Dresden, Germany-based Wandelbots -- a startup dedicated to making it easier for non-programmers to "teach" industrial robots how to do specific tasks -- has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by 83North, with participation from Next47 and Microsoft's M12 venture funding arm.
Wandelbots will use the funding to help it speed the market debut of its TracePen, a hand-held, code-free device that allows human operators to quickly and easily demonstrate desired behavior for industrial robots to mimic. Programming robots to perform specific tasks typically requires massive amounts of code, as well as programmers with very specific, in-demand skill sets to accomplish. Wandelbots wants to make it as easy as simply showing a robot what it is you want it to do -- and then showing it a different set of behaviors should you need to reprogram it to accomplish a new task or fill in for a different part of the assembly line.
The software that Wandelbots developed to make this possible originally sprung out of work done at the Faculty of Computer Science at the Technical University of Dresden. The startup was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield competition in 2017, and raised a $6.8 million Series A round in 2018 led by Paua Ventures, EQT Ventures and others.
Wandelbots already has some big-name clients, including industrial giants like Volkswagen, BMW, Infineon and others, and as of June 17, it'll be launching its TracePen publicly for the first time. The company's technology has the potential to save anyone who makes use of industrial robots many months of programming time, and the associated costs -- and could ultimately make use of this kind of robotics practical even for smaller companies for which the budgetary requirements of doing so previously put it out of reach.
I asked Wandelbots CEO and co-founder Christian Piechnick via email whether their platform can overcome some of the challenges companies, including Tesla, have faced with introducing ever-greater automation to their manufacturing facilities.
"The reversals regarding automation were caused by the inflexibility, complexity and cost introduced by automation with robots," Piechnick told me via email. "People are usually not aware that 75% of the total cost of ownership of a robot comes from software development. The problems introduced by robots were killing the benefit. This is exactly the problem we are tackling. We enable manufacturers to use robots with an unseen flexibility and we dramatically lower the cost of using robots. Our product enables non-programmers to easily teach a robot new tasks and thus, reduces the involvement of hard-to-find and costly programmers."
TracePen, the device and companion platform that Wandelbots is launching this week, is actually an evolution of their original vision, which focuses more on using smart clothes to fully model human behavior in real-time in order to translate that to robotic instruction. The company's pivot to TracePen employs the same underlying software tech, but meets customers much closer to where they already are in terms of processes and operations, while still providing the same cost-reduction benefits and flexibility, according to Piechnick.
I asked Piechnick about COVID-19 and how that has impacted Wandelbots' business, and he replied that in fact it has driven up demand for automation, and efficiencies that benefit automation, in a number of key ways.
"COVID-19 has impacted the thinking on global manufacturing in various ways," he wrote. "First there is the massive trend of reshoring to reduce the risk of globally distributed supply chains. In order to scale volume, ensure quality and reduce cost, automation is a natural consequence for developed countries. With a technology that leads to almost immediate ROI and extremely short time-to-market, we hit a trend. Furthermore, the dependency on human workers and the workplace restrictions (e.g., distance between workers) increases the demand for automation tremendously."