Last summer, as a guest of a large industrial conglomerate, we took a week in steamy August to visit several factories—including power and lighting facilities in the Carolinas. We expected to see factories exemplary of the future manned by robots and fully automated with digital screens and wearable devices. At NEA, we’ve invested in several companies that are relevant within these environments including Upskill, which offers a platform for leveraging wearables in the enterprise to increase efficiencies of even the most tedious assemblies, and DesktopMetal, which recently announced how their 3D printers for fabricating production-ready metal parts can drastically expedite the manufacturing process. The level of automation and frankly, the need for advancement vary widely across the manufacturing landscape and as we walked the floors of the lighting facility, for example, we noted how prevalent white boards and note pads still are. We saw how vast the needs for digitizing the shop floor are and yet, why it can’t happen overnight.
Co-founders Natan Linder and Rony Kubat and the team at Tulip are focused on this problem—the line-by-line digitization of manufacturing shop floors, particularly those high-throughput production facilities that haven’t refined or revised their production processes much since the digital revolution began. The table stakes in these environments are high. Plant managers lose sleep when production schedules deviate even slightly from the norm and as a result, many have been reluctant to introduce enabling technologies over the years except as part of large-scale, plant-wide deployments (dubbed “rip and replacements”) that require thorough technology vetting from IT. As a result, they are basically devoid of real time measurement and feedback that modern technology such as smartphones or cloud based analytics dashboards provide. We appreciate these tools as table stakes in the professional software development world. In the manufacturing world, while management teams have approved over $71B of spend on software, most of this has gone to back-office systems like Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Supply Chain Management (SCM), and Management Execution Systems (MES), leaving the hands-on workforce on the shop floor stuck in the past and unable to do their jobs as effectively or efficiently as they could be. Instead, line operators and process engineers tweak productivity through a combination of clipboards, stopwatches, and binders filled with paper-based instructions.
Today, we’re announcing our investment in Tulip, a Somerville-based company born out of MIT and the Boston area’s growing ecosystem around industrial and manufacturing technology. Tulip is navigating the dynamics of the manufacturing world to introduce what we know in the software world leads to transparency and eventually greater efficiency. What impressed us most about their technical approach is that the team, having lived in the robotics space for years, truly understands how software and technology adoption happen differently in manufacturing. Yet, they believe bite size, SaaS-like “land and expand” deployments are possible and manufacturing is ripe for this sort of change. We’re thrilled to partner with Natan, Rony and team, bringing NEA’s combined experience in both SaaS investing and modern manufacturing technology.