- Global supply chains were decimated when the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, prompting some firms to begin exploring how to localize production.
- What has historically been a expensive and time-consuming process to overhaul manufacturing processes is now easier and cheaper due to improvements in computer vision and other technology.
- Industrial automation startup Bright Machines is running 34 projects, half of which involve helping clients build products in the US and Mexico in an attempt to manufacture closer to the final market.
- And once companies take the jump to dual-production sites, CEO Amar Hanspal argued that the further expansion will be quick.
- "The change we've seen because of COVID is what was a five-year timeline is turning into a two-year timeline," he told Business Insider.
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The coronavirus crisis immediately decimated supply chains when it swept the globe. And while it wasn't the first time under President Trump that US companies were forced to grapple with nearly-overnight changes to international trade, the impact of the pandemic may be severe enough to prompt more permanent, drastic shifts to production plans.
Adjusting manufacturing strategies is an expensive and time-consuming process, one that most companies are hesitant to take. But technology is lowering the barrier to employing multi-source production, wherein more than one plant makes the same item in various locations. Such a strategy would shield a firm if, for example, a hurricane in one area of the world shut-down facilities.
Bright Machines — a robotics startup valued at $679 million, according to PitchBook — stands to benefit from that shift. The company builds "microfactories" — basically automated assembly lines — using technology like computer vision and robotics.
It is currently running 34 projects, half of which involve aiding clients in building products in the US and Mexico in an attempt to manufacture closer to the final market. Overall, Bright Machines has experienced a 150% growth in its customer base since January.
"Automation from a customer perspective has always been a question of when and not if," CEO Amar Hanspal told Business Insider. "The change we've seen because of COVID is, what was a five-year timeline is turning into a two-year timeline in terms of deployment because people want to de-risk production."
Read more: This CEO explains why he left the top job at $36 billion Autodesk to head Bright Machines, a one-year-old robotics software startup that's revolutionizing manufacturing
While the manufacturing industry writ-large has been slower than other sectors to pivot to automation, that is quickly changing. It's also not just robotics. Advancements like 3D printing are helping to encourage more disparate operations.
After companies take the initial foray into dual-production sites, Hanspal predicts that further expansion will be swift. "Once they do that, then you will see an acceleration to a third, fourth, fifth place," he said.
Hanspal related it to the semiconductor industry, where firms like Intel have pivoted the whole manufacturing system to be software-based. "That layer has been missing," he added.
Breaking down the process
A closer look at the strategy Bright Machines uses to automate the manufacturing process can help illuminate what makes it so difficult to take the initial jump.
As an example, Hanspal described the process of manufacturing a smoke alarm. After an initial conversation with a customer, the team at Bright Machines then has to deconstruct the whole process to distinct operations. One aspect may be a robotic arm to hold the plastic cover for the alarm. Another is actually connecting the wires, or scanning a serial number on a completed product.
The intricacy is just one reason for the industry's pragmatic approach to technology adoption.
"Nobody wins a medal there because they're using something cool, but production is stopped," said Hanspal. "You just have to win the trust and credibility of customers."
And in a telling sign of just how skiddish companies can be in agreeing to overhaul their processes, Bright Machines doesn't even get paid for its work until a certain testing milestone is crossed — typically when the product is made at the unit volumes that were promised.
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