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December 5, 2022 Startups, Technology & Innovation

CT startup aims to address welder shortage with robotic automation

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Chief Technology Officer Carlos Martinez demonstrates Scalable Robotics’ software, which the Ellington-based startup says enables any size manufacturer to quickly program a robot to weld.
PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED The Scalable programming software allows an operator to teach the robot the positions of the welds by clicking a handheld stylus along the desired approach, path and departure points of the weld.

A Connecticut startup is developing software that can help humans more easily program complex robots to perform welding tasks, in an effort to help mitigate workforce shortages plaguing manufacturers and other industries across the country.

Scalable Robotics, an Ellington-based technology company, said it has developed software that allows manufacturers and other customers to easily program welding robots without any prior robotics or coding experience. Its product is essentially a robot training interface that serves as a “point-and-click” method of teaching an automated machine a task.

Scalable Robotics CEO Tom Fuhlbrigge co-founded the company with Chief Technology Officer Carlos Martinez out of a garage in November 2019. Fuhlbrigge and Martinez both previously worked for Switzerland-based ABB, one of the world’s largest robotics and automation technology companies. They left the company and started Scalable Robotics after ABB moved its Connecticut operations elsewhere.

After taking time to tweak and strengthen the software during the pandemic, Scalable Robotics is looking ahead to a potential growth year. It is fresh off an investment from Connecticut Innovations (CI) and a newly announced strategic partnership with the co-founders’ former employer.

“We’re literally a garage startup,” Fuhlbrigge said.

Addressing a problem

According to data from the American Welding Society, there is expected to be a 400,000-person welder shortage by 2024, as current welders age out of their jobs and retire at a higher rate than young workers are being trained and employed to replace them.

“The average age of welders is well into the 50s,” said Douglas Roth, a deal manager at Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture capital arm and an investor in Scalable Robotics. “There’s such a push to go into more of a four-year college program rather than a trade school, so we’re not replenishing the welders as they retire.”

There’s particular demand for welders in Connecticut by large manufacturers like East Hartford jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney and submarine maker Electric Boat. They’re seeking thousands of new hires, with welders being among the most in demand.

“At the end of the day you have this lack of welders, but these companies still need welding to get done,” Roth said.

Fuhlbrigge agreed. He said he’s heard an anecdote that for every new welder that enters the workforce, two retire.

He said Scalable Robotics’ technology is not about replacing welders, but making them more productive.

“You need to have a welder there, someone who knows where the welds go and what a good weld looks like,” Fuhlbrigge said.

Scalable Robotics makes digital programming software for manufacturers working across several industries, but has an acute focus on, and existing customers in, the metal fabrication sector. Scalable equips robots with camera and sensor technologies and a tablet-like screen interface that makes it easy for companies to implement automated robots into their production processes.

Scalable’s programming software features a 3-D camera in a protective box attached to the robot end-of-arm tooling.

Fuhlbrigge said the company’s programming interface is easy to learn and requires no computer-aided design or robot programming experience.

The product allows a human welder to teach a task to the robot in the same way they would teach another person — essentially by using a stylus to point to where the weld should be applied and letting the robot learn its own path to do the work.

Fuhlbrigge said training welders to program traditional robots is expensive — it can cost more than $15,000 per person. By taking out the need to learn to code, Scalable Robotics’ system allows a welder to teach a robot within the first day of use.

The software aims to help companies weld more parts in less time while minimizing scrap and maximizing quality, officials said.

Connecticut Innovations invested $750,000 during the company’s September fundraising round. Roth said CI was attracted to Scalable partially because of its potential to empower existing welders.

“What Scalable is doing is trying to bridge that divide and allow the experienced, knowledgeable welder, through the platform, to very easily create essentially a programming code and program the robot,” Roth said.

Roth said he also sees potential for the company beyond welding. For example, its software could be adopted for other complex tasks like painting, polishing or milling.

“There are a lot of other robotic automation platforms that the Scalable Robotics system could eventually integrate with,” Roth said.

Growth through investment

CI wasn’t the only entity to back Scalable Robotics this year. Ironically, the co-founders’ former employer, ABB, was the lead investor in the company’s seed funding round, and the two companies announced a strategic partnership in October. According to Crunchbase, Scalable Robotics, which currently employs three people, raised $2.5 million in the recent funding round.

ABB said the partnership will allow it to use Scalable Robotics’ programming system in its existing software and products. The move means Scalable Robotics’ interface will go into ABB’s new robots moving forward, Fuhlbrigge said, and old machines can be retrofitted with the technology.

“What ABB will do is they’ll sell a robot with our camera, computer and software already pre-installed,” Fuhlbrigge said. “Right now we only work with ABB robots and all our new systems will go through ABB.”

Fuhlbrigge said ABB is the “ideal partner” to help bring Scalable’s technology to market globally. He worked at the European company for 25 years — 13 of which he was global manager for next-generation robotics — so he is familiar with how ABB’s robots operate and can be improved.

Marc Segura, president of ABB’s robotics division, said to tackle the welder shortage, “we need to aid the adoption of robots by providing technology that is simple to use and easy to program, enabling manufacturers to easily introduce automated solutions.”

With a new international partnership, Scalable Robotics is looking to grow globally. The company showcased its products in November as part of ABB’s booth at FABTECH 2022, a fabrication technology industry show that took place in Atlanta.

Fuhlbrigge said he did more than 80 live welding demonstrations at the event.

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