The Future of Manufacturing Is Bright – Unless You Are Human
Roopinder Tara posted on January 22, 2019 |

Flush with cash, San Francisco startup Bright Machines aims to automate manufacturing all the way, using robots and software to the extent that no humans are left in the building. It’s the long sought-after lights-out factory, the dream of technologists for whom technology is the solution and humans the weak link in every chain. Isn’t software smarter (AI can kick your butt in chess, Go) and aren’t robots faster and more reliable? They certainly don’t complain like those federal employees who aren’t getting paid during the government shutdown.

What does this guy have against humans? After 25 years of knowing Amar Hanspal, now CEO and co-founder of Bright Machines, we’re pretty sure he is one. Amar leads the charge for a lights-out factory. Ex-VP—and almost CEO—of Autodesk, Amar got his start at Autodesk under Carol Bartz as the AutoCAD product manager. (Picture courtesy of Bright Machines.)Brian Matthews, CTO, who championed the technology of the future at Autodesk, did not join the company just because his initials matched. That’s the #2 reason. (Picture courtesy of Bright Machines.)

 
What does this company have against humans? Amar Hanspal, left, CEO of Bright Machines, leads the charge for a lights-out factory. Ex-VP—and almost CEO—of Autodesk, Amar got his start at Autodesk under Carol Bartz as the AutoCAD product manager. Brian Matthews, CTO, who championed the technology of the future at Autodesk, did not join the company just because his initials matched. That’s the #2 reason. (Pictures courtesy of Bright Machines.)  




 Amar Hanspal may have left Autodesk in a huff after not getting the CEO spot. When Carl Bass left, Amar and Andrew Anagnost served in a co-CEO role as the company ostensibly searched for a replacement. They settled on Andrew. Amar lost—but by now he's probably glad he did. Bright Machines landed $179 million in its first round of financing. Business Insider calls it one the 44 startups techies can bet their career on. Carl Bass is on the board. The whip-smart, affable Brian Matthews joined as CTO.

Gold Rush 2.0

We head to Hipsterville, a.k.a. SOMA (south of Market), for the company’s first open house. We’re in the shadow of the Sales Force tower, now the city’s tallest building and in one of the highest rent districts in the world. The area froths in a tech boom not seen since the Internet bubble at the cusp of the century. Google, Uber, Amazon, Airbnb, Yelp, and countless others all have offices or headquarters nearby. In addition, the city is awash in venture capital and tech startups.

Party just getting started. Bright Machines headquarters in San Francisco was the scene of the company's first open house.
Party just getting started. Bright Machines headquarters in San Francisco was the scene of the company's first open house.

BM’s founders, with pedigrees that establish its tech bonafide shave had no trouble raising a cash hoard from investors. Both Amar Hanspal and Brian Matthews have proven success at Autodesk. The fact that Autodesk’s roots and everyone’s experience is more related to design rather than manufacturing does not seem to have come up.

What is BM planning on doing with all that money—besides paying exorbitant rent and throwing great parties? There is that elimination of humans from the manufacturing process. It actually says that on their website. How that is to be done is not clear. We thought we might find out at the company’s open house. But CEO Amar, while looking much better off than when we saw him last (not long after he left Autodesk), appeared under the weather, barely able to deliver a few words of welcome to the hundred or so crowded into the small space between offices of its headquarters. Less than 20 of BM’s 300+ employees are here. Most are overseas. The company has offices in Singapore and Israel. It seems wrong to pry about business at a party with questions about how exactly the company means to totally automate manufacturing. It would be like heckling a sick friend.

Word of a party with old friends seems to have been widely circulated at Autodesk, whose Market Street office is just a couple of blocks away. Many past and present Autodeskers were in attendance. “Just in the neighborhood.”

Not seen in public since his “voluntary retirement,” is Jeff Kowalski, ex CTO of Autodesk, and thought to be Carl Bass’ protégé. He was thronged by Autodeskers who may have wondered what had happened to him.

Prince of the City

We meet someone from a big European auto manufacturing who is “very interested” in BM. As a customer? Yes, they say. As an investor? Possibly. “You can’t name us.” Okay, but let’s just say the companies share some initials. An investment banker, maybe out of their element in the world of engineering and manufacturing, asks, “What do you think of their chances?”

To the rest of the world, looking into the city’s new wealth must seem like a hedonistic party, a post-millennial gold rush, with everyone zooming in on the next big shiny gold nugget. The CEOs of the well-funded startup are the new princes, able to bequeath wealth and sign off on medieval banquets—a.k.a, open houses—with a stroke of their quill pens. But tables laden with shrimp on skewers, charcuterie of the finest cheese and meats and a bar making the company’s signature cocktail, all belie the challenge ahead. Whatever insecurities the startup CEOs may have, like how to actually make the next Autodesk or the next Siemens, are not to be publicly fretted about. They have to be confident in the power of their ideas, their unflagging drive and an unwavering vision. That’s how you get more investment, the top graduates from the best universities, and how you can even convince traditional manufacturers that they need to turn the page, that they need to modernize and automate.


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