A Connecticut startup is developing software that can help humans more easily program complex robots to perform welding tasks, in an effort to help alleviate a workforce shortage plaguing manufacturers and other industries across the country.
Scalable Robotics, an Ellington-based technology company, said it has developed software that allows manufacturers and other customers to easily program welding robots without any prior robotics or coding experience. Its product is essentially a robot training interface that serves as a “point-and-click” way to teach an important automated machine.
Scalable Robotics CEO Tom Fuhlbrigge co-founded the company with CTO Carlos Martinez out of Garage in November 2019. Both Fuhlbrigge and Martinez previously worked at Switzerland-based ABB, one of the largest robotics and automation technology companies in the world. They left the company and started Scalable Robotics after ABB moved its Connecticut operations elsewhere.
After taking some time to tweak and strengthen the software during the pandemic, Scalable Robotics is looking forward to a potential year of growth. It’s fresh talk of an investment from Connecticut Innovations (CI) and a newly announced strategic partnership with the co-founders’ former employer.
“We are literally a garage startup,” said Volbridge.
address a problem
According to data from the American Welding Association, there will be a welder shortfall of 400,000 people by 2024, as current welders age and retire at a higher rate than the younger workers they are being trained and hired to replace.
“The average age of welders is in their 50s,” said Douglas Roth, deal manager at Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture capital arm and investor in Scalable Robotics. “There’s such pressure to get into a four-year college program rather than a trade school, so we don’t renew welders when they retire.”
Welders are in particular demand in Connecticut by major manufacturers such as East Hartford jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney and submarine maker Electric Boat. They are looking for thousands of new employees, with welders being among the most sought after.
“At the end of the day you have a shortage of welders, but these companies still need a welder to get it done,” said Roth.
Fullberg agreed. He said he had heard the tale that for every new welder entering the workforce, two retire.
He said Scalable Robotics technology is not about replacing welders, but about making them more productive.
“You have to have a welder there, someone who knows where the welds go and what a good weld looks like,” said Fulbrig.
Scalable Robotics provides digital programming software to fabricators in many industries, but has a strong focus on existing customers in the metal fabrication sector. Scalable equips bots with camera technologies, sensors, and a tablet-like screen interface that makes it easy for companies to implement automated bots into their production processes.
photo | Contributed
The Scalable programming software features a 3D camera in a protective box attached to the end-tools of a robotic arm.
Vollbrig said the company’s programming interface is easy to learn and requires no computer-aided design or bot programming experience.
The product allows a human welder to teach a robot a task in the same way they would teach another person – essentially by using a pen to indicate where the weld should be applied and letting the robot know its own path to do the work.
Vollbrig said training welders to program traditional robots is expensive — it can cost more than $15,000 per person. By eliminating the need to learn programming, the Scalable Robotics system allows the welder to teach the robot within the first day of use.
Officials said the program aims to help companies weld more parts in less time while minimizing scrap and maximizing quality.
Connecticut Innovations invested $750,000 during the company’s September fundraising round. Roth said CI was drawn to Scalable in part because of its ability to empower existing welders.
“What Scalable does is try to bridge that gap and allow holders of experience and knowledge, through the platform, to basically create programming code and program the bot,” said Roth.
Roth said he also sees potential for the company beyond welding. For example, its software can be adopted for other complex tasks such as painting, polishing or grinding.
“There are plenty of other robotic automation platforms that Scalable Robotics could eventually integrate with,” said Roth.
growth through investment
CI wasn’t the only entity supporting scalable bots this year. Ironically, the founders’ former employer, ABB, was the lead investor in the company’s seed round, and the two companies announced a strategic partnership in October. According to Crunchbase, Scalable Robotics, which currently employs three people, raised $2.5 million in its latest funding round.
ABB said the partnership will allow it to use the Scalable Robotics programming system in its existing software and products. The move means the Scalable Robotics interface will make its way into ABB’s new robots as it moves forward, Fulbridge said, and older machines can be retrofitted with the technology.
“What ABB is going to do is they’re going to sell a robot with the camera and the computer and the software pre-installed,” Volbridge said. “For now, we only work with ABB bots and all of our new systems will go through ABB.”
Fullbrig said ABB is the “ideal partner” to help bring Scalable’s technology to market globally. He’s worked for a European company for 25 years – 13 of which have been global director of next-generation robotics – so he’s familiar with how ABB’s robots work and can be improved.
To address the shortage of welders, Marc Segura, ABB’s President of Robotics, said, “We need to help adopt robotics by providing technology that is easy to use and easy to program, and enabling manufacturers to easily offer automated solutions.”
With a new international partnership, Scalable Robotics is looking to grow globally. The company showcased its products in November as part of ABB’s booth at FABTECH 2022, the manufacturing technology industry show held in Atlanta.
Volbridge said he performed more than 80 hands-on live welding demonstrations at the event.
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