GrayMatter Robotics uses AI robots to perform human tasks
GrayMatter Robotics, a Gardena-based startup (and certainly not a “Breaking Bad” benchmark, the founders assure us) seeks to disrupt the industrial finishing and sanding industry by programming robotic arms with artificial intelligence software to automate this work.
At first glance, the company’s manufacturing facility in Gardena looks like an unassuming warehouse. It’s sterile, with minimal decoration except for a huge American flag on the wall of a store. It’s reminiscent of an engineering lab, but still has the feel of a startup since, well, it’s literally in a garage for now.
GrayMatter employee programming a robot Courtesy of GrayMatter Robotics
Ironically, my arrival comes shortly before the head office gets a drastic makeover – Co-founder and CEO Ariyan Kabir has big plans for his modest space and is planning a remodel in the coming months that will add style to the space. installation currently minimalist and efficient. .
On one wall, boxes of Fender guitar bodies, still in skeleton form, wait to be sanded and finished. GrayMatter co-founder and CTO Brual Shah points out that musical instruments are just one of the products his company’s robots are called upon to work on. Plus, there are faux marble sinks, a metal floor lamp, and parts of a subway bus: all pieces GrayMatter either bought themselves or were donated by customers to test sanding.
“A single robot [is] typically two to four times faster than a single human,” says Kabir, noting that most GrayMatter customers use multiple robots at once. Both he and Shah say their company builds “brains for robots” and said that although their robots don’t have an official name, some customers call it – of course – Sandy.
Robot arms can handle an array of tasks, from sanding to buffing, buffing or spraying. Kabir said robot cells range in size from less than a foot to about three feet in height. The bigger arms are busy practicing sanding techniques on big projects – including a bathtub and the hull of a boat.
Typically, it takes a human an hour to finish sanding one of the large bathtubs that GrayMatter’s robot is diligently cleaning. But at maximum capacity, the bot is able to sand the surface in less than half the time.
GrayMatter Robot Courtesy of GrayMatter Robotics
Kabir notes that two key factors have contributed to GrayMatter’s business growth: first, the cost of sensors like those used in its robots has been steadily falling since 2016; Microsoft noted in a 2019 report that the price of a sensor had plunged to an affordable $0.44 each. Second, high labor turnover is prompting manufacturers to rethink the use of robots.
Which helps explain how GrayMatter was able to raise around $24 million, most recently $20 million Series A last month. It also aims to increase its workforce from 17 to 40 people, Kabir said.
At the back of the shop, Shah shows a football helmet that the robots practiced on. He says one of GrayMatter’s customers is a manufacturer that reconditions and restores helmets for reuse. “From high school to the NFL, every team sends their helmets to this one [original equipment manufacturer]and the robot sands them or cleans them, polishes them, applies the decal [on] for the next year. It’s recession proof,” Shah continues.
Shah and Kabir were adamant that their technology was not trying to put humans out of work. The idea being that instead of risking carpal tunnel syndrome or inhaling potentially toxic dust and residue from the finishing process, the people who usually work on the production line are trained to supervise the robots. Shah says once a human is tracked on the software, it’s equipped to handle up to 10 bots at a time.
To this end, many industries are pushing to add automation to their factories. One Manufacturer’s Alliance’s 2021 Manufacturing Workforce Trends Survey found that 30% of factory managers were implementing some kind of automation.
“For humans, it’s life changing,” Shah says. “At one of our customer sites, the guy who was hand sanding before, after introducing the robot, became the robot operator.”
But there will likely be barriers to training these workers. A study published in Oxford University Press last year found that low-skilled workers in these types of factory jobs often struggled to use new technology due to a lack of training.
“With the increased prominence of task automation and technological advancements in the workforce, low-skilled workers are likely to see fewer opportunities in the labor market,” the study authors noted. , who underlined the importance of continuing education for adults.
In his 2020 paper on robots replacing humans in the labor market, MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu wrote that adding one robot replaces 3.3 human jobs.
The base of a guitar Courtesy of GrayMatter Robotics
Although GrayMatter’s software appears at first glance to be more point-and-click, workers will still need comprehensive training on how to safely operate, troubleshoot and supervise the robots. It is then possible that the barrier to entry is not as simple as Shah and Kabir suggest.
Worse, research suggests that companies that add bots quickly also tend to demand more of their human workforce. Another MIT study conducted by Acemoglu found that from 2010 to 2015, companies that used robots also saw their working hours increase by almost 11%.
Yet the same study found that a 20% increase in the use of industrial robots over the same period resulted in a 3.2% decline in overall employment.
Asked about it, Kabir told dot.LA, “We design the systems for shop workers with a very simple system [interface]. Our [user interface] because the shop floor operator has only three buttons and the system operates quite autonomously.” He added that GrayMatter also trains plant managers to troubleshoot common hardware and software problems.
For manufacturers, however, the appeal of being able to do more using robots is obvious. Kabir would not disclose how much customers pay to access the subscription that gives them access to GrayMatter’s robots (which are pre-built and sourced from Japan), software, and any necessary updates or maintenance. He referenced a customer who, in a single year, “lost $5 million on a single production line, just for scrap, repair and rework costs for human error.”
Adding that “the robots are of consistent quality. They are good for humans. Which humans he is referring to, however, remains to be seen.
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