Samir Hanna’s Startup Promises Smart Factories for All
Roopinder Tara posted on October 31, 2018 |
Dr Hanna joins up with Carl Bass to form OQTON.AI to make an operation system for factories that cou...
Dr. Samir Hanna, founder and CEO of OQTON.AI. (Image courtesy of OQTON.AI.)
Dr. Samir Hanna, founder and CEO of OQTON.AI. (Image courtesy of OQTON.AI.)

Samir Hanna left his vice president post at Autodesk after 10 years of leading the company in all things manufacturing. That was the last part of a career spent learning, using and selling manfucturing advice and software. It was a good use of a degree in materials science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctoratein engineering with an emphasis in computer graphics from Cornell University. After so many years of service, those in public life often settle back to reflect or perhaps write their memoirs. In our industry, it’s often back to consulting or maybe a stint on a board of directors. That is not Hanna’s plan. A long career in manufacturing left him with a to-do list, and not every item is crossed off.

Manufacturing is in a state of disruption, he said. He lists the disruptors as 3D printing, robotics, Internet of Things (IoT), the cloud, artificial intelligence, blockchains, etc. Instead of helping manufacturing, the technologies are making a gap between those few who can implement them and the typical manufacturer. All the technology they see and hear about in mind boggling. Where do we start?

“Manufacturers feel as if they are being left behind,” Hanna said.

Oqton, his one-year-old startup, is all about a manufacturing operating system for mid-size manufacturers that is open, accessible and affordable. He hopes it will cut through the hype and confusion of hot technologies that always seem to generate and lead to a quick and easy implementation with an operating system that ties it all together.

“We plan to eliminate the man machine gap,” Hanna said.

He has assembled a 50-person team headquartered just north of San Francisco’s Financial District. It’s only a short walk from his old office at Autodesk’s Market St. office. Other parts of the company work in Denmark; Ghent, Belgium; and Shanghai.

“I spend a lot of time in the air,” Hanna joked.

One year has been long enough for Oqton to have a beta version of Factory OS in use at “several companies.” The company plans a general release by the end of the year.


We asked Hanna, “What about competition?” Companies like Siemens, with its MindShere, also address the manufacturing operating system.

“Yes, Siemens can set you up, if you have the money,” he said. “That’s great for large enterprises that have a lot of money. But, what about small and mid-size manufacturing?”

Now it sinks in. It is the idea of democratization—pushing the lofty practices of big companies down to small and mid-size companies. It has been Autodesk’s mantra for as long as there has been Autodesk. It has probably been imbued in Hanna during his 10 years at the company. For Autodesk, it worked ridiculously successfully with CAD, and it will probably work for CAM and CAE. Under Hanna with Oqton, it might just work with manufacturing.

How Does It Work?

How Factory OS is used may be best explained by a need case. Take 3D printing, for example, Hanna said. A 3D printer out of the box, more like off the crate, is not suited to operate in a production environment. It must collaborate with the rest of the factory. It must be maintained. Today, that is all done manually. With automation comes increased speed, better quality, lower waste and safety.

Waste is indeed endemic to 3D printing. It is estimated that much of 3D-printed output is thrown away for one reason or another.

Killer Robots

Factory robots may not seem as menacing as the Terminator, but they can still take your head clean off. You do not want to get in their way. Crushing, impact and burn injuries by the giant arms that whip from one task to another, sometimes with hot welding tips, are avoided by keeping fragile humans out of reach. Most robotic installations we are shown are behind protective glass or walls.

But, robots could work in proximity to humans, according to Hanna. It has to do with processing data, and lots of it. Sensors on robots can pick up objects [humans] in a collision course. When all the data, sensors are spewing, it has to processed in real time. Will Oqton’s Factory OS do that?

Venture Capitalists, Who Needs Them?

The company is privately funded. One notable investor is Carl Bass, who is also on Oqton’s board of directors.

“Carl and I have a common vision for the future of manufacturing,” Hanna said.

Come to think of it, the former CEO of Autodesk was always more excited to talk about making things than designing them. Bass has not been sitting on his hands after leaving Autodesk. He seems to be interested in supplying advice and funding to his old VPs. Amar Hanspal’s startup, AutoLab AI, just now coming out of stealth mode, is also getting some Bass love.

“Being privately funded, as opposed to investment by venture capitalists, is better,” Hanna said. “We don’t have the external financial pressure. And, we can acquire companies.”

Venture capitalists (VCs), as a rule, don’t like their startups to acquire other startups.

Another characteristic of VC-funded companies are the brash, fast moving and terribly young CEO dispensing bon mots for others after a lucky and unlikely success of one good idea. A crushing demand for work all hours of the day and night from staff all too often is followed with some sort of misstep or outright disaster. Consider the fall of Uber’s toxic Travis Kelanick, Theranos’ CEO accused of fraud, the juice guy who sold a $400 machine for a juice pack you could just pour and the list could go on. This is not happening at Oqton, not with Hanna, who has  decades of experience, the deliberate and thoughtful manner of a kind uncle, and is not a type-A burnout carrier. We think of a wise man among fools. This guy must be nice to work for. That’s our guess.

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