Neurala Raises $12 Million to Scale Artificial Intelligence for Industrial Manufacturing

Funding isn’t my primary interest, but this one has interest because of all the hype around artificial intelligence (AI). I continue to see articles in major media that imply that AI is a sort of Star Trek technology rather than something we’ve been using for 30 years or so. However, Neurala has been feeding me a lot of news this year about advances in its vision AI software. Now it has more money to further its development.

Neurala, the leader in vision AI software, announced that it has raised $12 million in funding to advance the development of vision AI for manufacturing. The round, led by Zebra Ventures and Pelion Venture Partners, with participation from Draper Associates, Friulia, AddValue, 360 Capital Partners, Idinvest Partners, Cougar Capital, and industrial investors IMA and Antares Vision, brings the total invested in Neurala to $26 million.

The funding will enable Neurala to evolve and accelerate adoption of its vision AI in the industrial and manufacturing sectors on a global scale, as manufacturers increasingly prioritize automation as part of Industry 4.0 initiatives.

Neurala is a pioneer in vision AI for manufacturing. Built on the company’s deep AI expertise, Neurala’s VIA software delivers an integrated solution designed to help manufacturers improve quality inspection on the production line. With VIA, manufacturers are empowered to answer the call for increased productivity, accuracy and speed.

In the last twelve months, the company has increased its capacity to identify and resolve problems in manufacturing facilities through expert system integrator partners and well-entrenched suppliers. In addition to expanding its work with system integrators threefold, Neurala has also worked with an ever-growing number of OEMs, including investors IMA, IHI Logistics & Machinery and FLIR, to deliver easy-to-use AI solutions that will improve the speed and efficiency of inspections at a price point that makes them affordable for a wide range of customers.

The funding comes at a time when manufacturers are increasingly focused on AI and automation as a key tool in their ability to adapt to new realities established by the pandemic. With this funding, Neurala will be able to evolve VIA to make it more efficient for a wider range of applications and use cases.

“This past year we were able to turn a global crisis into an opportunity to both completely transform our business and to catalyze much-needed innovation in the AI space,” said Max Versace, CEO and co-founder of Neurala. “There was always an opportunity for AI and automation to improve manufacturing, but the pandemic really accelerated the industry’s willingness to embrace the technology. Our team has worked relentlessly over the last year to introduce VIA to partners and customers across the globe, and now that the world is ready to embrace it, we are ready to deliver it. The funding will enable us to do that at a much greater scale that meets the demand we’re seeing in the space.”

This funding comes on the heels of the launch of Neurala’s subsidiary, Neurala Europe, based in Trieste, Italy. The new capital represents the next phase of growth for Neurala as it will be used to expand upon its newfound global presence as the company continues to help manufacturers around the world harness the power of vision AI.

“Today’s manufacturers are leveraging AI and automation to address challenges such as production constraints, supply chain disruptions, and imperfect workforce availability,” said Tony Palcheck, managing director of Zebra Ventures. “Zebra Technologies is proud to invest in Neurala as it commercializes VIA software to enable faster, more cost-effective, easy-to-deploy solutions for customers looking to improve their decision making and productivity on the production line.”

“As a long-time investor in Neurala, we have always recognized the power of its technology to enable smarter, autonomous decision-making in real-world scenarios,” said Ben Lambert, General Partner at Pelion Venture Partners. “Now we’re seeing a significant impact as Neurala has focused on applications in industrial and manufacturing. There’s a big opportunity for Neurala to grow that presence, not only in the US, but in Europe, Asia and beyond. We are excited to support the Neurala team in that journey as we know that it has the right team, the cutting-edge technology, and the global reach to capitalize on this significant market opportunity. “

Manufacturing Reshoring Sets New Record in 2020

As companies grow, they must seek new markets. Necessity pushes these companies to expand internationally. I was a manager in two companies that were not even large but still needed overseas markets in an attempt to survive.

On the other hand, companies begin in one home country that provides access to many things that helped them start and grow. That country has certain vested interests, too.

One of the issues Trump pressed was the feeling that companies had grown too large and too much was taken overseas. He reflected the feeling of many that the US was weakened by these companies‘ growth and subsequent expansion of manufacturing jobs overseas.

Meanwhile Harry Moser and the Reshoring Initiative has been vocal about some companies’ shortsighted financial calculations moving factories from the US to international locations.

That is some background for this press release. I sympathize with both points of view, and I’m sure the pendulum will swing and things will balance. Unless we witness another huge world war again.

Reshoring has been hot in June. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Investment Advisory Council (IAC) reported on June 9 its recommendations, including reshoring of semiconductors and pharmaceuticals. The Reshoring Initiative’s Harry Moser teamed up with TEVA’s Terry Creighton, the driving force on the pharma recommendation, and played a leading role in expanding the focus of IAC to include reshoring in addition to foreign direct investment (FDI). At the meeting, Harry advocated for an even greater focus on reshoring and followed up with Under Secretary Farrell, offering the Reshoring Initiative’s help.

On June 8, 2021, the Biden Administration announced its immediate actions based on Executive Order 14017 “America’s Supply Chains.” The actions include major improvements in self-sufficiency in semiconductor chips, pharmaceuticals, rare earth minerals and electric vehicle (EV) batteries. These emergency actions are needed because we have allowed so many supply chain gaps to develop. The Reshoring Initiative recommends also attacking the root cause: U.S. lack of price competitiveness. 

Despite the economic slowdown caused by COVID, reshoring numbers were up in 2020. Reshoring and foreign direct investment (FDI) job announcements for 2020 were 160,649, bringing the total jobs announced since 2010 tover 1 million (1,057,054). Additionally, the number of companies reporting new reshoring and FDI set a new record: 1,484 companies. All jobs added are good news, but at this rate, it will take 30 years to reach President Biden’s goal of five million jobs. Actions needed to accelerate the trend are presented in the Report.

Top Takeaways from the 2020 Report

  • President Biden is prioritizing reshoring. The gaps in Biden’s plans need to be addressed in order to achieve his goal of returning 5 million more jobs. Details of needed actions are also in our Competitiveness Toolkit
  •  In 2020, U.S. reshoring set a record of 109,000 jobs and outpaced FDI for the first time since 2013. COVID/supply chain uncertainty has resulted in companies emphasizing operations in their home countries.
  • Recent national initiatives to shorten and close supply chain gaps for essential products aim to make the U.S. less vulnerable. The following industries are most likely to benefit: personal protective equipment (PPE), medical, semiconductor chips and defense. Medical equipment and PPE are the first responders of new reshoring and FDI, with 2020 cases up nearly 2,000% and jobs up 400% from 2019.
  • There is continued growth in efforts by Manufacturing Extension Partnerships (MEPs), economic development organizations (EDOs) and states to enable reshoring. The Reshoring Initiative is deeply involved in these efforts with its Import Substitution Program (ISP). As a measure of corporate interest, the demand for this service is more than ten times the rate of 2019. 
  • We anticipate 2021 reshoring and FDI job announcements to be near 200,000, up by at least 25% from 2020.

See the full report: Reshoring Initiative® 2020 Data Report: COVID Drives Cumulative Jobs Announced Past 1 Million

Slow Recovery Predicted For Post-Covid Industrial Landscape

One of my favorite market intelligence companies, Interact Analysis, published its quarterly industrial market update last week. The highlights:

  • Slow recovery out of pandemic predicted up to end of 2023 or into 2024
  • Manufacturing output growth calculation for 2020 revised up from -3.9% to -3.6%
  • Semiconductors: crash in the market expected in late 2023 or early 2024
  • Quantitative easing will cause inflation in some regions

Market intelligence company Interact Analysis has just published the latest quarterly update of its Manufacturing Industry Output Tracker (MIO). The report announces the inclusion of data from three key new regions – Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam; and predicts a slower-than-previously-expected global recovery from the pandemic. Good performances by the US, South Korea and China are offset by regions such as Europe and Japan, which have struggled with the pandemic but are expected to make a swift recovery, and India and Brazil, which continue to fare badly and are expected to see a slow recovery. Problems in the semiconductor sector are already holding back the manufacturing sector, while inflation is a black cloud on the horizon.

The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out has been uneven, meaning some economies will open up more slowly than others. The EMEA region (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) in particular has fared relatively badly. In February 2021, for example, while the UK registered 89.8 vaccination doses per 100 people, Germany registered only 54.2. France and Italy currently measure 48.6 and 51.9 per 100 respectively. The region saw a major hit to the economy in 2020 with growth slumping by around -10%, and the slow vaccination rate will keep growth down to 6% in 2021.  The US is currently running at around 85.4 doses per 100 people and the economy should be fully open by this summer, turning a relatively modest negative manufacturing growth of -3.7% in 2020 into positive expansion running at 6.4% in 2021. The terrible news coming out of India means that recovery is going to be slow, likewise Brazil, both having the daunting task of turning around from double digit manufacturing declines in 2020 (India: -12.6%; Brazil: -15.8%). They are both projected to achieve a relatively modest year on year growth of around 6% in 2021. China is the only country that saw positive manufacturing growth in 2020 (1.9%) and is now back to normal levels of production, in spite of a limited vaccine roll-out.

A combination of factors has led to a serious shortage of microchips, with major repercussions for the electronics and automotive sectors, and a consequent knock-on effect for industrial automation companies. This is hampering recovery in many regions. In the longer-term, the research shows that the current period of unusually strong semiconductor growth as a result of the shortage will be followed by a crash in the market sometime around the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024. This is being driven by two factors: semiconductor companies are investing in new capacity to deal with current elevated demand, and semiconductor customers are currently stockpiling and will soon have more than they need.

Adrian Lloyd, CEO at Interact Analysis, comments: “These have been incredibly difficult times for the global manufacturing sector, and we’re by no means out of the woods yet. The chip shortage will continue for some time to come. Furthermore, the vast scale of quantitative easing and financial support that was applied by governments during the pandemic, amounting, for example, to a massive 54.5% of GDP for Japan, and 39.5% and 26.5% for Germany and the US respectively, means that serious inflation is almost inevitable in some key regions. The effects of covid are going to stretch some way into the future.”

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About the MIO

This edition of the MIO has expanded coverage of Southeast Asia, with key manufacturing regions Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam now included. All datasets in the report have been revised to include the new regions, so historic aggregates will be different. Our data analysts have been hard at work, and, with a full year of monthly indicators for 2020, and figures for Q1 of 2021 now under our belt, we are confident that we have a clear picture of the damage caused by the pandemic to global industry. More importantly, we have been able to hone our predictions for future performance on a global and regional level. For further information, click here.

About Interact Analysis

Interact Analysis is an international provider of market research for the Intelligent Automation sector. Our team of experienced industry analysts delivers research into three core sectors: industrial automation, robotics and warehouse automation, and commercial vehicles. Intelligent Automation – which is the integration of artificial intelligence and automation – will change virtually every industry imaginable. This combination enables greater efficiencies, productivity, convenience, and scale. It has the potential to drastically alter the outlook for many traditional industries such as manufacturing, healthcare and automotive as well as to lead to the emergence of entirely new industries.

Partnership Brings One-Stop-Shop for Cobot Applications to Manufacturers Globally

The Danish collaborative robotics (cobot) tools company OnRobot has been churning out innovative robotic tooling in a stream for the past year. It also taps the partnership stream of collaboration. I’ve run across Vention at a trade show a few years back but haven’t really seen something I could write about intelligently. Here is a partnership between the two that should bear fruit.

Vention, a manufacturing automation platform (MAP), today announced its partnership with OnRobot, which makes tools for collaborative applications. This partnership combines Vention’s online-first manufacturing automation platform with OnRobot’s library of plug-and-play end-of-arm tools to accelerate the design and deployment of end-to-end cobot applications.  

Vention’s MAP provides users with the engineering software and modular hardware they need to design, automate, order, and deploy factory equipment in a single digital environment. With thousands of modular parts, smart design tools, and real-time pricing, factory equipment can be designed in minutes—from anywhere, on any web browser. With the addition of OnRobot’s plug-and-play tools for collaborative and light industrial robotics, manufacturing professionals can focus on scaling production with greater flexibility and efficiency.

The combination of offerings makes it even easier to automate tasks like machine tending, material handling, material removal and assembly. With solutions for grippers—parallel, flexible, magnetic, and vacuum alike—as well as vision cameras, sanding tools, screwdriving tools, and more, the application possibilities have now been significantly expanded.

We’re thrilled to be working with OnRobot to offer a range of industry-leading cobot solutions,” says Patrick Tawagi, Director of Application Development at Vention. “OnRobot’s suite of grippers and end-of-arm tools covers almost every application in the cobot market, and their straightforward interface combined with Vention’s platform makes them incredibly easy to deploy.” 

OnRobot’s exciting partnership with Vention will make it easier than ever for companies of all sizes and skill levels to deploy collaborative automation,” says Kristian Hulgard, General Manager of the Americas division at OnRobot. “The combination of Vention’s superb MAP platform and OnRobot’s ever-expanding, award winning range of no fuss tools for collaborative applications will empower users to design and deploy advanced automation with unprecedented ease.” 

Solar Power From The Fabric In Your Tent Or Awning

One of this week’s more intriguing conversations centered on solar power from your canopy, awning, or tent with Pvilion CEO Colin Touhey. 

Maybe in these post-Covid days of rediscovered al fresco dining, you may be able to have a fine meal under a tent with lighting and outlets to charge your mobile device powered by solar cells in the fabric of the tent. Or perhaps thinking of work, you need temporary coverage of an area for work or storage. And electrical power is required. Maybe many volts and amps. Same scenario. Pvilion products, er, cover a fascinating range of use cases. I’ve included a general background of Pvilion and its technology plus use cases from the New York Botanical Garden and a Home Depot location.

Pvilion Solar Fabric

What is Pvilion?

(from an essay by Director of Marketing Jill Gettinger) Pvilion integrates solar cells into fabric, producing products that when exposed to the sun, generate electricity. Pvilion can take any surface that receives sunlight, cover it with this fabric and produce electricity, providing flexible structures that can be powered independent from the electricity grid.

The more technical name for Pvilion’s offerings is flexible photovoltaic (PV) solar fabric products and structures and behind the simplicity is a 10-year-old partnership between Colin Touhey, an electrical engineer and CEO of Pvilion, and fabric industry veterans Todd Dalland, a pioneering designer and inventor in the field of lightweight structures, and Robert Lerner, AIA, an architect who has led new technology development programs involving lightweight, deployable structures for NASA, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. The three connected when they were working on integrating photovoltaic cells with fabric for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Pvilion’s roots go back more than 20 years when Dalland and Lerner developed the first photovoltaic tent. That the tent was easy to deploy, flexible and self-powered piqued the attention of the military, which led to research and development funding from the U.S. Army.

Military deployments during this time further increased product demand as forward operating bases needed to be setup quickly in places where there was no grid, and it was difficult to setup up traditional power generators.

At the same time, mobile device usage, cell phones, laptops, handheld computers, was taking off. The mobile purpose of these devices meant they often needed to be powered where access to a traditional grid source was not available. To meet this need, Pvilion developed the Solar Sail, a small solar canopy that resembles a sail, hence the name, which can be easily deployed in public spaces and at outdoor gatherings, e.g., sporting events, concerts, parks, weddings,et cetera. Once deployed and receiving sun light, it generates power that can be tapped into to charge mobile devices.

Concern for the environment also came into play as solar power’s proven advantage over fossil fuels is that its use leaves no carbon footprint. As a result, environmentally conscious corporations and public entities, like schools, began installing Pvilion’s solar power canopy structures to meet both short- and long-term needs while avoiding the costs, environmental damage, and time associated with erecting and running permanent structures tied into the local power grid.

What started out as a solar powered tent has evolved into a product range covering standalone USB charging stations and easy to erect temporary structures, including canopies and awnings, all solar powered.

The easiest way to understand what Pvilion does is to look at one of its signature products: The Solar Sail Canopy, a free-standing canopy that can be erected anywhere that receives sunlight: parks, university campuses, bus stands or in any public setting, and used to recharge mobile devices. The Solar Sail Canopy is available in (3) versions: a Single Pole Solar Sail, a Double Pole Solar Sail that can be used as a solar powered shelter, e.g., over a bus stop or bench, and a portable Four Pole Canopy for seasonal applications that can be customized to suit an individual space requirement.

Sustainability At New York Botanical Garden

NY Botanic Gardens

Aesthetic appeal is very important to The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), which is why the NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) chose NYBG as the launch site for Pvilion’s Solar Powered Canopy structures.

Intended to provide NYBG visitors a place where they can seek shade, enjoy a beverage and recharge their mobile devices, the eight (8) solar canopies, designed, engineered and installed by Pvilion, provide ample space to relax while staying safely socially distanced.

Pvilion provides a fabric that incorporates photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity upon exposure to the sun. As part of New York City’s emission reduction efforts, seven (7) of the canopies contribute energy directly to the city’s power grid. One (1) structure powers a bank of batteries used by NYBG and by Botanical Garden visitors to charge their mobile phones and other cellular devices.

The solar canopies are a pilot project operated by Pvilion and the Innovative Demonstrations for Energy Adaptability (IDEA) Program, an initiative of the City of New York’s Division of Energy Management. The program encourages businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs to create transformative opportunities and to foster a culture of innovation. The goal is to find solutions to the challenges facing manufacturers and businesses through partnerships with private sector business entities, with emphasis placed on technology to help the City reduce carbon emissions.

Pvilion’s Solar-Powered Fabric Products are fully turn-key solutions that provide energy in any location where fabric is exposed to the sun. Pvilion integrates its fabric technology into a wide range of applications. The technology eliminates the need of having two (2) separate systems: fabric shade/shelter and solar panels. Instead, Pvilion integrates the solar power into its fabric to achieve one turn-key product that provides charging, lighting, ventilation, climate control all in an easy to install manner. Pvilion has delivered high quality products for customers like Google, Tommy Hilfiger, Carnegie Hall, Tishman, New York City, Yale Univ, the Florida Dept of Transportation, Bloomberg, The City of Miami, FL and more.

Home Depot Pilot Program to Achieve Sustainable Energy

The Home Depot Rental Center in Geismar, Louisiana, a large industrial building and parking area, serves as the rental equipment preparation and distribution center to surrounding Home Depot stores. Here, equipment is prepared before being sent to Home Depot Superstores upon being rented by customers. The first of over one hundred rental centers planned to be opened throughout the country, Geismar is also the initial location for a Home Depot green pilot energy sustainability program in which Pvilion Solar Canopies will be used to recharge rental equipment batteries.

Pvilion developed and installed its signature product, the Portable Solar Sail Tent, at the Geismar, LA Home Depot. Effectively, a relocatable canopy integrated with solar panels; the Solar Sail can provide sustainable power anywhere that receives sunlight. It lets Home Depot charge its electric rental equipment independently from the local electric grid, eliminating the environmental impact associated with traditional sources of energy and the need to create permanent infrastructure.

The implemented 20 ft x 24 ft structure provides two (2) bays under an angled roof for maximum sun exposure. It is designed to withstand extreme weather conditions yet is flexible for speedy assembly/disassembly. It can provide up to 5 kW of energy and storage for up to five (5) full operational days of energy without sun. In addition to charging rental equipment, the energy provided by the Solar Sail can also be used to power other devices such as cell phones, laptops and lighting.

NI Expands Global Network to Serve Small Businesses

NI has always served smaller businesses—most of whom do work for big businesses or projects solving interesting engineering problems. This month I received an announcement of NI’s partner network focusing on small-to-medium businesses (SMBs). We must remember that the true engines for economic growth come from startups and smaller businesses doing innovative things.

NI announced the expansion of its global distribution channels within the NI Partner Network, a strategic move to support its omnichannel strategy dedicated to serving small-to-medium business (SMB) customers to help them do what they do best — innovate. 

NI is focused on providing value and choice to its SMB customers, strategically connecting them to partners and resources on ni.com to provide a positive, efficient experience. Shifting to a multi-channel approach in this way leverages established, well-known distributors and ni.com to meet customers’ buying needs. 

“We know our customers, especially those in the SMB space, need simple and efficient ways to buy so their time is spent on moving their business forward,” said Josh Mueller, GM of the Portfolio Business Unit at NI. “That’s why we’re taking important steps to serve our customers in ways that help them the most, including new avenues to purchasing NI products and solutions.”

NI is also committed to purchasing more from small and diverse businesses. As outlined in its 2030 Corporate Impact Strategy, Engineering Hope, NI has put forth a goal stating that by 2030, 16% of NI suppliers will be small or diverse businesses. Diverse and equitable procurement has a positive ripple effect throughout entire communities and NI is taking steps, such as increasing access to its global distribution program, to cultivate opportunities for small or diverse business suppliers. 

To show appreciation for its SMB customers and community, NI is celebrating Small Business Month in a big way, from providing access to best-in-class test tools and technology at a discount, to sharing customer success stories.

During the month of May, members of the SMB community can look forward to:

  • Customer stories and the “Secrets of Small Business” video series featuring SMB CEOs and their perspectives on overcoming some of the greatest engineering challenges of today.
  • Limited-time promotions on tools, software and solutions designed to help SMB customers advance their engineering initiatives, including LabVIEW, FlexLogger™ software and CompactDAQ.
  • Webinars about NI software and solutions to help SMBs address quality in validation designs and flexibility in engineering.

“Connecting our customers to the right technologies and services helps them accelerate their pace of innovation and better serve their organizations and end customers,” said Jim Ramsey, vice president of the Global Partner program at NI. “We’re excited to celebrate Small Business Month for this reason — to help equip more engineers with the tools and technologies they need to take on their next big opportunity.” 

Learn more about NI’s expanded global distribution network and how it’s celebrating the SMB community this month.