Neurala Accelerates AI Vision Applications

  • New technology improves quality control in manufacturing by identifying inconsistencies and anomalies in vision inspection datasets.
  • Neurala Announces Strategic Partnership with IMA Group to Accelerate AI Technology
  • Collaboration will improve quality inspection with AI-powered data analysis for Industrial IoT

Vision AI software company Neurala has made some news recently. At the end of October, it announced a strategic partnership for AI-powered data analysis, and today it announced a new quality control AI technology.

Today, Neurala announced the launch of AI “explainability” technology, purpose-built for applications in industrial and manufacturing. The new feature helps manufacturers improve quality inspections by accurately identifying objects in an image that are causing a particular problem or present an anomaly. 

“Explainability is widely recognized as a key feature for AI systems, especially when it comes to identifying bias or ethical issues. But this capability has immense potential and value in industrial use cases as well, where manufacturers demand not only accurate AI, but also need to understand why a particular decision was made,” said Max Versace, CEO and co-founder of Neurala. “We’re excited to launch this new technology to empower manufacturers to do more with the massive amounts of data collected by IIoT systems, and act with the precision required to meet the demands of the Industry 4.0 era.” 

Neurala’s explainability technology was built to address the digitization challenges of Industry 4.0. Industrial IoT systems are constantly collecting massive amounts of anomaly data – in the form of images – that are used in the quality inspection process. With the introduction of Neurala’s explainability feature, manufacturers can derive more actionable insights from these datasets, identifying whether an image truly is anomalous, or if the error is a false-positive resulting from other conditions in the environment, such as lighting. This gives manufacturers a more precise understanding of what went wrong, and where, in the production process, and allows them to take proper action – whether to fix an issue in the production flow or improve image quality.

Manufacturers can utilize Neurala’s explainability feature with either Classification or Anomaly Recognition models. Explainability highlights the area of an image causing the vision AI model to make a specific decision about a defect. In the case of Classification, this includes making a specific class decision on how to categorize an object; or in the case of Anomaly Recognition, it reveals whether an object is normal or anomalous. Armed with this detailed understanding of the workings of the AI model and its decision-making, manufacturers will be able to build better performing models that continuously improve processes and efficiencies. 

Explainability is now available as part of Neurala’s cloud solution, Brain Builder, and will soon be available with Neurala’s on-premise software, VIA (Vision Inspection Automation). The technology is simple to implement, supporting Neurala’s mission to make AI accessible to all manufacturers, regardless of their level of expertise or familiarity with AI. With no custom code required, anyone can leverage explainability to gain a deeper understanding of image features that matter for vision AI applications. 

Strategic Partnership

Neurala announced a new strategic partnership with global manufacturing leader IMA Group. The partnership will deliver AI solutions for industrial machines, focused on field testing of AI that enables monitoring and provides actionable insights from data collected through industrial internet of things (IIoT) systems. 

IMA is a global leader in the design and manufacture of automation equipment for the processing and packaging of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food and beverages. The company’s partnership with Neurala is the latest in its efforts to help industrial organizations realize Industry 4.0 initiatives, with AI and automation playing a key role. 

“As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) becomes commonplace – with dozens of sensors and cameras gathering product data, as well as basic diagnostics from industrial equipment – manufacturers critically need human-level AI that can extract actionable insights from that data at the compute edge,” said Max Versace, CEO and Co-Founder, Neurala. “Data without AI is not useful, and off-the-shelf cloud-based AI is not cut out for the manufacturing floor. Unlike traditional AI solutions, Neurala’s technology is trained at the edge, enabling it to continuously learn based on manufacturers’ data as it varies across specific machines and production runs. We are incredibly excited to bring this technology together with IMA’s industry-leading solutions and expertise. Our new partnership will demonstrate just how far edge AI can go in solving industrial monitoring challenges on a global scale.”    

Neurala will work with IMA to deliver its technology directly on industrial machines, at the compute edge, allowing operators to quickly and independently set up advanced AI systems without requiring specialized expertise. 

“Today, factory floors are more complex than ever, and manufacturers are challenged when it comes to managing the extremely high volume of data they’re amassing. To become even more competitive on the global stage, and to help manufacturers overcome this complexity, IMA must improve not only the quality of our products, but also, internal visibility on equipment health and productivity,” said Dario Rea, Director of Corporate Research & Innovation, IMA Group. “These competitive factors are even more acute in light of the global changes we have seen this year. Our commitment to building a company that is defined by innovation, technology and AI is greater than ever before, and our partnership with Neurala represents a key step in that commitment.”  

As part of the partnership, IMA has made a targeted investment in Neurala. 

Universal Robots Reaches 50,000 Collaborative Robots Sold

More collaborative robot, also known as cobot, news emanating from Denmark. Cobot market pioneer Universal Robots (UR) has sold its 50,000th UR cobot, which was purchased by a German manufacturer to enable higher productivity and better employee safety. The company expects cobots to remain the fastest growing segment of industrial automation, projected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 30.37% during 2020–2025. 

The 50,000th cobot came in a special delivery as Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots, personally handed over the cobot to VEMA technische Kunststoffteile GmbH and VEMA Werkzeug- und Formenbau GmbH located in Krauchenwies-Göggingen, Germany, at a ceremony held at VEMA

“We have worked very hard in the past 15 years to develop an entirely new market segment with a mission to enable especially small- and medium sized companies to automate tasks they thought were too costly or complex,” says von Hollen, emphasizing how UR has created a new global distribution network, a new ecosystem of developers, and ultimately a completely new business model. “As a pioneer in this market, we put a lot of work into creating awareness, influencing standards, and changing customers’ perceptions influenced by their experience of traditional robots.”

VEMA’s new collaborative robot will join a fleet of three other UR cobots already deployed in pick and place tasks in end-of-line applications at the company. 

Christian Veser, managing director at VEMA GmbH, is thrilled to be the recipient of the milestone cobot and explains how the cobots have enabled the company to add a third shift, now operating around the clock. “We have enhanced our productivity remarkably and also achieved better quality,” he says. “Our employees are freed from ergonomically straining work to focus on quality testing. In navigating Covid-19 challenges, it has also been a great advantage that the cobots don’t need to keep a safety distance or undergo quarantine. They can always work,” says Veser, adding that his company appreciates the cobots so much that they gave them names. 

“The first three cobots are named Elfriede, Günther, and Bruno. We will name our new cobot Jürgen to honor the fact that UR’s president came here in person to deliver it.”

Jürgen von Hollen will be leaving UR at the end of the year after a four-year tenure at the helm of UR. “It is such a privilege to end my time at the company by marking this milestone,” he says. “We have come far, but there is still an immense potential in the market both for well-known and completey new cobot applications. With our unrivaled installed base, we are constantly learning from our customers, leveraging a very data-driven approach in the development of our cobots. This is an approach I believe will help keep us leading the field in the years to come.” 

Gregory Smith, president of Teradyne’s Industrial Automation Group, will step in to fill the role of UR president on January 1, 2021 until a new leader is named. “I thank Jürgen for his leadership over the past four years in growing Universal Robots from start-up status into the undisputed global leader in industrial collaborative robots,” says Mark Jagiela, president and CEO of UR’s parent company Teradyne. “He leaves behind a strong platform for the next level of growth with a talented workforce, an engaged ecosystem of distribution and technology partners as well as an expansive worldwide customer base.”

PTC to Acquire SaaS PLM Supplier Arena Solutions

Combination of Onshape and Arena to Enable PTC to Deliver Complete CAD + PLM SaaS Solution

PTC Reaffirms Cash Flow Targets for FY’21

PTC  announced Dec. 14 that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Arena Solutions, Inc. (Arena Solutions) “the industry’s leading software-as-a-service (SaaS) product lifecycle management (PLM) platform provider”. 

I am not particularly surprised by this announcement. PTC needed to do something interesting with cash from some past investments. Jim Heppelmann, PTC CEO, clearly stated last year the company’s direction toward becoming a complete SaaS provider. In the IT world, HPE first and then Dell Technologies and Hitachi Vantara later, companies are rapidly moving to pretty much “everything-as-a-service”.

This may not be a market disrupter in itself, but the move definitely applies pressure to other PLM suppliers to change business models. Responses will be telling.

The acquisition will further PTC’s strategy to be the leader in the rapidly growing market for SaaS-based product development software, enabling the company to deliver a complete CAD + PLM SaaS solution. Under the terms of the agreement, PTC will acquire Arena Solutions for $715 million in cash. Subject to customary closing conditions and completion of regulatory review, the acquisition is expected to be completed in PTC’s fiscal Q2 2021.

“A year ago, PTC entered the SaaS world for product development software with our acquisition of Onshape,” said Jim Heppelmann, president and CEO, PTC. “That move reflected our strong conviction that our market is nearing a tipping point in its willingness to adopt SaaS technology, following the trend seen in many other software markets. The effects of COVID-19 have dramatically accelerated this inevitable shift, with PTC customer surveys indicating a 25% increase in readiness for SaaS PLM since the pandemic started. We expect the acquisition of Arena will significantly extend our leadership position as we continue to redefine the future of our industry.”

With headquarters in Foster City, California, Arena Solutions serves more than 1,200 customers across the electronics, high-tech, and medical-device industries, including world-class innovators such as Nutanix, Peloton, Sonos and Square. In addition, Arena will broadly extend PTC’s presence in the attractive mid-market, where SaaS solutions are becoming the standard.

“As the SaaS PLM pioneer, we were first to see that engineers and product developers would benefit from a new paradigm in the way they collaborate and drive product innovation,” said Craig Livingston, Arena Solutions president and CEO. “We were ahead of the market in the early days, but in the past several years we’ve seen an acceleration of market receptivity and demand. This acquisition validates our original vision, and we are pleased to be joining an established leader in CAD and PLM capable of hastening the movement of our market to SaaS.”

The Arena Solutions product realization platform unifies PLM, quality management, and requirements management, allowing every participant throughout the product design and manufacturing process – as well as across an extended supply chain – to work together in a secure, high availability cloud environment.

“This acquisition is the logical next step in PTC’s strategy to be the industrial SaaS leader,” continued Heppelmann. “A big first step was the acquisition of Onshape, the SaaS leader in CAD and collaborative design capabilities. Arena will enable us to round out the solution with full PLM capabilities and deliver the only complete CAD + PLM SaaS solution in the industry.”

Financial Impact

Arena Solutions is expected to end calendar year 2020 with approximately $50 million in annualized recurring revenue, reflecting double-digit growth over 2019. The transaction is expected to be neutral to PTC’s FY’21 cash flow from operations target of $365 million and free cash flow target of $340 million (which reflects the deduction of approximately $25 million of capital expenditures from cash flow from operations) and accretive to FY’22 and beyond. The transaction will be funded with cash on-hand and amounts borrowed under PTC’s existing credit facility.

PTC management will provide additional details about the transaction at its Investor Day virtual meeting scheduled for Tuesday, December 15.

Advisors

Centerview Partners LLC is the exclusive financial advisor to PTC and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP is acting as its legal counsel. Barclays is the exclusive financial advisor to Arena and JMI Equity, and Goodwin Procter is acting as their legal counsel.

Steve Wozniak Launches his Next Billion-Dollar Venture

Apple co-founder rolls out Efforce to enable any investor to help the planet and participate in the massive $250 billion energy efficiency market. 

This is not specifically manufacturing or even technology news. What we have here is a unique financing instrument to help companies achieve energy savings. Energy savings were a part of my portfolios over my years in product development. I view it as a Lean initiative in that it is a process for eliminating waste. Not to mention side benefits of both helping a company’s bottom line as well as helping the planet’s bottom line.

Here is the press release I received last week.

Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, is rolling out his second company, Efforce, to transform and disrupt the energy efficiency market, 45 years after starting the computer company that changed technology. His new business may be on track to do the same with a token listing December 6, 2020 that sent its market capitalization to $950M in the first 13 minutes,10 times the listing price. The company had received an initial valuation of $80M by investors in private sales.

Efforce is a marketplace that enables companies to undertake energy efficiency measures at no cost so that they can invest their liquidity in more critical tasks. With Efforce, the energy efficiency market is accessible to large and small investors alike who can then monetize the transferable energy savings.

Currently, financing energy efficiency measures can be a complex mix of financial and regulatory challenges that limit the speed of growth. Efforce uses an innovative web-based platform to leverage the blockchain, and tokens called WOZX, as the mechanisms to create a seamless platform to spur global energy efficiency. Efforce’s WOZX tokens were listed December 6, 2020 on bithumb.pro.

When Wozniak started Apple his goal was to build smaller, more efficient machines that one day could be accessible to anyone. Through his involvement in Efforce, Wozniak continues to focus on efficiency, broadening business access to energy improvements as well as public access to energy efficiency investments. 

“Energy consumption and CO2 emissions worldwide have grown exponentially, leading to climate change and extreme consequences to our environment. We can improve our energy footprint and lower our energy consumption without changing our habits. We can save the environment simply by making more energy improvements,” said Wozniak. “We created Efforce to be the first decentralized platform that allows everyone to participate and benefit financially from worldwide energy efficiency projects, and create meaningful environmental change.”

“In these difficult times, many small companies are struggling,” said Jacopo Visetti, project lead and co-founder, Efforce. “They can’t afford to switch to LED lighting, streamline production processes, or even insulate to conserve heat, all of which could save them money in the long term. Efforce allows business owners to safely register their energy upgrade project on the web and secure funding from all types of investors around the world. The companies will then have more available cash to use for other critical projects such as infrastructure or hiring.”

The Energy Efficiency Market

The market for energy efficiency projects has reached a staggering $250 billion.* Not only is private industry contributing to the booming market, but governments including the EU and China are investing heavily in energy efficiency funding. However, in order to achieve the International Energy Agency’s Efficient World Scenario, the sector still must double the size of investments to $580 billion by 2025.

Today, investor groups called energy services companies (ESCOs) must have access to large amounts of capital (typically $200,000 minimum) to undertake energy efficiency improvements. They often are unable to turn to traditional banking channels as banks lack the technical expertise to properly assess the return on investment.

In contrast, the Efforce platform democratizes the market. “We have created a business model that allows anyone to participate in the greater good of making the world cleaner and healthier, all by leveraging efficiency for economic growth,” said Visetti.  “Energy efficiency is a way to create a sustainable future, and this is a way to help counter climate change, reduce carbon — and make money while you do it.” 

The Efforce Business Model

Using the Efforce platform, the process of financing and undertaking projects is streamlined:

  • ESCOs register an intended energy efficiency project which is then validated by the Efforce team. 
  • Efforce develops the project with the company, including evaluating the investment need, calculating the anticipated return, and creating an Energy Performance Contract (EPC) that details the savings and the duration of the returns for the company and investors.
  • The platform then lists the project for crowd contribution. The participants may buy into the project using fractional or whole WOZX tokens. 
  • Efforce measures energy savings on these projects through smart meters attached to the blockchain. The savings data are loaded to the investor’s profile as an energy credit for use or sale by the investor. Energy credits are distributed in megawatt-hours.  

The company is run by veteran executives highly familiar with the energy efficiency sector, who after a decade of experience with the less efficient but still-profitable ESCO model began to develop the Efforce business model and platform. Visetti previously founded Milan-based AitherCO2, with annual revenues of $240 million and no outside investment funding. Wozniak was attracted to Efforce for its unique approach to democratizing energy efficiency, and this is the only company he has participated in as a co-founder since Apple.

About Efforce

Efforce has created the first platform leveraging the power of blockchain technology to democratize access to energy efficiency projects and investment opportunities. Co-founded by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jacopo Visetti, Jacopo Vanetti, and Andrea Castiglione who have more than a decade of experience in this field, Efforce believes in a world where sustainability actually generates outsized benefits without consumers needing to change their energy behavior. For more information, visit www.Efforce.io.

Partnerships Allow AVEVA (and others) to Scale

I wrote about the Microsoft and AVEVA announced extension to their partnership a couple of weeks ago to focus on Microsoft cloud services—especially Microsoft Azure (infrastructure, data and AI services). Key focus areas include the connected worker and building a common Asset Strategy (Asset Performance).

Mario Joao, vice president of AVEVA charged with developing these partnerships and alliances, took some time to chat about the Microsoft partnership.

“The companies have had a long history of working together,” he told me. “Partnerships and alliances are the only way forward to scale our offerings to customers. The relationship was solely based on technology. Now, it encompasses more than that by adding sales and focusing on results.”

  • Transforming Industrial Workforce–much of the work is geared toward workforce, the user experience, use of Microsoft Teams, and workforce safety,
  • Microsoft Azure Cloud AI–enhancing cognitive search, working with Asset Performance Management,
  • Further adoption of cloud with Azure–many companies have adopted an industrial cloud strategy, but many are still evaluating with many astute questions regarding security, geo-location of the servers, safety of operations data,
  • Emphasize business value–especially to both OT and to IT teams,
  • Foster sustainability,
  • Note: Microsoft is hiring people with industry expertise,
  • Microsoft provides a platform; AVEVA builds on top with applications that add value to customers.

Rockwell Automation Announcements From Automation Fair at Home

I posted overall thoughts from the opening day of Automation Fair at Home yesterday. It’s not that all is rosy in Milwaukee, but the company keeps making strides forward and yet goes its own way not bothering to emulate any competitors.

Several announcements have accumulated that I thought would fit along with Automation Fair thoughts. We have an acquisition, a partnership, and a new product series.

First, the acquisition. 

Rockwell Automation Acquires Fiix Cloud Software for Maintenance Solutions

Rockwell Automation announced it has entered into an agreement to acquire Fiix, a privately held, AI-enabled computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) company. Fiix, founded in 2008, is headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Fiix’s cloud-native CMMS creates workflows for the scheduling, organizing, and tracking of equipment maintenance. It connects to business systems and drives data-driven decisions. The company’s revenue grew 70% in 2019 with more than 85% recurring revenue. Fiix has more than 2 million assets under management and creates more than 6 million work orders a year.

“We believe that the future of industrial asset management is performance-based,” said Tessa Myers, vice president, product management, Software & Control, for Rockwell Automation. “With the addition of the Fiix platform and expertise, our customers will benefit from a 360-degree view of integrated data across automation, production, and maintenance, helping them to monitor and improve the performance of their assets and optimize how maintenance work is done.”

James Novak, Fiix CEO, said, “From the beginning, Fiix has been on a mission to connect maintenance and operations teams to the tools, resources, and technology they need to modernize and join the future of maintenance. Joining Rockwell Automation will allow us to help even more companies modernize maintenance and increase asset performance by connecting to industry-leading data, automation, and production systems.”

Fiix will be reported as part of Rockwell Automation’s Software & Control operating segment. The transaction is expected to close by the end of the 2020 calendar year, subject to customary approvals and conditions.

Second, the partnership.

PlantPAx 5.0 Running on ztC Edge by Stratus

Stratus Technologies announced a “Solution in a Box” process control architecture for fast, easy deployment at edge locations that require 2,000 I/O’s or less. The solution runs Rockwell Automation PlantPAx 5.0 software on Stratus ztC Edge. The solution is performance tested, characterized, and validated by Stratus and Rockwell Automation to ensure reliable, rapid deployment by operations teams and systems integrators using a single industrial-grade, panel mounted Edge Computing device.

“Whether it’s control in Water and Wastewater management, Machine Builders innovating for their customers, or managing remote assets in Oil & Gas, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving operational excellence. Enterprises require plant-wide data and control solutions with high availability that can both scale up and scale down based on the use case and location, while being cost effective and easy to implement,” said Dave Rapini, Business Manager for PlantPAx at Rockwell Automation.

The ability to bring mission-critical applications to where they’re needed most via Edge Computing delivers the scale and real-time data acquisition for operational excellence. Stratus’ simple, protected, and automated platform with fault tolerance and zero-touch operation is powering the disaggregation of large process architectures, traditionally deployed at level 3 and 4 of the Purdue model. The combined Stratus and Rockwell Automation “Solution in a Box” architecture provides a flexible approach to scale Industry 4.0 capabilities across a range of environments that was not previously possible.

PlantPAx is a plant wide distributed control system (DCS) that utilizes a common automation platform to integrate both process and discrete control as well as plant-wide information. ztC Edge is an industrial-grade Edge Computing platform that offers built-in redundancy and meets Class 1 Division 2 requirements to operate in hazardous environments. 

Architecture Details

The tested Solution-in-a-Box architecture includes:

  • Rockwell Automation PASS-Consolidated Image 
  • PASS (Process Automation System Server) – FactoryTalk View
  • FactoryTalk AssetCentre
  • FactoryTalk Historian
  • FactoryTalk VantagePoint
  • Rockwell Automation Application Server -OWS – ThinManager remote desktop server (RDS) for remote, mobile, and tablet access 
  • Stratus ztC Edge 110i (single system with a redundant option) – tested in fault tolerant and high availability modes

And thirdly, a new product series.

High-Performance, Scalable Kinetix Integrated Motion Drives

Rockwell Automation’s motion business has expanded its Kinetix line of servo drives with intelligent and scalable solutions.

The new Allen-Bradley Kinetix 5300 servo drive is a fully integrated, CIP Motion solution for global machine builders looking to increase performance and leverage a single-design environment for control and motion. When paired with the new TLP motors, customers get a coordinated platform as they extend the power of the connected enterprise into simple machines, an approach that positions Rockwell Automation to accelerate growth in emerging markets throughout Asia and mature markets in Europe. The new product line, combined with the rest of the Kinetix family, provides a complete range of servo drive offerings from Rockwell Automation for everything from small, standalone machines to large, complex systems. 

The Kinetix 5300 servo drives are designed for diverse machine applications such as electronics assembly, packaging and converting, printing and web (CPW). The new drives also feature capabilities that can help simplify machine design and optimize performance throughout the machine lifecycle. Like other Kinetix integrated motion drives, Kinetix 5300 leverages Studio 5000 as a single design environment. Using a single family of servo drives allows machine builders to program all their drives in this one design environment and reuse code across drives, streamlining the design and commissioning process. Kinetix 5300 native integration with Logix control enables smart tuning capabilities that adjust for changes in inertia and resonances automatically, helping to optimize machine performance and simplify machine maintenance over time. 

“Our expanded portfolio provides machines builders a complete family of scalable servo drives for diverse applications,” said Bill Kegley, director, product management – motion control at Rockwell Automation. “Now with the addition of the Kinetix 5300 to our family of servo drives, we are in a position to deliver truly scalable and intelligent motion solutions that help our customers achieve productivity and sustainability for a wider range of applications.”

[Note: I have been asking for a few years for a working application of CIP Motion at a customer site. If anyone reading this has one, please contact me. If you don’t want mentioned, just say so. In 20 years, I have yet to violate a confidence. But enquiring minds want to know…. Thanks.]