PARIS—Business France will in March wrap up its first accelerator “dedicated to the industry of the future in North America.” The 10-month program is specialized in monitoring and control tech, as well as data analytics.
The program included an orientation in Paris a few months back, where the “laureates” the organization selected worked with an international business coach as they prepared to woo manufacturers in Detroit and Toronto in November. Like the intense musicians in the kaleidoscopic jam sessions going on in jazz clubs nearby, the executives played with wording, sounds, rhythms, timing and storytelling methods to paint appealing pictures.
Business France invited Smart Manufacturing to meet with the executives during their orientation. Here, you’ll find the colorful and compelling tales of Akeoplus, Alpha-3i, CAILabs, Expert Teleportation, Infodream, Scortex and Ubudu (yes, similar to the name of a little town in Bali).
Using Technology From Crowdfunded
Expert Teleportation, EDF Saves Big
A portentous encounter six years ago propelled
the founder of a remote-expert tech firm to a place
where he’s (almost) ready to pursue the market in the U.S.
When two reps from Naval Group knocked on Frederic Pedro’s door in Angoulême, France, in 2012, they looked quite serious: “Our sons are playing your game Origami Challenge,” he recalled them saying. “It’s very complicated. And they don’t go to class to learn to play games. What are your secrets?”
That ominous visit, along with a nudge from his father, propelled Pedro out of the video game development industry and into manufacturing. The Naval Group guys needed more intuitive tools and software for their work designing a nuclear submarine for France. Something with a simple user interface. Something with no bugs. Something addictive.
So the company Pedro founded in 2010 stopped developing games in order to focus on industrial needs.
Pedro tried his hand at developing augmented reality apps for smart glasses. But his father (who works as a technical director in maintenance) advised that that work was not innovative enough and encouraged him to instead make video software for smart glasses.
By 2015, his Paris-based firm, Expert Teleportation, gathered 100,000 euros ($116,000) via crowdsource financing, Pedro said.
Pedro, 32, is now evangelizing an offering by the same name: It includes software to run smart glasses, connectivity solutions like souped-up Internet routers, and services related to smart glasses.
The last “pillar” of the offering sometimes includes smart glasses-deployment methodology, customization of hardware and software and connectivity solutions. Expert Teleportation also customizes smart glasses kits to match needs related to data storage, as well as specific audio environments and lighting scenarios. And it provides spares—because in the rough-and-tumble places where oil and gas are extracted from the earth, equipment breaks.
Paired with smart glasses, he said, Expert Teleportation “allows experts to instantly and remotely guide the hands of a technician in the field”—from a distance.
In part because Expert Teleportation’s main product is borderless, it is intent on getting in on the remote-expert game in the U.S., as well as the U.K., Germany and several other countries—and quickly.
To that end, Pedro is taking part in Business France’s North American-focused accelerator.
Expert Teleportation counts Électricité de France (EDF), Peugeot Citroen and TechnipFMC as fellow explorers and customers.
EDF recoups $117,000 investment in 9 months
The young firm helped EDF expand its business in Africa. “EDF tech experts here in France can now share their expertise with people working in plants in Africa—in 20 minutes instead of the five days it used to take because of travel,” Pedro said.
EDF bought 10 complete Expert Teleportation systems for 100,285 euros ($117,000) in January 2018—and recouped the cost within nine months, in part because it avoided four international trips, said Didier Rubert, test engineer at EDF Thermal Engineering.
For example, because of the technology, EDF in July was able to send three, rather than 10, experts to Senegal to transfer a power plant it built to the client, he said, noting that EDF also deploys power plants in places like Brazil, China and the United Arab Emirates. That scaled-down operation in Senegal saved EDF 54,000 euros ($63,180).
Additionally, Rubert said, Expert Teleportation improves the safety of installations because of greater expertise available and speedier and otherwise enhanced maintenance.
System considered ‘idiot-proof’
TechnipFMC, which builds oil production facilities, including factories, oil rigs and subsea infrastructure, works in hard-to-access areas around the world: the open ocean, Siberia, West Africa and the middle of the Amazon.
When the firm was looking to “upgrade” workers, it chose Expert Teleportation, in part because the offering enables an audio/video connection with remote-located experts and is so easy to use—while wearing gloves—that it is considered “idiot-proof,” Jean François Duroch, innovation manager at TechnipFMC, said in a presentation at Imagine Day 2018 here in Paris.
In systems that involve Expert Teleportation, workers in the field wear safety glasses with a connected arm that includes a camera and microphone. The camera and microphone are activated with the press of a button on a worker’s armband. After that, operation is hands-free.
Expert Teleportation also proved to work just fine in the “real-life conditions” oil and gas companies experience—meaning no Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G coverage on site, he added. The setup accommodated protective gear and equipment required “in an industry environment where explosions are possible” and ATEX standards come into play. It also made it easy to encrypt data recorded at partners’ sites, providing data security.
“We thought Expert Teleportation was a good solution,” Duroch said, noting that his firm’s pilot project with the company demonstrated significant time and cost savings “when the technician is able to respond to a major problem himself.”
How remote can ‘audio AR’ go?
Hugo Mir, growth strategist at Expert Teleportation, spoke in tandem with Duroch at the April conference. He said his firm was testing satellite connections for the most remote locations in which TechnipFMC works.
Once Expert Teleportation “cracks” the combination needed to provide remote experts in the most extreme locations steady connectivity, “we’ll be able to implement our solutions everywhere” and reduce the typical equipment-malfunction response time companies like TechnipFMC experience to 30 minutes from two or more days, he said.
Expert Teleportation does not make equipment; it can integrate with smart glasses, helmet endoscopes, “whatever enables you to transmit what is happening in real-time,” Mir said. He calls the company’s technology “audio augmented reality—because you’ll have auditory input from someone who can see visually what’s happening.
“We won’t be putting little green arrows in front of you to show you where the technical problem is,” as happens in standard augmented reality applications, he said. With Expert Teleportation, “everything is based on who is going to guide you, who is going to help you orally while driving, because you will have your own earpiece, the person guiding you will see what’s going on, and they will ask you to move to certain places to repair the breakdown.”
Almost ready to roll—in Los Angeles
Expert Teleportation, which employs 18 people today and envisions employing 40 people in a year, opened a demo and sales office in downtown Los Angeles in July. The office provides a vantage point in “one of the most industrial places, for aerospace and oil and gas,” in the U.S., as well as factories in Mexico—and is relatively close to venture capitalists in San Francisco, Pedro said.
But as Pedro takes on teleportation competitors in the U.S. like Facebook and Microsoft, he said, he needs what Business France is offering: cultural acclimatization.
“We have many cultural differences with American people,” he added. “In manufacturing, people in France focus on everything that can fail. We really want to avoid failure. In the U.S., people want to succeed, and they focus on succeeding. In the U.S., If you know there are some risks and you see there are some benefits, you say, ‘OK, we will try.’ In France, just to start, you need to find all possible problems and solve them first.”
It all adds up to French products that arrive later but are more robust, Pedro said. “We hope to bring this reliability and become more attached” to manufacturing operations in the U.S.
Alpha-3i Has One Foot on the Ground in North America. Here Comes the Second Foot.
Alpha-3i has a foothold in the U.S.: Akron, Ohio-based A. Schulman Group, a supplier of high-performance plastic compounds, composites and resins, and Parma, Ohio-based GrafTech, a maker of carbon and graphite products, are already “big customers” of the French firm, Alpha-3i CEO Pierre Bornand said.
On top of that, Bornand about 20 months ago signed on with IMCO Software, which is promoting Alpha-3i software in North America, “and especially in the U.S,” he said, noting that he has one employee working at IMCO.
But Bornand is intent on aggressive growth in the U.S., which is why he is taking part in Business France’s accelerator, he said. The company his father founded in 1996 now employs 45 people, including Coralie Blanc, who traveled to Toronto and Detroit to speak with manufacturing executives in November. But he fully expects to employ 55 people a year from now.
“We’ve discovered the market. Now we have a better idea of how to develop our offer for this market,” he said. “In ‘phase two,’ we will have two people in the United States and one colleague here in France will be dedicated to North American activity. So participating in the accelerator program is a very good opportunity for us—to gather new information and meet some potential new customers and partners.”
Bornand, 41, is still principally working with the software his father created: CIMAG. CIM stands for computer integrated manufacturing. And AG means acquisition gestion, French for acquisition management.
Although the product is more than 20 years old, it has timeless appeal—because it works on time measurement in all industrial activities, including machine operators, he said.
The software can still be considered disruptive because the technology behind it, as well as its functional coverage, has evolved over time. “We are offering something quite large in terms of functional coverage. At the origin of the software, it was only one function. Today, we have 14 different modules inside our software. We cover everything from the raw material warehouse to the customer shipment, including the maintenance phase on different machines,” Bornand said. “Our main idea is to cover all the different needs of an industrial customer, related to the workshop.”
Alpha-3i, which has no external financing, also understands the importance of tech partnerships.
Its IMCO partnership is not only commercial but also technical: IMCO is also an IT company that provides a technical interface used between enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and manufacturing execution system (MES) software. “Their idea, by integrating the CIMAG software, is to offer also a larger portfolio and a larger number of functionality to their customers,” he said.
Alpha-3i also struck up a partnership with hardware provider Zebra.
That lets Alpha-3i provide customers with bar code readers and mobile computers and RFID readers, Bornand said.
All this helps when he weighs the competition. Competitors include: other pure MES players like Wonderware, from Schneider Electric’s office in Lake Forest, Calif.; ERP providers that offer MES functionalities, and automation providers that offer MES functionalities like Siemens in Europe and Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, Wis.
CIMAG’s differentiator is specificity.
“We provide added value for machine-data acquisition, for example, and also for operator management,” he said, noting that by integrating his MES software with the ERP in place, CIMAG can collect all the data related to production in real time. “Secondly, we cover all 11 functionalities of the MESA ISA 95 standard.”
“Altogether, we are providing 14 different modules, and with these 14 modules we are covering all industrial departments in the factory, including production, maintenance, quality and the supply chain, to provide an integrated production flow. We provide the whole chain, which is uncommon for the market.”
Companies Business France put Bornand in touch with heard about Alby-sur-Chéran, France-based Alpha-3i’s work with A. Schulman’s ELIAN site, as well as plumbing, heating and water quality products maker SOCLA, which is part of North Andover, Mass.-based Watts Water Technologies’ water safety and flow control division.
Six months after it began using several modules inside CIMAG, including real-time production monitoring, Oyonnax, France-based ELIAN decreased its lead time to four from seven days.
“It’s a very, very big added value for them,” Bornand said. “Now, they can deliver in a very, very short time. It’s very unusual in the plastics market to deliver in a few days. Normally, it’s a few weeks.”
Six months after Mery, France-based SOCLA began using the CIMAG scheduling module, it reduced the number of planners it employed by 50 percent. That involved automating scheduling and directly interfacing it with the ERP system SOCLA was using, he said.
“The fact that we are reducing the number of hours people spend on manual tasks, such as entering information into the ERP system and planning in Excel spreadsheets, is a big added value of the MES software.”
In the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Bornand will focus intently on aerospace companies, he said.
“The aerospace market is a very good fit for our solution: The level of scheduling needs to be very accurate. With the aerospace market, a work order is not one million parts; it’s maybe 20 or 30 parts. So you need a lot of agility and flexibility in the workshop. CIMAG software offers especially good and efficient support for this kind of industrial organization.”
CAILabs CEO Bringing ‘Multi-Plane, Light-Conversion Tech’ to North America
When Jean-François Morizur was working in quantum optics as a post-doc fellow at the Kastler Brossel Laboratory here in Paris about seven years ago, he and some colleagues were exploring how to reshape beams of light “really efficiently,” to make a quantum computer. “As you know, quantum optics is very fragile,” he said. “When manipulating photons, you have to be very careful” to avoid losses.
They used “something that’s related to chip manufacturing” (a proprietary technology Morizur declined to describe further) to develop “multi-plane, light-conversion technology,” he said. “And we found that there was an immediate use for this kind of beam-shaping, primarily for communication and industrial lasers.”
In November, Morizur spoke with manufacturing executives in Detroit and Toronto about how they could create souped-up Local Area Networks—thanks to his hard work.
Specifically, the CEO of the five-year-old, 40-employee-strong CAILabs (pronounced Ky-Labs) explained how multi-plane light conversion could be used to save boatloads of money in, for example, automotive manufacturing operations, steel factories or chemical plants.
Instead of digging holes and changing old, multimode fiber-optic cables whose data-transmission capacity is too limited to keep up with powerful streams of data generated by ERP software programs, smart sensors and video cameras inside factories, manufacturers can boost an existing cable’s bandwidth by installing two CAILabs beam-shaping components—one at each end. The Aroona components, which CAILabs commercialized in 2016, expand the capacity of existing optical networks by a factor of 100 to 1,000, depending on the situation, Morizur said.
“Basically, we shape the light so the light behaves like it is in single-mode, telecom fibers,” he added.
The U.S. market is appealing because it is big and fast, he said. “This means that you can go faster (than in France, for example). You can generate benefits to your clients faster.”
The French accelerator should help CAILabs establish “a foothold in the U.S.,” Morizur said. “We’ve identified factories as a market where we can go fast—because they need the huge value we bring today.”
ArcelorMittal’s experience telling
Rennes, France-based CAILabs’ experience with a Luxembourg-based multinational steelmaker is telling, he said.
“We had our first deployment at ArcelorMittal on a Wednesday,” he said. “And on Friday that week, they called us and said, ‘OK, we need more.”
When CAILabs calculated “how much cheaper it would be with our solution rather than changing the cables, we found we could save the company the yearly salaries of all three guys in the room,” Morizur said. “And that was just for those very early deployments. We deployed further. Now it’s probably more than that.”
The value proposition of CAILabs’ photonic solutions helped it secure 4.6 million euros ($5.4 million) in a 2017 investment round led by the French company Safran, with which CAILabs has an aircraft-cabling partnership. The young firm is also operating on funds secured from French VC firms Innovacom and Starquest, he said.
And Tellabs, a LAN equipment vendor, has included CAILabs’ technology in its latest FlexSym product line.
Innovation began with ‘old topic’
There is no doubt Morizur, 32, is part of the avant-garde, even in smart manufacturing. But he is not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “CAI” in CAILabs “used to be the name of a research project: ‘Complete Adaptive Imaging.’ So it’s a very old topic, but it basically branched out from that,” he said.
It took a couple of years for Morizur and his team at the Kastler Brossel Laboratory to “crack” a vexing problem in quantum optics: How to reshape beams without adding or removing light.
The answer, in vague terms that don’t jeopardize CAILabs’ IP: “We are reshaping the beam and controlling its shape with multiple reflections on textured surfaces. The reflective surface is something that is built: This is our knowhow,” Morizur said.
Ubudu Bets the Bank on Agility, Interoperability
Ubud is “a very nice town in the heart of Bali, in Indonesia,” Thomas Saphir said, beginning to explain the name he and his friend of 33 years, François Kruta, chose for the firm they set up here in Paris seven years ago. “‘Ubudu’ is also a blink to Ubuntu, the famous open source operating system.”
The name is apropos of the pair’s “open ecosystem” philosophy.
“The manufacturing business has a lot of application needs requiring location technologies” like those Ubudu provides via offerings like asset tracking, “wayfinding” and flow analysis, said Saphir, who serves as COO. “Manufacturers cannot invest in 10 different technologies when they have 10 application requirements. They want application technologies for forklifts, parts, humans, tools, etc. So we provide the software and hardware backbone for locating the assets on the client’s side. We are open to third-party sensors and third-party IT systems, like MES or ERP—because at the end of the day, it all has to work together in a seamless fashion to obtain the productivity gains.”
Ubudu also provides “some bits of open source code in the form of libraries, and we have APIs” so that assets can be queried through programmatic language rather than UI web screens, he said.
Saphir and CEO Kruta, both 44, left behind consulting careers (Accenture and McKinsey, respectively) to brave the startup world. So they naturally promise 20 percent optimization “as a minimum bar we set for ourselves when we apply lean solutions to manufacturing plants.”
Ubudu, which is self-financed except for some angel money, now employs about 30 people—and expects to employ around 70 in a year. There are a dozen people in its headquarters here in Paris, 14 people working on R&D in Warsaw and four individuals handling regional sales in Hong Kong.
Working with ultra-wideband (UWB) technology from the Irish fabless semiconductor firm DecaWave, as well as Bluetooth technology from the Norwegian chipset maker Nordic Semiconductors, Ubudu uses small tags or smart phones exchanging radio signals with fixed sensors, along with a location server that computes and processes the position of just about anything you want.
In addition to tracking assets in real time, Ubudu’s sensors and software can analyze the project at hand and, “using some advanced analytics, optimize routes, for instance,” Saphir said.
On top of that, Ubudu offers a tool that manufacturers can use to automate a process. Say a forklift arrives fully loaded in a zone where a robot is waiting to unload it. The Ubudu tool can itself trigger the robot to get off its duff.
Ubudu has helped an automaker slash to 15 minutes from 8 hours the time it takes to locate one car among thousands stored on one grassy field, Saphir said, declining to name the customer. “It should only be as long as it takes to walk or drive to where the car is parked, because you have instant location on a map.”
Ubudu has also helped a big fast-food restaurant chain it is not at liberty to name—with a project that is likely to at least inform future work in manufacturing, Saphir said. That project involves giving Bluetooth-enabled tokens to customers who order food via a digital kiosk so waiters can speedily deliver patrons’ orders by following signals from the tokens. “By doing this, the chain saves 20 seconds per order,” he said.
He sees manufacturers in aerospace, in particular, benefitting from similar technology because a lot of assembly work is still done manually, he added.
“They use a lot of tools. You can have tens of thousands of tools within one hangar,” Saphir said. “So here you’d want to (speedily) locate those tools—and then you’d want to locate the engines.”
Ubudu is doing some R&D work with the French aircraft engine maker Safran: The pair is developing a product “specifically for supply chain operators that are using air transport,” he said.
Robert Bosch, the German engineering and electronics company, is working with Ubudu’s technology as it proves out an RTLS (real-time locating systems) solution for outdoor assets. “This work follows the same principle of hanging small tags onto your assets,” Saphir said. “The asset can be a part, a pallet, a container or a vehicle. Then you have wireless gateways that are collecting the signal and have a GPS sensor, and they send this data to a server.”
Saphir sees the British firm Ubisense and the Chinese firm Tsingoal as Ubudu’s main competitors.
To take them on, the U.S. is key, he said. “It’s a very large market. And it’s a very advanced market in terms of maturity of the business clients.”
Ubudu is participating in Business France’s accelerator program in North America to establish contact with potential clients, find some new partners “and transform those meetings into tangible projects,” he said.
The company is already working with SAP Canada and Accenture in the U.S.
To differentiate itself from Tsingoal and Ubisense, Ubudu tells prospective customers it is more agile and lends itself better to interoperability, Saphir said.
On the first point, Ubudu deploys an infrastructure that can use UWB or BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) tags
On the second point, Ubudu follows and drives open-source standards while Ubisense, for example, adopted a proprietary approach.
Infodream Working to Sharpen Its Spear in North America
Infodream Inc. has clients with a lot of complex process instructions, and for them its full MES (manufacturing execution system) software can be used in real time and on a tablet with a touch screen. Other clients start with just the portion that handles SPC (statistical process control). “That’s why the software is called Qual@xy,” CEO Michael Lebas said. “It is a suite of software that covers all the aspects of MES. But of course, you can start with a small part and later access more features of the software.”
The portmanteau of “quality” and “galaxy” also helps Infodream advertise that it specializes in manufacturing quality control.
Infodream already has one big project in the U.S.—Safran Aerospace Composites. The Rochester, N.H.-based firm makes blades and different aerospace parts for Airbus and Boeing engines. And it uses Qual@xy to connect all the machines it uses for production.
Essentially, the software helps Safran Aero Composites—whose many operators used to print out hundreds of pages of instructions—avoid making bad parts, which also reduces time spent doing assembly work, Lebas said.
Using software that generates updated, electronic work instructions for everyone at the same time eliminates worries of operators using conflicting work instructions.
At Safran Aero Composites, there are still a lot of manual operations. “We speak about Industry 4.0, but for complicated operations, like the paint operation, you still need the human eye to inspect the quality of the part,” Lebas said. “That’s why companies use a lot of software: We can customize the info screen so it’s really easy for the operator to use.”
Safran Aero Composites began testing Qual@xy in 2011. Two years later, it added the software “everywhere to be sure that they collect all the production and quality data” needed to avoid making bad parts, he said. “With the software, you are able to prevent bad parts because you see the statistical behavior—and before you begin making a bad part, you can stop and adjust your machine setting.”
Infodream created the SPC software in 1989. MES came along about five years ago. Lebas, who joined the Aix-les-Bains, France-based firm in 2003, now works in Seattle.
While SPC is definitely older vocabulary, “when you use SPC, you are using smart tools, including a web portal,” Lebas said, making SPC part and parcel with Industry 4.0 and the smart factory.
The firm’s main competitors in smart manufacturing are Dassault Systèmes, InfinityQS and WinSPC, he said.
Infodream, a self-financed company that employs 26 people, has clients in more than a dozen countries, including China and the U.S. But to become a more aggressive competitor in North America, where it has identified small and medium-sized companies as ripe for the picking, Lebas is taking part in the Business France’s accelerator program.
Scortex Employs AI to Get Past Human Limitations
With the speed of manufacturing being what it is in 2019, the level of attention humans can maintain for hours at a time is a problem—for which there are solutions. IBM’s cognitive assistant is one. Scortex’s two-year-old Quality Intelligence Solution is another.
Scortex CEO Aymeric de Pontbriand commonly relays the following tale from one of his first customer’s experience with Quality Intelligence Solution: During the final test of Scortex’s software at that French automotive supplier—when the customer ran the software in parallel with its human-inspection system—the quality expert “came with a batch of ‘good’ parts and a batch of ‘defective’ parts that her inspector provided to her,” he said. “During the test, our machine detected a defect in one of the ‘good’ parts, and the expert was like, ‘Oh, your machine was wrong.’ But when she inspected the part, she found a defect.”
Make no mistake: The automotive supplier trains inspectors for two weeks before they are allowed to perform quality control work on its production line. “There is expertise in being able to inspect,” de Pontbriand said. “But, of course, over time and over the course of the day, the level of attention that you can provide will decrease.”
Paris-based Scortex works to automate complex visual inspection with its in-house developed hardware—which involves a processing chip connected to cameras—and data-processing software.
“The hardware part is more than a computer system,” he said, noting that “the box” allows for input and output with cameras and other sensors and communication with the production line. The box also enables “real time processing so that the processing time is never a bottleneck for the production cycle.”
The deep-learning capabilities of the computer vision pipeline Scortex offers let its customers “tackle visual inspection that no other standard solution can tackle,” such as glossy plastics components, said de Pontbriand, 28.
He founded Scortex in 2016 along with CTO Serge Zloto, COO Christophe Raix and Nathanael Hania, the firm’s hardware lead.
Today, the firm employs about 25 people, and de Pontbriand plans to double that number in a year.
The “s” in Scortex comes from the Greek letter sigma, he said. “It’s the primary element of artificial neural units, and we use mainly artificial neural networks.” The rest of the name comes from the word cortex, the part of the brain that handles pattern recognition.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is involved in Scortex’s offering on two levels.
“First, we developed a specific pipeline using deep learning that allows us to extract information about the quality from images,” said de Pontbriand. “You can find software that allows for basic visual inspection, but when it comes to very complex visual inspection tasks, usually it still requires humans. So we developed an algorithm that lets us recognize small defects and unusual patterns.”
Second, Scortex collects a lot of information about quality trends. “This enables the time series analysis we do to detect anomalies and help find trends in terms of quality,” he added.
Scortex’s offering has attracted 1.8 million euros ($2 million), from British and French investors.
The company is targeting the automotive space, “where quality is really critical, especially for supplies”—and where a lot of visual inspection is still done manually, de Pontbriand said.
Automakers appreciate the machine learning aspect of Scortex’s product because “it keeps learning over time”—from continuously collected, real-time production data.
“That means you can understand what your defect rate was for the day,” he said. And manufacturers can easily see what type of defects they are experiencing, as well as where the defects are occurring on their products. On top of that, with a connected solution, “you can compare different factories and understand the trends and make sure that the best practice in terms of quality is shared across the organization,” he added.
After prep from Business France, De Pontbriand delivered his pitch to manufacturers in Detroit and Toronto in November.
“We are targeting customers that have operations all over the world. And, of course, North America is a pretty important region when it comes to automotive, especially the Detroit region.”
Akeoplus Adding Computer Science to Recipe Used by Big Robot Makers
For years, whenever Airbus wanted to develop a smart machine or a robot with tons of artificial intelligence inside for a specific task, it would as a matter of course turn to a startup. That takes one or two years. But last year, Airbus put into production smart machines it developed in about eight months with Akeoplus—to make parts for the A320, said Stéphane Morel, founder and CEO of Chateau Gaillard, France-based Akeoplus.
Morel developed “gateway edge computing” software called AkeoSpine to include computer science and machine learning in machines and robots. The software, he said, routinely decreases by a factor of three or four the time it takes to develop a smart machine.
Airbus now has three AkeoSpine-enabled machines running in production, Morel said.
Manufacturers need help from the likes of Akeoplus today, in part because they need to recover investments in machines in 12 months, not two or three years, as was customary in the past, he said.
Manufacturers also have a hard time predicting volume of production of products, Morel said.
“For example, even in aeronautics, they have an idea of how many planes they are going to produce, but in reality it’s really hard to be sure that it will be two times the volume that they forecast,” he added. “So they push everybody in smart manufacturing to develop smart machines. A smart machine is also easy to reconfigure.
“Mass customization is clearly the biggest driver of this revolution,” he said. “Because now in production, we need to change very quickly.”
AkeoSpine can not only connect industrial robots from big makers like FANUC, Kuka and ABB to 3D cameras and sensors spread around factories but also include computer science on top of these robots. Akeoplus treats the robots like any other component. “This is a really interesting breakthrough that we bring to the market,” Morel said. “There is no place today in machines and robots to put computer science.”
In addition to selling its software, Akeoplus provides a service around helping companies select the right type of hardware needed to correctly run the software and transform robots that are otherwise “closed systems,” he said. “Smart manufacturing is really new. This revolution is just starting. Many people don’t know how to start and how to develop smart machines. So we are a leader in France in this field.”
Akeoplus today employs 30 people, including Florent Laming, who traveled to Toronto and Detroit to speak with manufacturing executives in November. The company expects to employ 60 people in a year.
It is taking part in Business France’s accelerator to accelerate its visibility in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Morel said, noting that his firm is targeting aerospace and defense, as well as automotive manufacturers.
“Because we are not a big company, it is better to be together with others to be visible in the U.S. market—because the U.S. market is huge, and it’s moving very fast.”
Here in France, Akeoplus is also working with Thales, the maker of critical parts for the French military, to develop smart robots with many sensors and “a lot of computer science inside,” Morel said.
“They can now reconfigure the machine for different satellite programs,” he said. “They can accelerate their production—and avoid very uncomfortable tasks for humans,” such as spending the whole day filling small holes with just the right amount of glue. “A robot is much better than a human to do this. And at the same time, the machine can automatically track all the steps it took during the process,” whereas a human has to stop and record on a paper what he has done.
Akeoplus is also working with Safran.
For that French aerospace and defense firm, Akeoplus developed four smart robots capable of edge computing. Safran employs them to mark specific reference points, using letters and numbers, on critical engine parts.
“Today, most manufacturers use CNC machines to do this marking,” Morel said. “They are bigger, more expensive and not very edgy in terms of reconfiguration.”
Morel, 46, started Akeoplus—the name does not have a specific meaning—in 2006, when, he said, “in Lyon, France, the concept of the startup was not really known.”
He had worked for Volvo in Sweden, analyzing data from the sensors used in crash tests. And he chose to focus on helping manufacturers make sure their machines don’t crash—by using edge computing. To him, that meant helping them develop machines smart enough to accept APIs, such as deep-learning algorithms.
Akeoplus has established tech partnerships with several robot makers, including Kuka, FANUC and Stäubli, he said.
Will those partnerships, along with its track record in manufacturing thus far, be enough to go up against competitors like Cisco and Siemens?
Cisco “wants to develop products to help people to do smart machine,” so Morel is keeping an eye on it.
Siemens might soon “open their system to help people to bring smart algorithms to their PLCs,” he said. “But we are not sure.”