What would the widget factory of the future look like? Today, consumer electronics manufacturing plants and assembly lines are highly manual where labor cost is a big line item. Hardware companies are facing increasing competition and are hence forced to squeeze their contractors/sub-contractors to reduce costs. But where did that leave the factories in China? Many Chinese factories resorted to buying robots that could do the job. But, that didn’t pan out, electronics manufacturing is a much more intricate business compared to automobiles and other industrial scale equipment. Further, the end consumer’ tolerance for faulty product is zilch, for good reason. But soon, all that’s going to change.
While the contractors have been busy throwing money at robots the world of software has been chipping away at computer vision. The driving force is a field called machine learning. Machine learning is when a computer learns by example instead of by strict rules that have been programmed. Specifically, there are algorithms called neural networks, deep neural networks, or deep learning that have been making huge advancements in the field. More recently, many of the techniques that have been gaining traction are called “deep learning.” Deep learning is machine learning, but instead of looking for simple patterns, it is able to look for patterns-of-patterns. For example, if a machine sees a Fitbit, maybe it can start to put together the LED display or holes in the strap from edges and curves. And then finally, it can put together all the patterns that make up the Fitbit pieces into a whole device.
Why do I bring this up? Deep learning plus machine aided manufacturing is the key to lower skilled labor costs in the contractor ecosystem. It will also help reduce cycle-time, improve accuracy as well as repeatability, and finally eliminate process/re-work waste. Investment in industrial robots has happened but the software investment didn’t keep up, until now. Expect to see a huge uptick in data gathering and ML specific investments.
Enter dfxMachina as the deus ex machina of hardware startups. The stealthish company (backed by Root Ventures) is building an automated factory operating system. dfxMachina is founded by two former Apple mechanical engineers – including the lead on Apple Watch. Instead of just making products thinner/cheaper/better, they want to fundamentally improve how all products are built. dfxMachina’s technology will level the playing field for Davids fighting Goliaths in the hardware development space. dfxMachina is the hero hardware startups need and deserve.