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Rapid Robotics, a startup providing out-of-the-box automation solutions for manufacturers, today announced it has raised $36.7 million in a series B round co-led by Kleiner Perkins and Tiger Global, with participation from NEA, Greycroft, Bee Partners, and 468 Capital. The round, which values Rapid at $192.5 million post-money, brings the company’s total funding to date to $54.2 million.

According to a study from Deloitte and the National Manufacturing Institute, by the end of 2020 the manufacturing industry had only recouped 63% of jobs lost during the pandemic — even with openings at near-record levels. Most of the open positions today are for machine operators, employees who work the machines that mold, stamp, and assemble components for products most consumers buy on a regular basis. Without operators, factories can’t make simple plastic and glass parts, forcing entire production lines to sit idle.

Founded in 2019 by Jordan Kretchmer and Ruddick Lawrence, San Francisco, California-based Rapid develops a robotics system that works machines for stamping, molding, and labeling, which the company claims constitute 80% of the tasks on a typical factory floor. Called the Rapid Machine Operator, Rapid’s platform costs $25,000 a year to rent and doesn’t require programming, systems integration, specialized hardware, or robotics skills.

Rapid Robotics

“When we launched the Rapid Machine Operator, the interest from factories across America was immediate and strong. It’s only picked up since then as American manufacturers struggle with pandemic-related labor shortages on the one hand and warehousing employers like Amazon on the other, who can scoop up thousands of job candidates at a time,” Kretchmer, who ran Livefyre until its acquisition by Adobe in 2016, told VentureBeat via email. “That’s all on top of the ongoing shortage of factory workers, which no one expects to go away when the pandemic does.”

Rapid deployment

The Rapid Machine Operator comes with grippers, computer vision software, and AI pretrained on computer-assisted design models to perform common machine workloads, like finding parts and fixtures. It can move between workloads and be rented for less than $2,100 per month, which Kretchmer claims is a small fraction of the cost of conventional robotics.

Rapid’s newest set of capabilities, which were released a couple of months ago, enable its robots to pick parts from almost any orientation. The Rapid Machine Operator can use its onboard camera system to reorient the parts in motion to their drop-off point, increasing the number of ways parts can be presented to it.

“One of our biggest initial hurdles was expanding the abilities of our AI and computer vision so the Rapid Machine Operator could recognize and react to unanticipated situations just as a human would,” Kretchmer said. “[M]anufacturing facilities are [tricky] from an AI and robotics point of view. There are so many people on the floor, and so many tasks going on at once. It makes for a highly unpredictable environment. Parts might not be where they’re supposed to be. Machines don’t always do exactly what you expect. Humans are good at anticipating issues, but until recently, robots weren’t.”

Rapid Robotics

Rapid’s customers include TouchMark, a Hayward, California-based plastics company that’s using Rapid Machine Operators to pad-print plastic components for medical devices and semiconductors. Fabri-Tech, a global component fabricator, is heat-sealing packages in its Fremont, California facility using Rapid’s robotics. And TruePill has contracted with Rapid to fill and label prescription vials at its Hayward facility.

Kretchmer says the funds from the latest round will be used to develop new features for the Rapid Machine Operator, as well as supporting regional expansion in Detroit, Texas, Southern California, and Arizona. Tech and team acquisitions may also be on the horizon — Rapid currently has 31 employees and expects to have 50 by 2022.

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