UK precision engineering firm CloudNC has introduced a pioneering new AI based approach to manufacturing. In this exclusive Q&A interview the company’s CEO Theo Saville outlines the core technology and explains how the firm has built a brand new factory from the ground up.
What have you achieved? Could you describe the concept and the core technology?
The simple version is that we’ve opened a new precision machining factory which offers huge cost savings for anyone who needs CNC machined parts. The core technology is AI powered software that completely automates the programming of CNC machines, and achieves much faster production cycle times than is possible using traditional software, resulting in correspondingly lower costs.
We are also developing a new kind of software driven approach to running the plant that we call the Factory Operating System and are implementing this in Factory 1 – our first manufacturing facility. Our mission is to completely revolutionise the £100bn CNC machined parts industry – to bring aerospace grade quality at around half the price, for customers who need anything from a single part through to runs of hundreds or thousands.
What are the fundamental issues with existing approaches to CNC manufacturing?
There are three fundamental issues in industry today. The first is that before you can start producing components, you need to CAM program the machine. This is extremely complex, very time consuming, and requires great skill. This makes prototypes and small batches very expensive as the cost can’t be spread. Also, many more of these skilled CAM programmers are retiring than are entering the profession, so we have a skills crunch.
The second is that there are trillions of ways of producing even a simple component with a CNC machine, but only some of them are fast. People are pretty good at finding a solution that works, but finding the optimal solution is much, much harder. Our experience suggests that most components are produced less than half as fast as they theoretically could be, and so are generally twice as expensive as necessary – an observation that the machining research groups and tooling and machine manufacturers we know agree with us on.
The third is that the industry as a whole, from order through to delivery – even discounting the CAM programming element – is less efficient than it could be. It is yet to really start to reap the rewards of advanced automation, software and robotics or first-class supply chain and organisational management approaches.
What advantages does the CloudNC approach have over existing approaches?
The three main facets to the CloudNC offering tackle these issues head-on. By eliminating manual programming of the CNC machine (CAM programming), slashing machining cycle times with optimized CNC machine instructions, and by honing factory operations with advanced software, processes and organisational culture, we can offer customers aero-quality parts at breakthrough prices.
Our AI powered CAM programming software reduces the days or weeks involved in programming to just a few minutes. Meanwhile, the leveraging the massive computational power of the cloud our AI software can work through huge numbers of possible methods and select one of the very best. The result is both more efficient and better quality. Factory 1 is built with this process in mind, taking advantage of the best CNC machines available and using them to their full potential.
But while optimising the programming and machining makes up the bulk of the CloudNC value-add, there’s huge potential to optimise all other aspects of factory operations. Having a clean-slate start and the ability to rapidly develop new software means we can build and iterate on tools to automate everything from smart scheduling to inspection to quality system management.
We’ve found that subcontract machining is not well served by existing software providers, especially when it comes to factory management. While industry 4.0 technologies and bespoke softwares may reach legacy operators in time, we’re addressing this with our own Factory Operating System developed in-house and designed specifically to solve the challenges of subcontract machining.
Starting with a blank slate has also allowed us to implement the very best Industry 4.0 solutions available from 3rd parties without needing to worry about our legacy systems, because we don’t have any!
We understand you’ve built a factory. Tell us about that.
The learning curve in building Factory 1 has been incredibly steep and entirely fascinating. We intended it to be the space where we develop a scalable factory ‘blueprint’ that we can then use to rapidly expand, and we have a very ambitious but wholly attainable plan to build more factories in the UK almost immediately, with further factories to be developed internationally following soon after.
we’ve produced at least a few batches for almost every manufacturing vertical now
Factory 1 has the best CNC machinery available from the likes of DMG Mori and Mazak, supported by best-in-class robotic automation from Erowa. Our ultimate mission is to build fully autonomous, fully flexible factories wherein the pricing, supply chain (from raw materials to fulfillment), production, quality assurance, packaging, loading and shipping will be fully automated and software led regardless of whether making batches of 1 or 100,000. Our expert staff will take over only in the most challenging and interesting cases.
We want the human element to be adding value through their unique skillset, not doing repetitive process tasks that are either dull, dangerous or dirty. Factory 1 is built with this vision in mind – it is highly automated and very flexible, so that we can rapidly test out new software, automation technologies and practices as we develop them.
What’s the business plan? Are you planning to license the core technology or build more factories?
Our plan is not to license the core AI software technology, but to prove our technology and rapidly build new factories that can extend our capability to deliver to more and more customers. There are several reasons for this approach, but the key is that we can achieve much better results for our customers overall by developing software and practices to optimise every stage of the component’s journey through the factory from initial quote right through to dispatch, rather than just the programming and machining steps.
Being able to automate the machining and CAM programming opens up interesting possibilities such as perfectly accurate automatic quoting and powerful dynamic production scheduling, both of which are impossible without CloudNC’s core technology. These are just some examples we’re working on now, but the list is enormous. Our intention is that in a few years, you’d be hard-pressed to spot more than a few moments of non-value-add time or activity at any stage in a CloudNC factory, with corresponding benefits to our customers.
What customers are you already working with? What’s your current capacity and lead time?
CNC machining touches upon almost every area of industry. Aerospace, defence, medical, and oil & gas are the industries we’re serving the largest volumes to currently, but we’ve produced at least a few batches for almost every manufacturing vertical now. The only segment I can think of that we haven’t worked for yet is mold and die.
Despite only being open a few months, Factory 1 is already running close to capacity. This gives us great confidence that the industry is ready and waiting for CloudNC, and we’re already looking at sites for further factories. Our prices mean that capacity fills rapidly even at our current rate of new machine installs, so we’re now developing a fast-track solution that leverages our lack of a CAM programming bottleneck for jobs requiring tight lead times. Put simply, we can continue to take new orders at hugely reduced prices compared to existing methods, and will soon be able to achieve a similar percentage cost reduction against fast-track services like Proto Labs while delivering much higher quality parts.
What’s to stop other precision manufacturers from copying your model? What protections do you have in place?
We hope that manufacturing across the board copies our model, since we are fully committed to being a gold standard of modern, industry 4.0 enabled manufacture. Our mission is to achieve an autonomy revolution in manufacturing, and that can’t be done alone. In terms of our core technology, there is nothing stopping others from seeking to replicate it. What I will say, however, is that we believe we have some of the best talent worldwide in software engineering who have dedicated several years to the development of the core technology – we’ve learnt the hard way just how difficult automating machining is!
What’s the background to the project and how did you get it off the ground?
I co-founded the company with our CTO, software engineer Chris Emery. But our team has quickly grown to more than 70 – and that number is going up by ten to twenty a month at present!
When Chris and I started out, we received support and encouragement from many different sources, including InnovateUK, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG).
Our ultimate vision is to push the boundaries as far as they will go. We want to own and operate the best manufacturing facilities in the world
We have been able to attract more than £11M in Venture Capital funding to date, that has helped us to grow and added ever more vital contacts and skillsets to CloudNC. Presently our amazing team includes a group of world-leading software engineers and a management team with vast experience scaling tech start-ups to become some of the most successful companies in the world, including the likes of Uber, Betfair, and Fetchr.
Also within the leadership team is cutting-edge experience with Industry 4.0 and greenfield assembly of huge massive scale Aerospace, Space and Automotive operations, and even engineering skills that helped put NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars. Our human potential more than matches our technology potential and we’re all really excited about the future of CNC machining for CloudNC and the world in general.
What’s your ultimate vision? And what are the next steps towards achieving this?
Our ultimate vision is to push the boundaries as far as they will go. We want to own and operate the best manufacturing facilities in the world – the most flexible, efficient and productive. We are seeking to challenge ourselves to push those boundaries to the technological limit with the finest minds being applied to the challenges along the way to completely autonomous flexible manufacture.
We can see a future which is entirely within our grasp, where ordering parts is as simple and quick as ordering a personalised t-shirt on the internet. And we’re really excited by what, in turn, CNC machining capability of this nature means to industry – cheaper products, faster innovation cycles, and greater accessibility to precision manufacture.
We want to release the bottleneck and help industry to be more flexible and efficient, more innovative. Any vision starts out with an idea – a concept. It then requires a lot of work to have a functioning operation that starts to deliver on the promise. That’s where we are at the moment – delivering on the promise of the possible. Our message to industry is to give us a try – it really couldn’t be simpler, just get in touch, no job too small, no job too large!