocalGlobe, ABB, and Entrepreneur First. It will be used to expand Automata’s current team of 42, as well as to ramp up production of Eva, the company said. This brings the total raised by the startup to $9.5 million.
While many in the startup world of robotics come either from other robotics makers, or from mechanical engineering and artificial intelligence backgrounds (with teams comprising all three, and then some), Automata stands out for having a unique pedigree.
Its founders Suryansh Chandra and Mostafa ElSayed met and previously worked together at the prestigious architecture firm Zaha Hadid, founded by eponymous late architect who was known for her highly stylised, as well as very technical, approach to building design that pushed the boundaries of aesthetics and the physical properties of materials.
Likewise, Zaha Hadid is a firm that has long had a connection to more artistic end of architecture, and it was when the two were working on a project for the Venice Biennale (a huge and prestigious contemporary art event) that they found themselves wishing for a precision machine that could help them build the individual panels they needed for a structure. It was the kind of problem that would have been potentially easier to address for a series of buildings — tapping into economies of scale — but harder for a one-off work for an art event.
Out of that problem, however, was born the idea of Automata.
“We realised we were spending 10 percent of our time on design, and 90 percent on solving problems around how to build that design,” said Chandra, the CEO, when I interviewed him and ElSayed in their offices in Islington, North London.
He added he knew that predicament was not just limited to the Biennale project. The firm had worked with foundries to design panels for larger buildings, but even in those cases “when it came to working with robots, the process was opaque. Robots just weren’t there yet for non-technical people to work with them.”
When Automata first started building prototypes of robotic arms, ElSayed said that the startup originally thought that the target customers would be people “like ourselves” — those working in fields that might benefit from being able to create more physical objects, like panels, but on a bespoke level, similar to the way that 3d printers are used today. “It turned out manufacturers had the most need for it, though,” he said.
“One day our inbox blew up with big industrial companies and tiny SMEs who were all interested in testing our prototype,” Chandra said.
There are three key innovations that Automata has brought to Eva. One is the rebuilding of the gearbox that runs the machine. It turns out that this has seen very little innovation even as we have seen an explosion in other aspects of robotics technologies like computer vision and autonomous movement. “The last time a gear box was invented for an industrial robot was in 1957,” Chandra added.
The company’s huge markdown on pricing is partly a result of that, and partly because it turns out that smaller machines that are built from the ground up with more readily available, new components can be much cheaper to make. There is also an element of industry entrenchment that the startup is trying to combat. “We were able to put together our first prototypes for £500 when they were more basic,” ElSayed said, noting that the basic price of equipment against which Automata’s Eva is competing is around $25,000. “They are that price because that is the price model that the industry works on, based on its current component supply chain.”
The other big area that Automata has rethought with Eva is the software that controls the machine, which is called Choreograph. Yes, this one is also proprietary, but it is a step in the right direction: it is cloud-based, and a company can essentially log in and control and monitor their Eva robot from any web-based interface, on any device. It also lets the user import designs and patterns from other 3D design programs as a starting point for programming their Eva for a particular job. All of this means shorter production runs and more flexible, on-demand manufacturing is closer to being a reality.
The third is in the building of the robot itself. Automata is working with UK robotics manufacturer Tharsus to implement its designs to build its hardware, rather than taking on that risk itself.
Hardware is not the easiest bet to make in the world of startups — it’s capital intensive and there have been many failures. But given the fundamental problems that Automata is tackling, in an area that has largely been left alone for decades, makes it a bet worth taking, say its backers.
“Suryansh and Mostafa bring a visionary perspective to robotics and an endearing determination to turn the traditional manufacturing model on its head by fostering a new dimension of productivity, whilst simultaneously lowering the costs for developed and high-labour cost countries,” said Barend Van den Brande, founding partner at Hummingbird Ventures, in a statement.
“Automata is a company making fundamental changes in the robotics space,” said Robin Klein, cofounder and General Partner at LocalGlobe. “By offering an industrial quality, lightweight robot capable of being set up and operational in a matter of hours, Automata is encouraging businesses to embrace automation like never before.”