What To Build: Claude Dinsmoor (FANUC)

Conversation with Claude Dinsmoor, General Manager General Industry and Automotive Segment, Robotics Division @ FANUC America. We converse about the types of startups Claude would be most excited to see, and how startups need to navigate the two phases of going from concept to pilot and from pilot to production.

1. Tell us about yourself, where you currently work, and your path on getting there.

I’ve been working at FANUC America for over 34 years, with experiences in the areas of product development, materials handling, and automotive market spaces. Currently, I’m the General Manager of the General Industry and Automotive Segment within the Robotics Division at FANUC America. Prior to FANUC America I worked for GE developing robot and CNC products.

FANUC America Corporation is the leading supplier of robotic and factory automation. Our robots handle payload capabilities ranging from 0.5kg to 2,300kg and are used in a wide range of industries including aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, education, food, metal fabrication, medical, pharmaceutical, solar panel, warehousing, and more. We also offer simulation packages, application software, controls, integrated machine vision and industrial IoT products.

FANUC America Corporation is a subsidiary of FANUC CORPORATION in Japan, which has more than 260 service locations supporting 108 countries throughout the world. With over 24M products installed, FANUC is the world’s largest maker of CNC controls, servo motors, factory automation and industrial robots.

2. Tell us about your role and what your mandate is and how this specifically relates to working with startups?

In my current role, I head up FANUC America’s primary robotics applications segment, which is responsible for all the robotic products in general and automotive sectors — this comprises 80% of the products we offer. We cover everything from elements of product planning and product specification to new application development and advanced support of major customers.

Our team also leads our startup strategy by engaging with a large number of both early and mature startups who are looking for technical support and access to our technology.

Right now, we’re working with a small number of startups; we’re selective because we’re only looking for startups working in areas that have relevance to our partners or end customers. We have hundreds of industrial partners (Authorized System Integrators — ASI’s) who integrate and use FANUC robots so we’re looking for startups who can augment or help our customers and integration partners, especially in areas that are under-served or areas of uniqueness.

3. What are some of the interesting types of projects that you’re currently doing with startups?

A lot of the work in the “startup” space for robotics centers around the logistics and warehousing areas, but there is also work being done in agricultural production, and what we call “industrial service” robotics, that is using industrial robots following industrial standards in what are traditionally considered service industry jobs (food preparation for example). All of these areas are new applications for industrial robots that in most cases did not exist 10 years ago. It was only with the continued innovation of the robot “platforms” with advances in Machine Learning (ML) and associated Machine Vision (MV) technology that are making these new applications viable and not research projects.

4. What number of these projects move into production? By what criteria? One of the challenges we see startups facing is how to move a customer from pilot to production.

The transition from the concept and prototype phase into production is gated to a large extent by the startups and how they plan to go to market. In general, there is as much work bringing a concept to an alpha or pilot phase as making the pilot successful in production. The work is very different between the two phases, with the second phase focused more on the hard work of engineering to make the deployment robust, reliable, and high performance. The first phase is typically the innovation phase where the problem is “solved” using new techniques and new technology (equally hard). It’s the transition between the two phases that requires a quantum shift in the skills and the goals of the startup.

The transition to the second phase is where having an experienced industry partner is key, both with ultra-proven industrial arms and with customers and/or integrators who can assist in the production deployment. Unless the solution is going into a green field application even the onsite work to adapting a standard design to the practical realities of an industrial setting can be significant (even simple items like robot cell location, power, interfacing to existing automation or convenience equipment can take significant time and resources).

5. What are the major challenges in your industry these days, and specifically ones that you think can be addressed by the right type of AI and or robotics application? Can you give some detailed examples?

Delivering “out of box” solutions that work and work reliably. New technology is only valued if it works. Being easy to setup and deploy for sufficiently broad standalone problems is also key. New applications can’t go to scale if they require a developer at each site to “tweak” or customize each deployment.

The promise of Machine Learning (ML) and associated Machine Vision (MV) used for robot guidance can help take the “tweaking” out of a lot of the possible applications. This entire industry is sort of in a race, where we need to simplify, streamline and optimize robotic solutions to make them easier, faster and more efficient to make the solution viable.

6. What type of startup would you be most excited to see?

There are three key things we look for:

a) Startups with a clear view of the problem they want to solve that is related to a problem our customers have and/or connected to a customer.

b) A high level of technical competency so we are working together to make the robot work optimally with what is usually the startup’s own tech or using our platform with their unique application. We will not write their application or unique solution for them. We typically find the robot is easy to integrate and “talking” to the robot is generally the easiest problem to solve during the initial phase.

c) They must have a firm active funding base. The capability to bring in strong financial partners who can help guide them in building a successful business is a strong indicator of future success.

Beyond that, what I’d be excited to see is a complete team with both new technology and experience with the technology and the industrial space in general. Large customers are smart so being able to look beyond the initial set of problems towards the future potential is critical for long-term success.

7. What should startups know about your industry before going in? What nuances or details about the industry are not so apparent from someone looking in?

In the industrial space it’s a résumé based business. New solutions that are unproven represent a large risk. Also the difference between a successful demo and working 24/7 under all conditions is huge, as is understanding the difference between the two from a scheduling, resource and development standpoint.

Knowing the end customer is also vital. If you don’t know who you are working for initially you may miss key parts needed for long term success.

Finally, in the industrial space it’s all about delivery, being able to deliver working systems that hit the requirements for Quality, Reliability and Durability to allow them to run cleanly for years on end. This is very different from the paradigm in the consumer sectors, where speed sometimes exceeds durability and reliability.

8. Lastly, any recommended resources / reading (ex. Industry conferences, publications, experts to follow, etc.) for startups looking to build in your space?

Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” is still relevant for today’s startup environment. Every problem’s solution may not be as game changing as the examples in Crossing the Chasm, but the transition from startup to working business is well covered in this book.

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