Video and audio: How the 'DIY' approach can help your industrial automation

Feb. 29, 2024
Vention Founder and CEO Etienne Lacroix joins Smart Industry to talk about how smaller industrials—not just the big boys—can affordably bring automation to their operations.

Our guest from Vention, Etienne Lacroix, explains that automated factory ops—where technology and machines perform specific tasks with little or no need for human assistance—aren't exclusively for big manufacturers with huge budgets. In fact, the “DIY” approach is “democratizing” automation for SMBs, enabling anyone with baseline manufacturing experience to adopt and adapt.

This program with Etienne Lacroix also was an episode of our podcast, Great Question: A Manufacturing Podcast. So you can listen in to this or any other episode in the ongoing series.

Transcript of the program

Hello everyone and welcome to another Smart Industry program. I'm Scott Achelpohl, Managing Editor of SI, and I'm joined today by Etienne Lacroix, founder and CEO of Vention, a manufacturing automation platform. Behind the scenes as my producer today is Robert Schoenberger, who is editor-in-chief of Smart Industry.

The title of our program is: “For All the People: How DIY Automation Is Transforming More Small and Medium-Sized Manufacturing Businesses.”

As the title of the program implies, we're going to be talking about how automation is becoming more accessible for small and medium-size manufacturers, or SMBs.

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Our guest today, Etienne Lacroix, will explain that automated factory operations—where technology and machines perform specific tasks with little or no need for human assistance—aren't exclusively for big manufacturers with huge budgets. In fact, the DIY approach is “democratizing” automation for SMBs, enabling anyone with baseline manufacturing experience to adopt and adapt.

Many people perceive automation as best suited to larger manufacturing businesses, but this is not the case anymore. Smaller manufacturers can significantly benefit from automation, but often there's a lack of awareness of automation solutions and the benefits they can provide.

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Smaller manufacturers often don't know what automation applications are out there, and the significant advantages they can bring together with the problems they can solve. Clearing this up is what our program is all about today.

That said, welcome to our program, Etienne. Please enlighten us on this topic and DIY automation solutions.

Etienne Lacroix: Thanks Scott for having me today, and I'm quite excited to talk about DIY automation with you.

Scott Achelpohl: Great, Etienne, we have some questions to spark our conversation today. We'll go ahead and begin the Q&A portion of our program.

I'll start off with this question: What is DIY automation, exactly? And how does it have the effect of making automation itself more accessible for small and midsize businesses, or SMBs? If you would, please give us the basics.

Etienne Lacroix: And I will start by talking about why small, medium businesses are not automating as much as they should today. And it's not because they face less cost pressure than bigger enterprises. It's not because they face less labor shortages than bigger enterprises as well. I think the reason why we see small and medium manufacturing automating at a much lower rate than large enterprises—it's simply because it's not profitable for them to do.

So, if you think about a shop floor, most manufacturing assets will be custom-made or unique. And that’s mostly because manufacturers produce goods that are unique themselves and, therefore, deserve unique and custom assets. And today, if you want to create those custom assets, you're probably going to subcontract the help of an engineering firm or a system integrator to assist you through that journey, right?

The system integrator will take various components from traditional provider of industrial automation and try to assemble them into a robot cells or automated equipment. Doing that is actually quite complex and it will consume significant time.

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I like to say there's nothing more manual than industrial automation because of the sheer amount of engineering needed to create those custom machines. And that basically leads to the cost of automation. You have to pay for all the hardware and the technology from the traditional player. Plus, you have to pay for the engineering firm that might assist you through that journey.

So, what we're trying to do at Vention is to provide tools where a manufacturer can actually do it by themselves. And that's really the core of do-it-yourself automation. To be successful, there's a couple of things that need to be true.

One is we tend to favor an approach where components are plug and play. There's no wiring, terminal wires, terminal blocks, enclosure, all those things are removed. They're constructed to pass where somebody who's a manufacturing professional, who has processed knowledge but might not be a roboticist or control expert can figure it out by themselves. And as soon as this is true, we see those teams and I'll talk about those that start to perhaps take a first entry-level use cases and realize then by themself in what I call a platform.

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Or a place where the design aspect, the programming aspect, the deployment assistance, and the operational machine have been united by a digital workflow that makes the experience very, very simple. And as those businesses start with do-it-yourself, information grows. What we tend to see is they form advanced manufacturing teams. Initially, this might be a single person, but over time this team grows, and they will be responsible for driving the automation agenda internally.

And that's really what the trend we've been witnessing since 2017. Before then, everything was driven, perhaps through external help, and we see more and more small to medium manufacturers reducing costs, making automation profitable for them.

Scott Achelpohl: Great answer, Etienne. Our next question, what advice would you have for SMBs seeking to start their industrial automation journey? Where do you where you go? What's the ground floor?

Etienne Lacroix: So today, I think over the years we've served 4,000 different manufacturers. We had a chance to see a lot of data points in the market around how the teams are leveraging platform and plug-and-play components to start their DIY automation journey.

And there's a couple of things that, for us, kind of became truth that leads to success. The first one is you have to start small. I always tell our users and our client: Make sure you have a project that has good ROI, but you don't need to take the project that have the biggest ROI as.

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Your first one: You want to take the project that will lead to technology success because you need the success to convince management to build. This is a foundation of internal skill that will lead to something more complex. So, this first project you obviously want a great ROI and a great payback, but the goal isn’t necessarily to maximize it, because if that first project is not a success, management will likely shut down other ones, and the benefit of DIY automation will never materialize. So, start small.

The second thing: Make sure the person leading that project internally is what I call a technical. Obviously, you want somebody who can speak to management and understand management, but I would not make that project lead primarily a technical manager. You want a technical champion. There will be … a little bit of complexity, not a decent amount, but for example, what you're showing on the screen. It's nothing extremely complex, but people that will be passionate about maybe learning the basics of robotics or the basics of programming in a code-free environment and that will make sure that between the platform you're using and the user realizing that first. That will lead to success.

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Scott Achelpohl: Excellent, very informative. Another question, automation is, of course, about technology. So which tech that drives automation is more accessible now than ever before to smaller and less moneyed manufacturers?

Etienne Lacroix: Varying degrees of answer here, but I think what we witnessed in the industry since 2017 is how much more “productized” industrial automation has become. When I was a young assistant integrator myself, you bought the bare bones, the very fundamental building blocks, the PSC, the drive, the safety system. And you're the one that needs to be an expert on it all.

Of those things, you're very close to the action and what you saw over the years is prepackaged solutions, making industrial automation much easier to absorb? The industry is now operating at a higher level of abstraction than they used to, just five or six years ago.

I think what also changed quite a bit is the birth of what I call “platforming.” We have productization on the hardware side, but you’re starting also see platforming on the software side, and again an environment where a practitioner could be an expert but could be an emerging practitioner in the field of industrial automation. The start of designing a program could be in a programmatic environment or could be in a code-free environment.

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Scott Achelpohl: And if you could rank the more accessible automation technologies, which ones are must-haves for small and medium-size businesses? You talked about this briefly, but could you expand on that.

Etienne Lacroix: I think the starting point of all this [was] back in 2012, where we shift from industrial robotics to Cobot, right? And to me that changed the entire dynamic of the industry because no longer you need to rely on offline programming. A robot could be programmed on the edge by the practitioner of that trade, directly. And that changed quite a bit.

Nobody knows welding better than a welder, nobody knows painting better than a painter, right? And when you give a tool that is simple enough to the trade and they can program the robot … to me that was a breakthrough in that industry over the years. That change obviously was compounded by what I just described, plug-and-play components.

So not only do you have the robot arm, but you also have plug-and-play safety plug and play in feed plug and play out feed part presentation. You don't want to all those things that surround the robot. To become a project, you want this to be as easy as the robot themselves, and I think over the years you saw those things that surround the cobot taking place now and and making sure that, yes, the robot is easy to program, but everything else that needs to live around the robot is just as easy.

Scott Achelpohl: Of course, Vention's business is all about custom software and automated equipment development. We hear a lot of talk about scalability. How key is this to tailoring products for customers based on the size of their industrial operation and the level of automation they can afford?

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Etienne Lacroix: It's a great question. You know, one of the key decisions, I would say, probably the most important decision, we took when we started Vention was where we put the modularity point on the platform. And we decided to create Lego bricks and thus show Lego bricks. And there's 4,000 of them, now available in the environment.

So that's how, when we work with the client, we're going to reuse Lego bricks that have been used in thousands of other permutations of that hardware, so its behavior is known inside out. And we make sure that we never reinvent the wheel.

I like to say there's no orphan project. That's true from a hardware perspective, but also true from a software perspective. All those Lego-like machines that were created are a great example of machines running on the same software stack, on the same control, on the same motor on the same actuator, on the same robot. So that gives us now like 4,000 Legos or the ability to customize and tailor quite significantly.

Without ending up with something that doesn't scale, because those components are known inside and out, I like to say that when you're realizing an industrial automation project, there's always two types of risk: technology risk and process risk. Technology risk is making all the components work with one another to achieve a certain performance level. Process risk is how a standardized 11 unit VIN feed will come after the other one.

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I like to use the example of boxes. If we're adding a machine to cut open boxes, most boxes will be taped very squared and the blade will cut the side very nicely, but maybe a couple blocks will be taped … not squared off and the blade will go in the void and not cut open the box. And that's a process problem, right? And when you start to platform, you eliminate the first risk, you eliminate the technology risk. You know that the component will work, and the software will work because they've been tested over thousands and thousands of permutations.

The process risk remains with manufacturers that trade in the welder or the painter who has this process knowledge. But if you give them tools that are easy enough, they're able to use the tool, bring their process expertise in, and you get to a much more different risk profile for the overall. All industrial automation projects [are] very, very different than perhaps six to seven years ago.

Scott Achelpohl: Now I’ll give you I give you an opportunity to tout some real success stories. Can you give us a few examples of success stories from the field? (i.e., industry, application, complexity, etc.)

Etienne Lacroix: I've learned from so many manufacturing industries that had never previously been exposed to. And I'll talk about one, a midsize manufacturer of furniture. And this is a great story because it's a private-equity backed business, very ROI oriented, roughly 100 million worth of revenue, did not have an industrial automation team prior to that, and they basically did a test-and-invest approach. They wanted a certain pick-and-place operation as part of the furniture assembly, and they started with one. One robot cell. They had their one technical champion and invested 40 hours.

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They did the first robot cell, 40 hours of training at the Vention Training Center, and they waited for the ROI to materialize. This took roughly three months for that first project to be designed and purchased. Deploy program and ROI validated by their team after that. After that success, they hired a second practitioner and moved on to 17 robot cells. Those 17 robot cells took roughly four months to design and deploy. Significantly faster … than the first cell.

So, all the risk was absorbed in the first robot cell, and they were able to scale afterwards. Those are amazing successes because that's exactly the type of persona and manufacturer for which we've built these tools at Vention. They were able to learn and get familiar with robotics and industrial automation and then they're able to do it by themselves. And at a much different risk and cost profile than … using a more traditional approach. This demonstrated very much how small to medium manufacturers—that are very innovative and very progressive about adopting industrial automation—can achieve today.

Scott Achelpohl: Etienne, thank you so much for joining us. This concludes our Smart Industry program. Please look to and our LinkedIn, Facebook, and X (formerly known as Twitter) for a replay of this event. And thanks to all for joining us today. Everyone, have a terrific day.

About the Author

Scott Achelpohl

I've come to Smart Industry after stints in business-to-business journalism covering U.S. trucking and transportation for FleetOwner, a sister website and magazine of SI’s at Endeavor Business Media, and branches of the U.S. military for Navy League of the United States. I'm a graduate of the University of Kansas and the William Allen White School of Journalism with many years of media experience inside and outside B2B journalism. I'm a wordsmith by nature, and I edit Smart Industry and report and write all kinds of news and interactive media on the digital transformation of manufacturing.

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