with Henry Wood
In this episode, Tee sits down with Henry Wood, Co-Founder of Inovo Robotics, to talk about how robotic technologies are allowing businesses to be free from the monotony of repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on avenues of growth and innovation.
Topics in their conversation include:
Inovo Robotics strives to make capable, versatile, robotics accessible to all. They address the problems growing businesses have in automating repetitive, hazardous or precise tasks and believe there is a better way. They want to free customers from the monotony of repetitive tasks so they can focus on more valuable and rewarding work. They also believe in putting customers in control by providing intuitive, easy to use interfaces, so that configuring robots for specific tasks is as easy as possible.
Automating The Chain bridges the learning gap between business executives and their technical counterparts. Each episode we learn from CTOs and experts in industrial automation as they explain their technology in an accessible way. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit https://www.automatingthechain.com/.
Tee Ganbold 0:10
Welcome to Automating The Chain, the weekly podcast and webinar specifically engineered to support and educate executives as they explore the potential of industrial automation. Each week we sit down with an executive leader or their technical counterpart of an international organization to discuss how they plan to leverage industrial automation to advance their business, who also have startups focused on automating the supply chain, explain the technology in an accessible way. Experts in the field will color in historical and current case studies. Without further ado, let’s get into the show.
Hi, Henry! How are you?
Henry Wood 0:55
Hi there! Good, thanks. Nice to see you again.
Tee Ganbold 0:57
Nice to see you. Well, this time in lockdown and a gray winter day in London, but thankfully we still have robots.
Henry Wood 1:07
Yes, the robots don’t mind the weather.
Tee Ganbold 1:10
They don’t mind the weather and there’s still a lot of people who are ordering online, so perfect timing for us. I’m pleased to introduce you, Henry Wood, as the Co-Founder and CEO of Inovo Robotics. I guess, with all your experience not only as an entrepreneur but also as a real builder, you’ve come from the technical side of the business and then decided there’s a particular problem you identified. And then you and your co-founder decided to go and build Inovo. Would you give us a little bit more color on why you started Inovo and what your mission is and your vision for the company is?
Henry Wood 1:53
Absolutely, I’d be happy to. As you mentioned, my background is technical. I’ve had about 16, 17 years of experience working as an engineer in companies, Northrop Grumman and McLaren Applied Technologies and some fairly advanced engineering projects. I’ve always had a passion for engineering, but Inovo was actually born out of an opportunity we saw while working in that sector. As an engineer, we’d be designing parts and specifying systems and we’d be using subcontractors to make a lot of these parts, which is very standard in a lot of the engineering sectors nowadays. As part of my job, I’d go and visit these suppliers and we go and see various companies around the UK who were building parts for bigger companies as subcontract projects. And what always amazed me was how much manual labor there was there. In 2020 you’d think there’s an awful lot of automation in the products that we have built, but almost all the batch manufacturing is still really heavily reliant on manual labor to do the packing and the loading tasks and simple assembly. Very little of that’s automated. It’s only really when you get to mass production that you see the big KUKA and ABB robots that we all imagine when we think about manufacturing. And this really highlighted an opportunity to say, “Why isn’t there more robotics being used? Why are people standing there loading machines or stacking boxes or doing these really repetitive tasks?” And as we dug deeper into that problem we learned more about the barriers that exist: that the existing industrial robots are really quite difficult to program, they can be quite dangerous so they have to be behind cages, they cost quite a lot to set up, and they’re not really very flexible. They’re very good at doing one very precisely defined task, extremely repeatedly, 24/7 for years on end, and that makes perfect sense if you’re a mass production company, if you’re building cars or consumer electronics or things in huge volumes. But, as 80% of the whole market is, when companies are making production batches, then they have to be very dynamic. They have to reuse the same spaces and they have to reuse the same machines and they need to get a lot of variation in what they’re doing, and that lacks at the moment. It’s very hard to repurpose an industrial robot if the application is changing every few months or even every few weeks.
Tee Ganbold 4:09
I loved when you first explained to me that you can literally—your “modular arm,” you called it, I remember you saying to me—it’s a bit like LEGO. For those who are listening and not looking at the actual robot, you can plug in various different modules and it does various tasks whereas a lot of robotics companies out there do one particular task repeatedly. Can you just go into detail as to what your product actually does? And demonstrate and verbally talk about exactly what it does for those who are listening?
Henry Wood 4:45
Sure. Yeah. So I mean, the modularity is something that really is unique for us. There aren’t any other cobots out on the market at the moment or industrial robots that I know of where you can physically recreate the reach of the robot. So typically what an end-user has to do is they have to choose a robot that’s right for the job that they need to do today and then they’ll have to look at a catalog and select a model that’s got a certain reach and a certain payload and a certain speed and then invest their money in that. What we’ve offered is a product where you can essentially reconfigure the arm on the fly very quickly. So essentially we’ve got a wrist, an elbow, and a shoulder, and then in between that are the link sections, and they can be replaced for shorter or longer link sections very quickly. And so you can physically change how far the robot reaches, how much space it takes up, how much payload it can lift and it opens up that whole possibility of reconfiguring it. Because what you can find is, with a traditional robot, someone invests quite a lot of money to make the robot do a particular task and then their business needs change or literally batch changes, they’re building a new product for a new customer, and suddenly they need to load it across a pallet where they need a longer reach, or they want to move the robot to an assembly task where they have quite a small area in the shop floor and they want to make the robot smaller. If they’ve got a fixed configuration, they can’t change that. But with ours, we’ve got a very simple coupling where you literally rotate these rings, you can lift out the section and fit a longer or shorter one, switch the robot back on, and within a matter of maybe a minute to 30 seconds you can actually have the robot running again. So it’s extremely flexible in terms of the applications it can do.
Tee Ganbold 6:26
The flexibility sounds, from someone who’s buying a product right now, they’re probably thinking, “Yeah, I would actually like a robot to do multiple things.” A bit like our phones that does multiple things (communicate, make sure we can take photos). Can you just demonstrate to us how easy it is? If someone was to purchase a robot right now, how difficult or easy is it for someone who’s not with robotics to plug and play or to change the arm?
Henry Wood 6:59
Yes, so I’ll just give you a quick overview, and I can put the robot in zero gravity mode. I mean, one of the other important features of the robot being flexible is the ability to reprogram it quickly as well. What you find with industrial robots, generally there’s quite a lot of cost associated with programming because a company that’s using the robot often gets an external contractor or consultant or an integrator in to do the programming for them. So it’s not just a matter of, “we need to do something different, that’s going to take a few hours to do.” It’s a matter of, “we needed to do something different, we’ve got to book an appointment, we’ve got to get the integrator back in, they’ve got to program it, we’ve got to pay their invoice, and then we can move it.” So what we’ve done is made a system where it’s much easier to program as well as configure. And so one of the simple features, which isn’t unique to us but very helpful, is the ability to just drag the arm around and teach it positions. So you can position it over what you’re picking up. You can basically control the grip function. You can create a list of different points and then the robot can run through that sequence. That’s something we put a lot of effort in to, making this balance between ease of use and something that people can learn to use very quickly but still have a lot of capability. So it’s not restricting what we can do. You can still build some pretty complicated applications with it, but you can get started very quickly. Our target really is to have a half-day to a whole day training course where a new person who does not use robots at all can leave and be confident programming the robot to do a task, and that’s really important because typically it would take months or even years to become skilled at programming industrial robots. But if our customers can send a few of their staff on a short training course, and then they can go away and do that themselves, it’s really putting the power into the hands of the smaller companies that can’t rely on the external support, and needs to change it frequently. So to go back to your question about demonstrating the functionality, I’ll just put the arm upright because that makes it a bit easier. The sections of the arm aren’t particularly heavy. The whole arm weighs about 20 kilograms. This upper part weighs about eight, and then the lower part weighs about 12 with the link tubes in between. What I can do—if I’m still in-frame here—is I can undo this ring, pull this section off, place it down there, and then take this section out as well. And then this is one of the links, so it’s really just a mechanical fitting with some connectors on either end, and we’ve got a range of different lengths that let you create different configurations. And then what I can do to demonstrate the concept is I’ll just drop this back on here.
Tee Ganbold 9:42
Reminds me of putting a pipe on. So do you think that people who are currently electricians or someone who’s literally putting a pipe on might be able to go into the industrial robotics space quite quickly if it’s literally plugging?
Henry Wood 10:01
Yeah, I mean, we’re not really trying to limit this to particular skill sets. I mean, anyone that’s working in a production process where they’d be handling things anyway. We’re not expecting this to be any harder than operating a sort of pallet truck or literally just moving things around a plant. What we can see is now I’ve plugged it in a different configuration. I’ve switched it back on, and you can see in the software here this is showing the arm in its new configuration, its new, shorter configuration. You can enable the arm now, and then it’s ready to operate again. So you can see in a matter of just a few seconds I can basically reconfigure it, which previously wasn’t possible at all, or the minimum would mean putting one robot in storage and getting another one out of storage. So we’re basically giving the end-user a lot of flexibility to jump between different tasks because a lot of companies don’t know what they’ll be doing in six months time or even three months time. They know they work in a particular sector, but they’re constantly getting new orders for new jobs and they have to adapt to that very quickly.
Tee Ganbold 11:01
Got it. And let’s step back for a moment. That was incredibly useful. I can see the benefit—and I’m sure anyone who’s investing in robots can see the benefit of not having to buy so many different types of robots. Can you tell us a little bit about how you even got to here, because you managed to get a grant, you and your co-founder? You then decided to go to the commercials, but you then got investment from quite a well established VC, and now you’re going to the market, you’ve got a few customers. Can you just tell us where you’re at in your commercial story? And where you’re going next?
Henry Wood 11:44
Sure. Yeah, as you say, we started off really bootstrapping the company. Myself and the other founder, Jonathan Chung, originally put in our own money and we spent a period of time working un-paid to get a sort of basic concept together and to build the kind of evidence of the market. We wrote a grant to Innovate UK, which is a funding body in the UK, and we won an award to basically build a proof of concept with that. So that gave us some initial funding and it let us build the first iteration of the product, and that was enough to sort of show it to customers and start getting more validation that there was a real need for this. And it was an exciting product. And that also helped us raise a seed round where Foresight Williams invested in the company to help us basically bring the product to market and scale-up. So we’ve raised money with that Foresight Williams fund. We’ve basically built an engineering team. We’ve brought the product forward into something that’s now market-ready, and we’re getting our first sales at the moment, so it’s really helped us bridge that gap that’s very challenging with a complex hardware product. But we’re in a really exciting place now because we’ve got a quite capable product, which has a lot of scope to add more features in the future as well. And we’re just getting those early sales, which is really kind of the scale-up point.
Tee Ganbold 13:01
And when you talk about early sales, I think you mentioned to me at least, that manufacturing is your main industry and focus but in fact, you can actually use this robot in dentistry or you can use it in various other sectors. I remember you particularly saying that because every person who sits on a dental chair is a different height and you don’t want to keep changing around the robot each time. So can you give us a few different use cases where you think your robot will be incredibly helpful?
Henry Wood 13:35
Absolutely. I mean, in terms of us sort of spec’ing my robot, essentially you’ve got an arm a bit longer than a human arm, but ultimately people can move their body, so it’s got a similar working space to a person. In this kind of configuration, it will lift up to 10 kilos, but our sweet spot is probably between five and three kilos for a payload. So really this can do any kind of handling tasks that a person would do. It’s particularly good when it’s a really repetitive task because you program it once and it can do it 1,000 times or 10,000 times. Manufacturing is one of those obvious areas where there’s a lot of repetition with people loading machines or pallets or doing assembly, but there are also some pretty different markets that have the same problem of just loading things and handling and manipulating objects in a repetitive way. So we’ve got applications in vertical farming where the robot is loading seedlings into trays and then they’re going through growing stages where they’re under artificial light. You mentioned the dentistry one. We’ve got a system where the robot’s basically mounted inverted to the ceiling—so it’s reaching down—and it’s got a camera on the end of it and that allows it to pan around. And what that can do is it can film with quite a high zoom lens inside the patient’s mouth, and that can be used to get medical records, a video or training video, and help the dentist. So those are just two examples. We’ve been working closely with a company that specializes in inspection and they’ve got a range of digital microscopes. So a digital microscope mounted on the end of the arm and the ability to program it to go to lots of different positions is really useful. An example might be if one of their customers makes up a large gear and they have to look at every tooth on the gear to inspect it. So the robot can very quickly be told, “Here’s the center of the gear. It’s this diameter and it’s got this many teeth.” And then the operator can sit there and just click “next,” “next,” “next,” and they can see each tooth precisely, and that’s much more efficient than manually trying to move the gear or the microscope for each one. So you can sort of see how it could be applied in lots of different sectors.
Tee Ganbold 15:35
In terms of your target audience, who are you targeting right now? Who would you like listening right now to see, “Right, I might need to call the Inovo guys. I think they might be able to help us.” Who would be your ideal customer for this stage of growth? That would be really helpful to know.
Henry Wood 15:59
The inspection sector is definitely an exciting sector for us. What we see is people inspecting a really wide range of different sized objects and the ability to sort of set up the robot with a long reach to look at a large part like an entire aircraft engine cowling or something like that. And then in a matter of minutes to set it up in a much shorter configuration to inspect a much smaller part like the individual turbine blade in the engine. That’s very powerful and we think it’s a really compelling case for this modular reconfigurable system for inspection. Inspections is also a very valuable sector. In most of the manufacturing industry there’s quite a large amount of cost that goes into inspection and quality control and the ability to automate that in a really user-friendly way is quite valuable there, so we’re targeting that as a particularly interesting area. We’ve actually got a partnership with a company called Exterra who makes a photogrammetry system and this allows our robot to basically take a number of images and round the par and then construct a really accurate 3D model of it. And that allows the customer to basically look at what they intended to build from the CAD file and what they’ve actually built, which the robots just scanned. And in a matter of a few minutes they can identify areas that are out of tolerance and that opens up the potential to do 100% inspection and pick up faults much earlier, which can be really, really valuable to companies manufacturing parts.
Tee Ganbold 17:23
That sounds fascinating. Partnerships in the robotics state seem to be absolutely crucial, simply because the end-user really needs a few different components to solve their challenge. And just going to your challenges. What are the challenges you’re facing right now in the context of COVID? And what are you really struggling with as a team? And you think, “Actually, we were struggling with this but, of course, these are the solutions we found.”
Henry Wood 17:54
COVID’s obviously got a huge impact on everyone right now. We’re seeing a change in the market. Some sectors are not doing as well as they were before COVID and some sectors are big growth areas, and so we’re having to adapt where we’re targeting our product a bit and we’re finding that’s been a positive thing, actually, that the growth sectors are potentially outweighing the sectors that are shrinking, but we still have to reposition how the robot gets used and what it does. In terms of our internal team, you know, it’s clearly been disruptive to have lockdowns and to make it harder to travel. We’ve got a good team here based in the UK who work together very well and we’ve been able to do some of our work over video conference. A lot of our work we still have to do in the office, so we actually have people coming in and doing testing and building and assembly and things throughout the lockdown. We’re finding we have to adapt very quickly and come up with new approaches, but we stay on top of it well. Not enjoying the challenge, but we’re coming up with good solutions to the problems that we’ve got.
Tee Ganbold 19:02
And from a commercial perspective, where do you see the greatest opportunity for your team? What are you excited about moving forward? You know, every crisis has also got a huge amount of opportunity to grow and make the most of, for example, the fact that a lot of people need space and the manufacturing hub seems to be why the industry is growing so much. What are you excited about as a team, as a company?
Henry Wood 19:34
In terms of the future, it’s a really exciting time to be in this space because cobots in particular (robots that can operate around people that are distinct from the industrial robots) are really the beginning of this exciting journey. Cobots aren’t widely used at the moment. Most manufacturers we visit haven’t used one themselves, don’t have one and so they’re at the beginning of their journey. It’s to imagine that within five years we’ll see a massive uptake. I mean, the figures are showing more than 50% a year growth in cobot space, which is much slower than the industrial space. Industrial space is really well established and there’s a lot of robots sold, but the cobot space is growing much, much faster and so it’s always exciting to be in an industry that’s moving so quickly. A lot of customers we speak to, I think they’re quite aware of this transition to using more automation, and then some people we speak to have a range of different applications they could do with a robot and they’re not necessarily too bothered about which one they start with. They’re more excited about getting on this journey themselves. They maybe have five different tasks they could automate but the thing that they really want to do is just start going on that journey, start working with the robot, and learning with it. And it’s very much what we see as well that the more we put them into people’s hands, the more the end-users, the manufacturing companies start to see the potential and start seeing more and more opportunities, and it creates this sort of natural growth. So that’s really exciting for us. And what we see in relation to COVID is particularly changing the way manufacturing is working because we’ve been very reliant on this international supply chain on importing parts from all over the world. That’s been quite heavily disrupted by limitations to travel, and so there’s more onshoring, there’s more desire to make products locally, which ultimately is good for the environment, and certainly good for the manufacturing sector in the UK. So seeing more desire to build things onshore rather than this general trend of “let’s get it manufactured in the Far East” or somewhere else. That’s not the value add. It’s quite exciting because I think is the sort of rebirth of manufacturing in this region, which I think would be really nice to see. I think there’s a lot of potential there, we just had too much of a mindset of offshoring it.
Tee Ganbold 21:52
Thank you so much, Henry. I mean, the movement towards onshoring is definitely a huge theme and what you’re doing for not only the industry but also the UK economy could be potentially very, very disruptive in a good way for UK manufacturers. So very exciting times ahead. Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to following the story.
Henry Wood 22:17
Great, appreciate it. Thanks for your time. Really nice to talk to you again.
Tee Ganbold 22:21
Thanks so much for listening! If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review and let us know what you liked. To follow along with future episodes, be sure to subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice, or head over to AutomatingTheChain.Com for the latest updates. Until next time!