(Corrects paragraph 4 to say McNamara is current Flex CEO rather than former Flex CEO)
By Stephen Nellis
(Reuters) - A group of former executives from Autodesk Inc and Flex Ltd has raised $179 million in venture capital for a manufacturing startup that aims to use a combination of robots and new software to remove much of the manual labor from manufacturing electronic devices.
San Francisco-based Bright Machines focuses on two areas. One is “micro-factories” made up of its software and robot cells it says its customers are using in half a dozen countries to replace the people who assemble and inspect electronics. The other area is new software tools to make the manufacturing process more efficient.
Bright Machines did not name its customers, but said they use its micro-factories to make hundreds of thousands of products that can be found “in your driveway, in your pocket or in a hospital,” Chief Executive Officer Amar Hanspal told Reuters.
Hanspal was the co-CEO of software maker Autodesk along with Carl Bass, who sits on the new startup’s board. Also on the Bright Machines board is former Flex executive Lior Susan, founder of Eclipse Ventures, which led the funding round, and Flex CEO Mike McNamara.
Among them, the executives have seen the manufacturing process end to end. Autodesk’s flagship software, AutoCAD, is used to design items like circuit boards. And Flex is the world’s third largest contract manufacturer, having made gadgets for Fitbit Inc in the past, among others.
Robots can take months to set up and train and then are good at only one task. Bright Machines wants to make its robots adaptable, on the fly, to make many kinds of “electronics in a box” such as a smart phone or networking devices for data centers.
Hanspal thinks Bright Machines can plug software gaps. For example, when engineers design parts, the design files contain information about the shape and size of the parts. But the information never tends to make it to the factory to help train the robots, which run on a separate software system.
The goal is a machine on which gadget designers can upload a design file and have raw material fed in one end of the machine and a gadget spit out the other. And the machines could just as easily be in California as in China.
“One customer we’re working with explicitly wants to make their products in the U.S.,” Hanspal said. “It’s not a political thing. They want to make their products where their company is.”
Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe