The Manufacturing Executive
The Manufacturing Executive

Episode 88 · 9 months ago

How Next-Gen Robots Are Revolutionizing Manufacturing w/ Nan Li


Welcome to a new era of robotics!

Robots of the past were defined by their tasks. They went through pre-planned motions and they weren’t able to adapt to changes in their environment.

Today’s next-gen robots, however, are hyper-intelligent, able to differentiate between people and objects, and adjust to changes in real time.

Nan Li, Managing Director at Obvious Ventures, has spent a lot of his career watching the evolution of robotics, and in this episode, he explains what this new era of robots means for the manufacturing industry.

Join us as we discuss:

- The differences between the robots of yesterday and the robots of today

- What autonomous vehicles have to do with advances in robotics

- How robot systems are becoming more financially accessible 

Subscribe to The Manufacturing Executive on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website.

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So these robots have a level of cognition, if you will, that make them a lot more fluid. They can adjust to slight differences in their environment or their workstation. They can be deployed a lot easier because they don't have to be preprogrammed. There they're actually sort of they have embedded intelligence within them. Welcome to the manufacturing executive podcast, where we explore the strategies and experiences that are driving midsize manufacturers forward. Here you'll discover new insights from passionate manufacturing leaders who have compelling stories to share about their successes and struggles, and you'll learn from B tob sales and marketing experts about how to apply actionable business development strategies inside your business. Let's get into the show. Welcome to another episode of then infacturing executive podcast. I'm Joe Sullivan, your host and a cofounder of the Industrial Marketing Agency guerrilla. Seventy six as my guests today, I'll tell you we're moving into a new era of robotics. Whereas robots were once defined by the task they performed, this new wave of next Gen robots are hyperintelligent, aware of their environments, can differentiate between people and objects and can adjust on the fly. But Heck, you'll benefit much more from my guest telling you about it than me, so let me introduce him. nonly invests in frontier technologies. Is built to transform industrial enterprise sectors like pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, agriculture and logistics. He leads obvious ventures investments in computational biology visionaries like Ziemergen, recursion pharmaceuticals and lab genius, AI driven platforms opening new opportunities across sectors, such as planet and Otto and Darwin Ai, and intelligent robotics companies like dexterity. Prior to joining obvious ventures, nonmanaged early stage tech investments for Eric Schmid's innovation endeavors. He previously led product operations and finance at GIG Walk, a mobile crowdsourced data and analytics company funded by Greylock partners in August capital. Prior to GIG Walk, non was a VC at Bain capital ventures, a management consultant at Bain and company and a product manager at Microsoft. Non Holds a BS in computer science engineering from the University of Michigan and is an adjunct lecture at Stanford on Venture Capital. Non grew up in Detroit after emigrating from China. He enjoys music, photography, culture, puzzles, all Detroit sports and General Nerddom non, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Well, you know, I'm a Wisconsin born and raised guy living in St Louis now and and whatever I have somebody from Chicago or Minnesota. I always, you know, always have a moment about packers versus Vikings or or or bears, but I easy try to refrain from talking trash to to lions fans, because you guys haven't heard enough all. You getting there's you don't...

...worry. You did be this last week at the season though, in a game that was a too meaningful for the packers, is really, and we lost the first round draft pick. So it's a very liing thing to do. Yeah, it sounds about right. I have I do take pity on you guys a little bit because it seems like one of those franchises that just you've got the pieces and then you just can't quite get there. But you know, yeah, wasted to generational talents and brow. So maybe call it three with Stafford. So I know it was very sanders megatron. Yeah, they're there. Goes Stafford. Right. So, yeah, well, all right, well, we'll talk about happier things for the rest of yes, no rivalry there? Yeah, well, none. You are doing such interesting things that obvious ventures. For our listeners, if you're front of in front of a computer right now, pull up their website and just look at the carousel of short video clips that loads on their home page. It's I was. I was looking at this and I'm looking at some of these things thinking, know, these are like futuristic stock videos and no, please, are like your investments in the companies you're actually working with that are doing just amazing things. So I start by just telling our listeners a little bit about what obvious ventures is all about, what you guys are doing, the types of companies you're investing in. Yeah, so, you know, that's a great place to start. We launched obvious in two thousand and fourteen, so we've been around for going on nine years now, and you know, the the general idea of high obvious from day one, which we very much followed today, is that we are a venture capital firm situated in the heart of Silicon Valley with deep roots and network in the tech industry. But we're hyper focused on opportunities to take all of that great tech and integrate it into the real things that matter in our society. So the really heavy duty sectors that make up the vast majority of our economy are actually not related to the internet or building facebook or building twitter. They are industrials and healthcare, drug discovery and life science, transportation and supply chain. So that's where we do all of our work. So we think of ourselves as a firm that's really focused on tech transformation of really large industries that have lots of different problems embedded within them. Yeah, I love the philosophy and the decisions you've made about where to invest in the types of companies to help move forward. It's really cool and you yourself have a very interesting and impressive background. You've accomplished a lot of readies and entrepreneur in your career and I'd love to hear you tell a little bit more about your own personal journey that led you to where you are today. Yeah, you know, I've had sort of a wandering journey. Immigrated to the US First Gen immigrants, grew up in Detroit, so I think from that sort of early phase was embedded in inside of a lot of sort of industrial environments and I have a lot of friends of family that work in the auto industry or the auto supplier sort of related industries. So I have a real sort of affinity and a soft spot for, you know, doing...

...real work and factories and warehouse environments. In terms of background, I did sort of duel computer science and math, so I have a pretty technical orientation and with that I went into the tech industry and sort of worked across a variety of a variety of different roles, product management, building sales teams, customer success and support and, you know, eventually became an investor and I've been doing start up investing, early stage venture capital for about a decade at this point. Very cool. Well, I know that, you know, a lot of your careers direction has headed towards robotics, or it's at least an area of interest for you, and I want to get into that with you. You know you one thing you said to me when we talked a while back to sort of plan out what we wanted to do with this episode, was that there's a movement now that is different than a decade ago as far as robotics goes. I'd love to hear you just talk about what you mean by that, what you're seeing now versus them. Yeah, hundred percent. Yeah, I think that robotics is not an unfamiliar phrase to anyone that's ever watched a movie or has been sort of part of, you know, society or the Tech Industry. It's been promised for a long time. In many ways, robotics have been in the world for really long time. They're really large robotics companies like ABB and, fantic and Kuca that build great products and they're being used in manufacturing facilities. But where I would draw a separation is that they're there are a whole class of robotics that are actually deployed today that are sort of fixed robotics, as in they can they can only do one task. There they're typically following point by point instructions down to the millimeter, so they're repeating preplanned motions and very precisely because they're engineered to do that. But they're not very agile and they're not aware of what they're doing. They're not aware of their environment, they're not aware of people, so they typically have to be fenced off. They're in a cage. They do some fixed task like welding. You know, spot weldings really popular for robotics. You know, very few people actually do spot welding anymore because the use cases so sort of custom fit for those kinds of capabilities, and that's where I would separate the sort of traditional robotics industry are those sort of fixed enclosure robots that do one thing and you program them and then you just let them do it and you don't touch the conveyor or the robot because they're not going to be able to adjust. And we're moving into an era now which is also related to robotics, but I think it should be called a totally separate category because the robots that are being deployed now and sort of next gen robots, if you will, they look nothing like the previous generation. The hardbare is...

...the same, but I think what's advanced a lot is the software and perception capabilities that make these robots essentially break through those boundaries that I just laid out. You know, next Gen robots and a lot of the robots that I work with and have have exposure too in the startup community, they're hyperintelligent. They're aware of their environment, they are aware of the difference between people and objects. They can adjust their path planning and grip strategies in real time based on the orientation across different products from one moment to the next moment. So these robots have a level of cognition, if you will, that make them a lot more fluid. They can adjust to slight differences in their environment or their workstation. They can be deployed a lot easier because they don't have to be preprogrammed. There they're actually sort of they have embedded intelligence within them. So these got of fluid, agile robots, I think, will define the next wave of robotics. And if you think about the kinds of work that that type of robot can accomplish, it's actually a much larger universe of tasks. If you if you break down what's being done in a fact every or a warehouse, there's a set of jobs to be done that are fixed and preprogrammed. Static robots can do them well and and mostly already doing them because those robots have existed for twenty, thirty years. But there's a much larger universe of jobs to be done that requires some cognition, some you know, edge intelligence, you know, and the the new wave of robots are built to tackle those kinds of jobs that before today, have never been able to be touched by those kind of dumber, older robots because they're just two fluid, they're too agile and the robots can't keep up, and that that is changing in a really significant way. Yeah, those are all really good points. So you said at the beginning of that segment that you almost would call it something different than robotics, or it's almost like there's a new category being created here of this hyperintelligent robot. What would what would you call it? You know, I work with a company called dexterity that that's in this I think, really leading the way and in this advanced robot a category and something that they started using what their customers is Fte robotics, and that's that's essentially a shift from thinking about a robot as is actually what I just said, a welding robot or a sheet metal robot. You know, robots used to be defined by their task, because they are. They're configured and built just for one task, so you might as well call it what the robot does. And with this kind of you know, agility and adaptability robots, you know in this wave are a little bit more like workers. They're just kind of alternative, different types of workers that can be in that facility. So,... know, maybe that's not the catchiest of names, but I think it speaks to the real difference in these robot robots can do a really wide variety of tasts. They don't have to be reprogrammed in between those tasks. They can actually do one thing today and a totally different thing tomorrow and they can make that transition. So dexterity has been using this term Fte robotics, which I like because it really draws that distinction. Yeah, totally. You know, another thing you said to me non was that companies are now borrowing technology that was developed from the autonomous vehicle industry and putting it into the robots, robots deck for free. I think it's kind of the way way you you phrased it when we talked a little while back, and I'd be curious to hear you talk about that and just sort of elaborate on how are we benefiting from what's been going on with the development of autonomous vehicles in other parts of manufacturing now? Yeah, you know, I think it goes back to a little bit of the why now, because when you look at some of these capabilities that we're talking about, they're clearly very lucrative and and attractive capabilities for robots. They have. You know, who doesn't want to avoid programming a robot for nine months before being able to use it? That that's not a really great user experience, but that's what typically exists in the industry. So this this idea of robots that are intelligent and agile and can be deployed really quickly and different types of environments. This is sort of been a promise to the industry for a really long time. I bet a lot of listeners here or a lot of folks around industrials and manufacturing are totally aware of this promise. If you go back maybe ten years or even further, the key notes of industrial conferences and industrial automation conferences have touched on these ideas for a really long time. So like this is old news, but the capability has always been lagging and I think the why now for robotics is not as simple as pointing to one technology, but is actually this sort of perfect storm of different types of technologies that are all maturing, and my point to earlier was that those technologies are sort of being developed in adjacent spaces and the field of robotics gets to borrow those and and bring them in house for free. That, you can think of. The RD of the robotics stack has been advanced by other industries and and the example I brought up was computer vision, for example. You know, for robots to really be able to adapt to jobs they need to have really great perception in terms of visual perception, threedimensional spatial perception, so that they can map their environment, they can map the job, if the object that needs to be manipulated changes, they can sort of map that and adjust to it. So so you know, spatial awareness and computer vision. Those are two characteristics that are also very important in autronous vehicles. And if you think about the billions of dollars of research have been dumped...

...into a V's they know by Ford, by GM by startups, by Tesla, by Google, way mout. A lot of those dollars went into advancing the perception stack of vehicles. And and actually at times vehicles are just robots in a way that are on the road. You know, they're making decisions in real time, they're scanning the environment. They're trying to find dangerous objects or objects to avoid. Like people and robots are being asked to do very similar things and a lot of the modern companies that are coming out today they get to sit on top of a mountain of research and open source software that have been developed in the last decade in the era of a V and that's just one of those examples where they get a big had to start in a big leap thanks to, you know, other tech industry developments and and other companies that are, you know, doing great research and doing great work. Not on a theme that I hear throughout conversations with my podcast interview he's my clients. My prospects is that robots are quickly becoming so much more accessible as the technology matures and costs go down. We're not always talking about some massive capital expenditure anymore. Can comment on that from where you sit? Yeah, that's actually a great, great point. Another one of those sort of technology curves that that is sitting alongside computer vision and perception is also on the hardware side. You know, both the metal hardware around robotic systems being advanced by large robotics companies like Kawasaki and ABB and. You know, their arms are getting cheaper and cheaper every year just through, you know, competition with each other and the maturing of the the build and the bomb. You know, the arms and the equipment are, you know, getting getting more accessible, going down a cost curve. And then alongside that the the sort of accessories and sensors that that need to be deployed alongside robot robotic arms. Those are also going down a cost curve, again because of volume growth and consumer electronics. You we think about, you know, d sensors, for example. Those are being used in retail, they're being used in gaming. You know, D sensors are actually in xbox connects. So a lot of that sort of volume play and the maturity of the supply chain in places like Taiwan and China contribute to make the hardware more accessible. And just again getting to that KAF x issue, I think those curves are happening with or without robotics, and robotics gets to sort of sit on top and reap the benefits of that. Love that. So I can't help none but to think that sometimes manufacturers don't realize what's possible and how accessible robots can be. Are there examples of robotics or automation that you can share that might make our listeners say high interesting.

I wouldn't have thought of that and that application or my head wouldn't have gone there. Yeah, there are a lot of use case specific examples. But if I just kind of back up a little bit further, I think a lot of the preconceived notions around robotics really needs to be written rewritten in this era of Fte robotics. If we stick with that name, and I think the message to a lot of folks with prior experience with robotics. For me, and and why I really want to sort of get that message out, is really throw away the old beliefs and and look at this industry with fresh eyes. And some of those beliefs are robots are are massively expensive. They require writing a huge upfront check to even get them in the door to do anything. So the buying pattern is spent a bunch of money and then recoup that over multiple years to make your Roi that's going away because robotics solutions are borrowing the business model of Sass and software and now there's a lot of them. The newer companies are offering robotics as a service, so it's a subscription service that goes into opex spend instead of coming out of Cape spend, making it a lot easier to afford and making it a little bit more apples to apples, with sort of just a daily operations of any facility and easier to purchase. Another preconceived notion is that robotic systems are very hard to integrate. You have to work with an SI in addition to the robotics vendor. There's a bunch of services costs and set up costs and you're, you know, at the point of decision to adopt something, you're still nine months, a year away from from it going live to do anything. You're in your facility. That is also going away. Robotic solutions today can be stood up and live and production differs on vendors, but I would say in the reinge of a month. You know a lot of companies I work with, once they're given the keys to a facility, their systems are alive and going at production volume and speed within one month because they don't follow point by point instructions, they don't have to be custom coded. You know so so that's a huge benefit. So there's a lot more flexibility in adopting them. There's a there's a lot of cost benefit and sort of earlier ry payback on on the new systems. So I think all of that gets into this trend and and theme of accessibility. All great stuff. They're none. Is there anything I did not ask you about that you'd like to add to this conversation or message? You want to be able to send a summary of a lot of what we talked about, which are I think we talked about a little bit of the inputs of sort of the the trends and changes in the technology and the hardware. But if I could really real and a message that is the output of all of that, is that I think robotic systems today are cheaper than ever, lightning fast to deploy. We're talking about weeks to a month and I've seen a lot of the newer robotic systems in the field. And the...

...third point is that they they deliver and work and scale. You know, I'm seeing robotic systems getting into the high thousand to two thousand picks per hour rate on mixpin picking and belt picking. Kidding, some of those sort of very common use cases. So to those who are aware of that sort of benchmark and standard, those are crazy numbers. You know a good senses you know, human pick per hour on a lot of sort of mixed tests is in the five, six hundred range, kind of depending on who you ask. Your robot systems today are they're not brittle. Their production ready. A lot of companies that I see have scaled into the hundreds over routs that are running in real time in mixed facilities with people walking around them. So we're just in a totally new era and I think to those who haven't taken a fresh look they might be shocked by actually how far along we are. You know, I'm not really talking about anything that isn't already happening or I'm not making predictions about the future. I'm all I'm simply pointing at from my advantage point of being able to watch some of the more innovative companies launch and go to market and watch how they do, and by the way, that's something I've done over my entire investment career, is watch robotic systems deploy, and this is the first time ever that these systems are working when they first land, even if it's the first unit out of a new company, which seems risky. They work and then it turns into ten, it turns with a hundred, turns into five hundred. So you know, we're still early days, but we're not so early that these are predictions. This is happening in the world today, in America today, in manufacturing environments and supply chain environments, these kind of next Gen intelligent robots are at work and they're about to hit a really explosive scale up in volume and and that's my prediction into the future is that, you know, this kind of conversation will feel so redundant and and so blase a within three years. I think it's just going to be a total truism that. Wow, you know, a lot of the places that you know I have, where I've labor shortages or where there are seasonal the in flex volume, the solution is a robot and I'm really excited about that near future. That sort of the early proof points of that are have already happened. Yeah, well, I think you're right on the money and I'm hearing it from a lot of angles from people who are very close to this, like yourself. So well, not I appreciate you doing this day. This is a great conversation. Yeah, can you tell our audience how they can get in touch with you and also how they can learn more about what obvious ventures is doing? Yeah, I mean most mostly on twitter. So just an Anli on twitter and you can follow a lot of the progress and, of course, obvious ventures as well. We're very active on... media. Beautiful. Well, non thanks again for doing this today. Thanks for having me. This is fun, you bet. As for the rest of you, I hope to catch you on the next episode of the manufacturing executives. You've been listening to the manufacturing executive podcast to ensure that you never missed an episode. Subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you'd like to learn more about industrial marketing and sales strategy, you'll find an ever expanding collection of articles, videos, guides and tools specifically for bedb manufacturers at gorilla seventy sixcom learn. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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