AE Machines is a startup, that makes robotic automation accessible to small-batch manufacturers. AE’s award-winning web-based platform has two main “halves”; a software design area and a hardware design area. Designing an automated system in this tool is as easy as creating an iTunes playlist. Each area is a block-based environment where users can design their system without writing tedious lines of code. Blocks in the software design area are called primitives; blocks in the hardware design area are called parts. The split between the two areas demonstrates the power of reprogrammable automation; the same parts can be associated with different primitives for different behavior. This beta tool works with Arduino microcontrollers and related hardware. More importantly, it inspires the organization’s approach to industrial integrations where the organization implement industrial PLCs alongside graphic HMIs that allow workers to change the behavior of its integrated systems on the fly. AE Machines’ vision is to create tools that empower everyone – from factory workers to engineers to business owners – to leverage the benefits of automation in a variety of processes.
An Experienced Leader
Amy LaViers is the Co-founder and President of AE Machines. She has completed her PhD and MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Tech. She also has a BSE in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University. Amy is also an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign in the Mechanical Science and Engineering Department with a research focus in supervisory control for sequencing and modulating robotics primitives. The mechanical engineering department at UIUC is ranked 4th by US New and World Reports. Her approach to robotic system design is informed by a lifetime as a dancer and choreographer where complex motion designs are communicated easily between individuals during rehearsals and classes.
Excels at Integrating Cutting Edge Technology for its Clients
AE Machines works on integrations for small-to-medium sized businesses that want flexible automation cells in their small-batch process across multiple verticals. The organization serves clients who want to reconfigure their automation frequently, and works closely to understand how the system needs to be flexible in order to serve the client’s process. From traditional industrial PLCs to collaborative robotic arms to computer vision libraries, it excels at integrating cutting edge technology for its clients. Further, the team will work to learn how to incorporate niche hardware as requested or needed by the client. Solutions from AE Machines are easy-to-use and made with factory workers and job-site managers in mind. The organization leverages web-based tools that allow for remote updates, troubleshooting, and support. All of these offerings support clients in small-batch processes where requirements change over time. AE Machines also offers consulting for existing system integrators who want to adopt a similar approach.
Solving Needs of Manufacturers
By working with AE Machines, manufacturers are getting automation cells that are robust enough to solve the current needs of the manufacturer and flexible enough to be applied to future jobs and products. AE Machines not only programs and builds automated cells for use in their factories, but it also works to provide a flexible solution that can be reprogrammed and reused on other products. This increases the uptime of the machines, increasing their profitability and decreasing the payback period. This means that even small manufacturing companies that take diverse work orders from a variety of larger companies can take rote, redundant, and repetitive factory floor tasks, currently done by hand, and use automation to execute them.
A Different Organization
The approach hawked by many is that automation will completely remove human users. However, the organization thinks this is a flawed vision and that automation systems needs to leverage the intelligence of human workers to expand the use cases of automation past large-batch highmargin processes. So, AE Machines’ approach is focused on users and flexibility. This focus allows its customers more freedom in how they use their automation cells and the number of products it can help create. Further, AE Machines’ team members’ backgrounds in web-based software and robotics gives it a unique, forward-looking tool set that enables its designs. The organization’s goal is to continually lower the barrier – in terms of both process requirements and technical talent – to robotic automation.
Tackling Bad Patches and Future Roadmap
AE Machines started with the idea that it can make automation integration and maintenance easier and more flexible for manufacturers. It has been funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps grant during which it conducted hundreds of customer interviews. This led to follow on funding from NSF in the form of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant, which has allowed AE Machines to build and iterate on AE Machines’ beta software tool that has already garnered acclaim for its innovation, winning Product Design of the Year at the 4th Revolution Awards in Chicago, IL this past October. Currently, the organization is under consideration for more NSF funding. The biggest challenge so far has been getting manufacturers and system integrators to believe in its approach. The organization is starting to see more traction as its initial integrations are starting to demonstrate that AE Machines’ approach can work in hightouch processes.
Currently, AE Machines is available to implement automation integrations for manufacturers and, in parallel, improving the capabilities of its online design tool. Right now, the organizations’ focus is on building a track record with a variety of customers and becoming the leading system integrator for flexible automation solutions for small-batch processes. Eventually, AE wants its online design tool to serve its industrial customers directly, allowing for greater autonomy for the clients. It can empower manufacturers, including system integrators and OEMs, to program and reprogram simple automated systems without relying on large, expensive engineering teams. In parallel, this can allow workers with little to no coding or hardware experience to be an integral part of implementing and maintaining automated cells, creating higher paying roles for those workers.