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The robotics industry continues to grow as enterprises look to automate an increasing number of processes across their organizations. According to McKinsey, 88% of businesses plan to fold robotics automation into their infrastructure in the coming months. And companies based in North America ordered more than 31,000 robotics systems in 2020, bringing the industry’s revenue to an estimated over $1.5 billion — a testament to the segment’s strength.
There’s a legitimate fear that robots could replace some of the work done by humans. A recent MIT study found that each robot added to the workforce has the effect of replacing 3.3 jobs, while Oxford Economics anticipates that robots will displace 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030. On the other hand, robots could work — and are working — together with humans to solve complex problems. A Loup Ventures report predicts that 34% of the robots sold by 2025 will be collaborative, with the “collaborative robotics” market surging to $1 billion in revenue by 2020.
Whether collaborative or otherwise, orchestrating robots requires tools accessible to engineers as well as the business decision-makers at the companies deploying them. One supplier is Formant, a startup founded by former Google, Savioke, and Redwood Robotics software engineers, roboticists, and product managers to develop a cloud-based platform for managing large fleets of robots. Formant, which today announced that it raised $18 million in a series A round led by SignalFire, claims its solution enables companies to operate, observe, and analyze robots from nearly anywhere, including remotely.
Formant founder Jeff Linnell says that early on in his robotics career, it became clear that companies needed a platform where they could manage all their machines and autonomous devices. Linnell previously cofounded Bot & Dolly, a boutique design studio that specialized in combining massive mechanical arms with custom software for movies, which was acquired by Google in 2014.
Above: With Formant, companies can monitor — and take control of — their robot fleets in real time.
After serving as head of product for Google’s robotics division, Linnell teamed up with automation veterans and engineers to found Formant. “We quickly found that every robotics company is unique. So in addition to our core functionality, we also invested early on in APIs to make Formant’s [product] extensible and to empower customers to build custom apps inside Formant, using our data and infrastructure,” he said in a statement.
Formant allows companies to monitor robot fleets, receive alerts, and embark on root cause analyses when something goes wrong. Using the platform, customers can view historical and live telemetry data, setting up safety, efficiency, and performance monitoring dashboards for fleet operators and business analysts. Formant can run aggregations over fleet data along dimensions including job site, customer region, and hardware version to surface insights and help define objectives. Moreover, the software lets employees work together to tag and share moments of interest — or work with field operations teams to capture and upload additional data feeds like video clips.
“The labor shortage from the pandemic has brought a lot of attention to the world of robotics and how robots can tackle the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs that are so hard to fill at the moment,” Linnell told VentureBeat via email. “Formant [gives] customers visibility into the behavior of individual robots by providing a ‘DVR of data’ that streams all important data from a device (like camera feed, location, and status) and allows it to be viewed in real time or historically. We give operators the ability to jump in and control a robot remotely if there is an issue. [And we] give stakeholders a high-level view of their fleet data to analyze performance and tie robot performance to business goals.”
Formant also lets teams take control of their robots from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Its intervention builder can integrate with existing help desk tools to assist with identifying problematic edge cases, while Formant’s report creation tool can turn metrics and trends (e.g., technical failures, battery lives, distance traveled, sensor temperature) into exportable one-pagers for stakeholders.
A growing market
Formant’s platform, which supports over 200 robot types, is handling 50,000 live video streams and 5 billion data points per month, according to Linnell. Current clients include Fortune 100s and early-stage robotics startups like BP, Canvas, Diligent, Graze, Burro, and John Deere subsidiary Blue River, which is using Formant to capture data generated by robotic farm machinery out in the fields.
“Formant has been crucial for scaling our robotics company,” Burro CEO and founder Charlie Andersen said in a press release. “The people we sell to want to have 5,000 robots running around their fields — and they want to sit in a room and see them on a screen. This is where the world is headed right now, and Formant is helping us make that a reality.”
Formant has competition in SVT Robotics, a provider of software that orchestrates robots in warehouses and factories. Brain Corp, one of the larger players in the space, offers a comparable orchestration platform for robots operating in fulfillment centers, airports, and retail environments. For its part, Amazon recently launched AWS IoT RoboRunner, a robotics service available through Amazon Web Services that’s designed to make it easier for enterprises to build apps that enable fleets of robots to work together.
But Linnell says that 20-employee Formant is on track to double in size in 2022. This latest investment round — which had participation from Hillsven, Pelion, Goodyear Ventures, Thursday Ventures, Ericsson, Picus Capital, and Holman Strategic Ventures — will support customer acquisition growth and “help Formant better serve its growing number of customers and partners,” he added.
“The new money is largely for go-to-market teams, as well as growing our customer support and success team. On the product side we will be making significant investments in our integrations and APIs, ensuring that Formant is extensible and that our customers can easily build their apps and workflows inside our platform,” Linnell said.
Formant’s total capital now stands at $23 million.
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