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McRock Connects with Triax to Optimize Workplace Safety and Efficiency

McRock leads US$12.5 million Series A financing in connected worker solutions company.

Built for the toughest industries in the world, Connecticut-based Triax Technologies, Inc. is advancing the digital transformation on worksites in construction, energy, mining, and manufacturing. The company’s wearable IoT solutions provide data-driven visibility to elevate worksite safety, productivity, and security, while minimizing health and safety risks.

McRock led the US$12.5 million Series A financing that included participation from Connecticut Innovations and existing investors. As part of the financing, McRock Co-founder & Managing Partner, Scott MacDonald, has joined the Triax Board.

Triax recently launched a wearable technology that provides key worker-to-worker, worker-to-location and worker-to-equipment-based intelligence to deliver insights into daily operations. In addition to real-time safety alerts that proactively notify workers before entering hazardous areas, the latest solution automates headcount and hours for daily reporting and labor billing verification. The solution also tracks equipment utilization, identifies bottlenecks causing inefficiency and supports social distancing and digital contact tracing.

Triax achieved strong growth in 2020, adding many new clients and industry verticals, including energy, mining and manufacturing, to its well-established construction client base. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Triax quickly became a critical partner in creating a safe work environment to keep their customers’ doors open during the Covid pandemic through social distancing and contact tracing.

This is McRock’s second investment within weeks in the rapidly growing connected worker sector. On June 7, the fund announced it had participated in the US$25 million investment in Poka Inc.

mcrock poka blog

McRock Jumps into Poka to Connect and Empower Frontline Factory Workers

Poka closes US$25 million Series B round to connect workers as the foundation of a digital transformation strategy.

Do the Poka…

The name Poka Yoke is the Japanese term for mistake proofing. The idea behind Poka was inspired by the challenges its CEO & Co-founder, Alex Leclerc, experienced while working at his 114 year old family food manufacturing business Leclerc. Which, for the record, makes some of the best cookies in the world.

Alexander teamed up with Antoine Bisson, a life-long friend and former engineer at Microsoft and Ubisoft, to create a software tool built specifically for manufacturers. Poka, a leading connected worker platform, has raised $25 million in Series B financing in support of the company’s next phase of growth. McRock Capital and 40 North Ventures joined existing investors Schneider Electric Ventures, CDPQ, Robert Bosch Venture Capital, and Leclerc in this financing round.

The manufacturing sector is facing a perfect storm of challenges from a worsening skills crisis, increased operational complexity and workforce volatility caused by the pandemic. According to a recent study from The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte (2021), 77% of manufacturers say they will have ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in 2021 and beyond. Poka helps address these challenges by giving factory workers the ability to learn continuously and solve problems more autonomously at the point of need.

Many industrial leaders including Nestlé, Bosch, Johnson & Johnson and Tetra Pak have committed to developing workforce competencies and operational knowledge by including Poka as a pillar of their digital transformation strategy. “The concept of connecting every single worker was the foundation of our digital journey and supports a highly collaborative culture while ensuring high quality standards for the production of Purina’s pet care products,” shared Paul Ingram, Director Digital Manufacturing Operations, Nestlé Purina. “We believe having workers connected and able to get information whenever and wherever they are in the factory is key to agility and our ability to continue advancing and innovating our processes.”

Digitally connected workers are empowered workers

Alex and the team at Poka have a goal to help their manufacturing clients turn every production problem on the factory floor into an opportunity to build collective knowledge, learn and improve.
For the McRock team, sampling high-quality cookies from the Leclerc factory might be one of the best investment analysis tasks we have ever done. More high-quality cookies please…

atlasrobot

Are robots taking over the world? Yes, and we think it’s a good thing!

Here’s why…

When humans and machines work together, we get better, faster and safer ways of moving the world forward and we have countless examples throughout history to prove it.

The monumental progress in automation has expanded the capabilities of modern machines to unprecedented levels, giving the human world a considerable leg up in advancing productivity, performance and safety across industrial sectors. This is a good thing.

And yet, we still face growing concern over the job-destroying potential of these innovations, a topic that has only gained momentum recently with the impact of Covid-19 accelerating automation projects.

This isn’t the first time advancements in technology have created a challenge between humans and machines. (No, we are not talking about the Terminator, although a rogue Atlas robot can get pretty close!).

This resistance goes back to the early 1800s when cotton and wool workers rebelled against the power looms, seen as a threat to hand weavers. This type of resistance continued with events like the Swing riots and goes on today with protests against automated checkout stations and self-driving trucks.

Were any of these conflicts successful in rolling back the progress? Not even close.

On the contrary, when you look at robotics throughout history, we repeatedly see how humans and machines working together makes change for the better.

Introducing industrial robots –  Hello Knucklehead!

More than 65 years ago, in 1956, George Devol an American inventor and physicist, made an early prototype of what he then called a “Programmed Article Transfer device”. Three years and many iterations later, his invention translated into the first industrial-grade robotic arm, named Unimate. General Motors was the first company to deploy this 2700-pound robot on a diecasting assembly line in Trenton, New Jersey. In a very short period, approximately 450 Unimate robotic arms were deployed in diecasting by large and small manufacturers. Machine operators nicknamed the robot as “Knucklehead”.  Manufacturers and Unimation were supported by the worker unions because the new equipment wasn’t used to displace workers. New robots were added only in response to attrition, which was high given the harsh working environment of the diecasting shops.

Almost parallelly, KUKA developed its first automatic welding system and a few years later FANUC shipped its first numerical control (NC) machines. Robotics technology in the decades that followed moved from hydraulic systems to all-electric robots primarily serving the automotive manufacturing industry.

The primary theme of these early innovations was their focus on automating tasks that were too dangerous for humans to continue doing, particularly while pushing the boundaries of productivity. The machine operators largely welcomed the knuckleheads and robotic arms in favour of moving to higher skilled jobs within the firms.

These robots can move…on their own

Move over Elmer, Elsie, Shaky and Flakey and make room for CARMEL! (Autonomously, of course)

The first autonomous robots go back to 1948 when William Grey Walter created two ‘tortoises’: Elmer and Elsie. While they never made their way into industrial applications, they were the cornerstones. Twenty years later, in 1968, the first mobile robot, affectionately named ‘Shakey’ was developed at Stanford Research institute (SRI). Shakey, at one point referred to as the “first electronic person”, had a deep impact on robotics and AI research. Shakey’s successor – Flakey was launched in 1985, but got its butt kicked by the University of Michigan hero, CARMEL, at the first AMR competition held in 1992. Since the days of CARMEL, AMRs have come a long way. NASA, an early adopter of these advanced mobile robots, used them primarily for exploration purposes. Several years later, AMRs made their mainstream debut in the industrial verticals with warehousing applications. The logistics industry quickly started to deploy AMRs to move goods from one point to another. Packed with some of the best technology that exists today, AMRs in industrial environments not only improve efficiency and productivity, but also conditions for workers. AMRs take on repetitive and cumbersome jobs, giving workers an opportunity to move to other more skilled tasks requiring human expertise.

And they’re getting stronger

Imagine bench-pressing a Toyota Camry?

Earlier this month, Clearpath, a McRock Capital portfolio company launched the 2nd generation of its OTTO 1500 AMR. In 2015, they were the first-to-market in the heavy-class AMR. When we say heavy class, the OTTO 1500s really mean business. This thing can lift your Camry and do a bench press with it.  Today, AMRs have fundamentally changed industrial material handling workflows and opened doors for deeper robot-to-robot interactions.

AMR platforms like OTTO, equipped with arms and manipulators, can take on far more challenging use cases like mobile picking, truck loading and unloading in verticals like logistics, retail and manufacturing. A glimpse of the possibilities were flaunted at the launch of Stretch systems a few weeks ago.

Yikes! Now they can see

Machine vision as a concept dates back as far as the 1930s, when Electronic Sorting Machines offering food, used sorters based on specific filters and photomultiplier detectors. Modern day vision systems started with Cognex, founded 1981, producing its first vision system, DataMan, an industrial optical character recognition (OCR) system capable of reading and verifying the quality of text marked directly on parts and components. In the same year, the industry also witnessed the first production implementation of a machine vision system right here in Canada.  A General Motors foundry at the St. Catherines, Ontario, used Consight-I systems to successfully sort up to six different castings at up to 1,400 an hour from a belt conveyor using three industrial robots. Now, that’s impressive!

Today, “3D vision” is perhaps the most important breakthrough giving robots a more complete understanding of their environments. It also lets robots handle unexpected variables better, helps machines collaborate with humans safely and enables robots to perform new tasks on the fly without constant reprogramming.

Humans and machines – the best of both worlds

Should we be worried about these robots that now have arms, vision, mobility and can also use AI to teach itself? Aren’t they getting a little too close to humans? The short answer is, NO.

There is no way to reduce automation to a simple binary between “manual” and “autonomous.” Instead, it is about finding the right balance between aspects that we would find useful to automate and tasks where it remains meaningful for humans to participate. There are many practical benefits of humans participating in automation systems. Let’s call this human/machine interaction, hybrid systems.

These hybrid systems take away the pressure of building perfect algorithms (if any such thing exists). Using human intelligence and interaction, automation systems are exempted from getting everything right while also making it a quick and efficient deployment.  Further, hybrid systems can incorporate human preferences, a flexibility that lacks in otherwise autonomous systems. Finally, an important advantage of such systems is transparency. When humans and AI undertake a task alongside one another, it becomes harder and harder for the process to remain hidden. This transparency helps in getting buy-in from the operators and decision makers alike, a very key requirement for a solution to scale in the industrial sectors.

This hybrid philosophy is at the heart of one of McRock’s portfolio companies, Plus One Robotics, where they believe Robots Work, People Rule! as they pioneer human-in-the-loop (HITL) systems. The company gives robots the eye-hand coordination to pick and place objects in the warehouses and distribution centers using 3D and AI-powered perception, so robots get smarter over time. Plus One-enabled robots can occasionally call for help from digitally connected humans called, Crew Chiefs.

Erik Nieves, Plus One founder says “We believe the future of robots isn’t to try to continue to make robots smarter, but to connect robots to smart people”. Well said, Erik!

Robots taking over the world? Yes. Taking over the role of humans in the world? Not today Wall•E.

As for the “robopocalypse”, we’ll leave that for feature films and science fiction novels.

Authors: Udit Bhatnagar and Akira Tanabe

mcrock increases investment in thoughtrace

McRock Increases Investment in ThoughtTrace

Providing Further Growth Capital for the AI-Powered Document Intelligence Company

Since McRock led the Series B investment in Texas-based ThoughtTrace back in May of 2020, the company has achieved strong growth. As predicted at the time of the initial investment, renewable energy has become a significant vertical market expansion opportunity for the company.

McRock’s investment thesis around digitizing a physical asset, such as a wind farm, is that to maximize the full value of digital asset management, every aspect related to the physical infrastructure needs to be translated into data so machine learning software can be applied. In the case of the wind farm, this also includes the management of the various written contracts that govern the asset such as land agreements, power purchase agreements, interconnection agreements, insurance, and OEM warranties.

ThoughtTrace’s AI-powered Document Intelligence platform reduces wind and solar operating costs through digitalization, starting with the documents that govern these power assets. In addition to massive productivity gains, customers that have harnessed the software platform have drastically reduced OPEX, minimized corporate risk, and even discovered new opportunities worth millions to the bottom line.

McRock has invested a further $1.2 million bringing our total investment into ThoughtTrace since May 2020 to $7.2 million. The additional investment will be used to accelerate the expansion of the sales team.

mcrock capital leads plus one robotics

McRock Leads Plus One Robotics $33 Million Series B Financing

At the heart of McRock’s investment strategy is the importance of human-machine collaboration. Robotics and self-improving automation are key pillars of the significant advancement that will occur in the Industrial IoT over the next decade. To further McRock’s leadership in the Robotics sector, we have led the US$33 million Series B financing in San Antonio, Texas-based Plus One Robotics Inc.

Plus One’s mission is to bring industrial robotics into the warehouse. Founded in 2016 by some of the smartest minds in the robotics sector, the company has quickly become the leading provider of vision software for logistics robots. Plus One’s 3D and AI-powered perception software, PickOne, works with any robot arm, gripper, and cloud service to deliver precise hand-eye coordination enabling robots to perform a range of warehouse tasks.

The human-machine collaboration is managed by Yonder, Plus One’s robot supervision software. The system leverages human intelligence to handle exceptions for the variety of items passing from dock to door. One human, or Crew Chief, currently manage up to 50 robots remotely, allowing companies to meet the demands of the 24/7 consumer. This critical collaboration between human and machine is the essence of Plus One Robotics where “plus one” in the company’s name is the human. The Crew Chief prevents the robot from stopping when it encounters a challenging pick and the human’s decision is used to train the AI so the robot knows exactly what to do the next time the same challenge is encountered. Over time, the robot will need less human instruction and each Crew Chief will be able to oversee an increasing number of robots. Plus One’s slogan is “Robots Work, People Rule”.

Other investors in the financing round include McRock’s Limited Partner Kensington Capital as well as TransLink Ventures, BMWi Ventures and Ironspring Ventures. McRock’s Co-founder and Managing Partner, Whitney Rockley, has joined Plus One’s Board of Directors and Vice President, Siddharth Srivastava has joined the Board as an observer.

In September 2020, McRock participated in Clearpath Robotics’ US$34 million Series C financing. Clearpath and its OTTO Motors division, enable the world’s largest companies to create safer and more productive workplaces with autonomous mobile robots (AMR). Clearpath Robotics are the feet and Plus One Robotics are the hands in a warehouse.