A Two-Part Q&A with Carl Bass – Part One

July 10, 2019 | 5 min read

Justine Crosby, Brand Director, Bright Machines

I recently sat down with ex-CEO, Bright Machines board member and all-around manufacturing enthusiast, Carl Bass, for a conversation about industry reality and hype, and of course factory automation.

Below is part one of a two-part series (part II will be posted on July 17).

You seem to gravitate toward all things manufacturing. Manufacturing things personally and manufacturing companies, most recently as the interim CEO of the autonomous car maker Zoox. As we move into the next era of manufacturing, what do you consider to be the most exciting thing happening in the industry?

Broadly speaking, I think the most exciting thing right now is the application of software in manufacturing. Historically, while there’s been microprocessors in these machines, we really haven’t had software-controlled manufacturing – or what some are calling Software-Defined Manufacturing – where software plays a mediating role where it controls hardware and gets immediate feedback…essentially taking all the advances we’ve done in computing and bringing them to the physical world by closing the loop.

Given this, what do you predict for manufacturing in five to ten years?

The existence of true automation across the factory floor will drastically change how things get made and who makes them; we’ll keep quality high, but drive production costs down, while making things in smaller numbers with more agility and flexibility. Most importantly, automation will help drive innovation. Today, the speed from idea to product, depending on the industry, is six months to six years. And when you talk to manufacturers they say, “yeah, that’s a great idea, but it will take me three years to bring that to market and then it may no longer be a great idea.” Digital and distributed factories will change this.

There’s a lot of hype around new tech within the industry – are there any misconceptions?

Oh, there are mostly misconceptions and everybody’s a little bit confused; some of it is inadvertent and some of it is intentional. Everybody’s out there with some idea that involves machine learning, artificial intelligence and/or generative design. I don’t believe people are particularly precise in their use of language, or that many of the people who are talking about these things know exactly what they mean or what the benefits are.

So there’s a huge amount of confusion out there. Fortunately, there’s also a lot of interest and a lot of attention being paid to new technology.

Over the next couple of years, the good news about manufacturing is that it’s eminently pragmatic. People will be forced to deliver, and if they can deliver higher quality, lower cost, more agility, they’ll be rewarded for it. And this isn’t some nebulous thing where it’s hard to tell if you do better. It’s really easy – you look at the yield rates, you look at the cost, you look at the time to configure a line, and you understand almost immediately the ROI.

The introduction of autonomous factory lines affect labor. What are your thoughts about how robotics will alter specific jobs and how quickly do you think this change will happen?

I think every single day, robots replace jobs. They create some jobs, as well. I don’t think the rate at which they create jobs is equal to the rate at which they destroy jobs. That’s been true for the last 200 years, in terms of any kind of technology and automation, and I think the trend is going to continue.

What’s your take on startups in the manufacturing space? How should big companies partner or invest in these startups?

It’s great that there’s a lot of investment going to manufacturing, as it had historically been overlooked or dismissed. And, it’s great because most of the incumbents don’t have the wherewithal for one reason or another to actually invest appropriately; I think they’ll rationalize some kind of incremental investment, but what is really required is a rethinking of the whole process, and somebody with probably a broader purview to say, “this could really be meaningful over a large swathe of the industry.”

Having startups in the space is great. As always happens, some will really succeed, and some will fail. The smart thing for incumbents to do is to work closely with some of them and invest in others. Because the opportunities to redefine themselves are huge and startups can help some of them do this.

To be continued…come back here next week for the second part of our discussion!

More about Carl Bass

Carl Bass was president and CEO of Autodesk from 2006-2017. He spent 24 years at Autodesk where he held a series of executive positions including chief technology officer and chief operations officer. Bass co-founded Ithaca Software, which was acquired by Autodesk in 1993. Bass serves on the boards of directors of Zendesk Inc., Formlabs, Built Robotics, Zoox, Planet Labs, Bright Machines and as Chairman of the Board of Velo3D Inc.; on the board of trustees of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Art Center College of Design, and California College of the Arts; and on the advisory boards of Cornell Computing and Information Science, UC Berkeley School of Information, and UC Berkeley College of Engineering. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Cornell University. Carl spends his free time building things—from chairs and tables to boats, and most recently, an autonomous electric go-kart and some robots.

You can find Carl on Twitter: @carlbass

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