Interview with Patrick Sobalvarro, co-founder and CEO of Veo Robotics

Interview with Patrick Sobalvarro, co-founder and CEO of Veo Robotics
Patrick Sobalvarro, co-founder and CEO of Veo Robotics

Interview by Helmuth Fuchs

Moneycab: Mr. Sobalvarro, your startup Veo Robotics raised capital from, amongst others, Google Ventures, Lux Capital Management, Next47 and Baidu Ventures. How much capital did you raise so far, what is the estimated valuation of Veo Robotics and when do you need to start the next financing round?

Patrick Sobalvarro: As of February 2019, Veo has raised $28 million in venture capital funding from investors such as Google Ventures, Lux Capital Management, Siemens Next47, Nikon-SBI Innovation Fund, SBI AI & Blockchain Fund, and Baidu Ventures. Veo is a private company and we can’t disclose our valuation. We also can’t comment on future fundraising.

„As of February 2019, Veo has raised $28 million in venture capital funding from investors.“

Patrick Sobalvarro, co-founder and CEO of Veo Robotics

You want to „free“ robots from their safety cages and let them interact directly with humans. What does that mean in terms of new opportunities for existing robotic installations?

There are 2.5 million standard industrial robots installed around the world. Because they cannot work safely around humans, significant additional automation must be put into place to make up for the absence of humans. This is very inflexible. If even a small fault occurs inside the cage, it can shut down an entire production line.

On the opposite side you have humans performing non-value-added and non-ergonomic work like heavy lifting. Allowing humans and robots to share the same space allows manufacturers to build workcells that take advantage of the speed and strength of robots as well as the intelligence and dexterity of humans. This would unlock enormous value and allow manufacturers to meet modern demands of mass customization, higher product variability and quality expectations, and faster product cycles. 

Your first product, the FreeMove Application Development Kit is available now, consisting of sensors, a computing platform and software. What is the target market for it, how much support and customization is needed from your side to put it to work at a customer’s site?

The FreeMove™ Application Development Kit (ADK) is an early release of our product, FreeMove™. With the FreeMove™ ADK, users can design collaborative production applications in advance of the safety-certified production-ready version. This will allow our customers to quickly implement collaborative workcells once FreeMove™ is released.

„Our technology does not require any customization and is robot-agnostic, meaning it works with all of the big four robot manufacturers: Fanuc, Kuka, Yaskawa, and ABB.“

Our customers include manufacturers in industries such as automotive, durable goods, oil and gas, household appliances, and aviation. We work closely with our customers—we spend several days with them on-site for training and set-up and provide ongoing support post-installation. Our technology does not require any customization and is robot-agnostic, meaning it works with all of the big four robot manufacturers: Fanuc, Kuka, Yaskawa, and ABB. Engineers don’t need to change how they program their robots––they can simply layer Veo’s solution on top of their existing programs and controls. 

What will be the next deliverable from Veo Robotics and what is your ultimate vision for your startup?

Veo will soon be launching the Veo FreeMove system, which includes proprietary software running on custom hardware. The FreeMove system includes FreeMove Sensors (four-eight custom, safety-certified, 3D time-of-flight sensors), the FreeMove Engine™ (a high-power computing platform that processes image data from the sensors and implements Speed & Separation Monitoring (per ISO15066), and the FreeMove Studio™ (proprietary software for self-service set-up, configuration, and real-time visualization of the sensors and FreeMove™ Engine data).

At Veo, we envision a future where humans and industrial robots work safely side-by-side. By enabling efficient and safe human-machine interaction, we aim to transform manufacturing by making workcells, and, ultimately, production lines, more flexible. 

You are focusing on the ability of robots to work closely and safely with humans. How do you see the work distributed in the future? Where will humans have their place, where the robots?

The key is people and machines working together fluidly and complementing each other. People are what keep factories running—production workers, line managers, and manufacturing engineers are constantly managing and completing internal factory processes.

„So rather than replacing humans, robots would take over the hazardous or rote tasks so that human workers can safely complete high-value-add work.“

Building a fully automated solution can take weeks or months and is very costly, and production workers are far more intelligent and flexible than any machine could be (as Tesla Motors learned on the Model 3 line). Production workers are usually able to adapt to changes right away with ingenuity and dexterity—they can spot developing production challenges and get ahead of them, change a step to insert a quality check, or substitute an improved part for one that’s turned out to be faulty.  

So rather than replacing humans, robots would take over the hazardous or rote tasks so that human workers can safely complete high-value-add work. Robots would move around heavy parts like car batteries, freezer doors, or electric motors, which is slow, tiring, and physically demanding work for people. They would also take on work that is too dangerous for people, such as steps that require clamps, presses, and complex machinery like ultrasonic welders or injection molders. 

Bringing together the intelligence, flexibility, and dexterity of human workers and the strength, precision, and repeatability of robots and other machines is what we do at Veo. We aim to bring our technology from workcells to whole production lines and, ultimately, to entire factories. When machinery can safely co-exist with people in these working environments, factories can reach their full potential in terms of flexibility and efficiency. 

One core component or buzz-word of every new development today is Artificial Intelligence. Where do you make use of it in your work and where do you see boundaries of the intelligence of robots in the foreseeable future?

AI encompasses a family of technologies, one of which is machine learning (statistical pattern recognition). Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence are often treated as the same thing, but there is an important distinction. Since ML is not sufficiently determinitistic, at Veo we do not use it in any of our safety systems. That said, there are other, more deterministic AI technologies that are appropriate for functional safety that we do use. 

We do use machine learning in some of our future products, outside of the safety system. These products have more to do with the optimization of factory operations that are made possible with fluid human-machine interaction, and machine learning is a good set of techniques we can use in that domain.

Regarding the boundaries of robot intelligence, I’ll refer you to a post on our blog from Clara Vu (VP, Engineering/co-founder) and Alberto Moel (VP, Strategy and Partnerships). They describe how while AI might be able to master the game of Go, robots are still constrained by limited dexterity. Something as simple as tying a shoelace is still a long way away.

Which are the biggest threats to the success of Veo Robotics, which technical developments could speed up the successful expansion of your company?

We see a bright future for Veo Robotics. In general, though, the manufacturing industry needs to address in a public forum the inaccurate narrative of humans versus robots—there is a misperception that more jobs for robots means fewer jobs for people. In reality, jobs for humans increase when robot jobs increase. Our technology further aims to ensure that people can remain in manufacturing jobs longer without suffering from repetitive strain injuries. We see more opportunities opening up with humans and robots being able to work together in the same space. Human jobs are vital to manufacturing and they are not going away.

„There is a misperception that more jobs for robots means fewer jobs for people. In reality, jobs for humans increase when robot jobs increase.“

Which components make your solution unique and are protected?

Current safety solutions offer a one dimensional solution. This might be a standalone sensor that stops the robot automatically when it has been activated, whether by a human, a workpiece, or a bird that’s gotten into the factory. Automation engineers must account for every detail of the workcell, in a process that is both time consuming and inflexible.

With FreeMove™, this set-up work is done automatically. Our system is dynamic and can respond appropriately when unexpected things happen. We have built the first safety-rated 3D time-of-flight sensors, however, FreeMove™ is primarily a software system. It interprets image data from the sensors to categorize elements in a workcell into recognized and unrecognized objects.

Since this technology is unique, we have filed broad patent protection with several patents published and one broad patent issued already.

The Veo FreeMove™ system is comprised of:

  • FreeMove Sensors™: Four (4) custom, safety-certified, 3D time-of-flight sensors mounted on the workcell periphery to cover the safeguarded space; 
  • the FreeMove Engine™: A high-power computing platform that processes image data from the sensors and implements Speed & Separation Monitoring (per ISO15066) to slow or stop the robot;
  • FreeMove Studio™: Proprietary software for self-service set-up, configuration, and real-time visualization of the sensors and FreeMove™ Engine data.

You obviously solve a real problem by making robots smarter and safer to work with. How long do you think before the next generation of robots is making this „add-on“ obsolete and what would that mean for your business?

An important point to note upfront is that there is no such thing as a “collaborative robot.” There are collaborative applications that take into account the full range of activities and equipment within a workcell. Even a power and force limited robot (PFL) is only as collaborative as its application (imagine it wielding a sharp object).

Inherently, this problem requires a software-based solution. Robots are simply actuators, they need systems like ours to give them intelligence and perception.

At the end of the interview you are granted two wishes. What are they?

We want to create a different kind of factory – one that provides a more humane environment for production workers, because machines will be able to help them in their work and won’t need to be objects of fear. The world’s production labor workforce is getting older, and needs technologies that can help them to continue to make a valuable contribution using their intelligence, flexibility, and judgement without requiring brute strength.

The flexibility and optimization of production processes that this allows not only helps workers within the factory but enriches our entire society by providing products more efficiently and responsively to people’s needs.

Patrick Sobalvarro is the co-founder and CEO of Veo Robotics, a company that brings advanced computer vision, 3D sensing, and AI to industrial robots, allowing them to work side-by-side with humans in manufacturing processes.

Patrick has more than twenty-five years of experience in computer vision, robotics, and industrial automation. Prior to founding Veo Robotics, Patrick was the first Entrepreneur in Residence at Siemens Venture Capital, focusing on the creation of the vision behind Veo.  He also served as the VP of New Growth Platforms for Avery Dennison, building a new business line in RFID-based IoT products, was President of Rethink Robotics, creators of collaborative manufacturing robots, and founded and led the computer vision startup IntelliVid to its acquisition by Tyco International.

Originally trained as a computer scientist, Patrick holds a Ph.D., M.S., and B.S. in Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dieses Interview wurde an der Bits & Pretzels 2019 geführt

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