Arculus, the Ingolstadt, Germany-based startup that has developed a "modular production platform" to bring assembly lines into the 21st century, has raised €16 million in Series A investment.
Leading the round is European venture firm Atomico, with participation from Visionaries Club and previous investor La Famiglia. Arculus says it will use the injection of capital to "strengthen product development, broaden customer base and prepare for a global rollout".
As part of the investment, Atomico partner Siraj Khaliq is joining the Arculus board. (Khaliq seems to be on a bit of a run at the moment after quietly leading the firm's investment in quantum computing company PsiQuantum last month.)
Founded in 2016, Arculus already works with some of the leading manufacturing companies across a range of industries. They include Siemens in robotics, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, Viessmann in logistics, and Audi in automotive.
Its self-described mission is to transform the "one-dimensional" assembly line of the 20th century into a more flexible modular production process that is capable of manufacturing today’s most complex products in a much more efficient way.
Instead of a single line with a conveyor belt, a factory powered by Arculus' hardware and software is made up of modules in which individual tasks are performed and the company's robots -- dubbed "arculees" -- move objects between these modules automatically based on which stations are free at that moment. Underlying this system is the assembly priority chart, a tree of interdependencies that connects all the processes needed to complete individual products.
That's in contrast to more traditional linear manufacturing, which, claims Arculus, hasn't been able to keep up as demand for customisation increases and "innovation cycles speed up".
Explains Fabian Rusitschka, co-founder and CEO of Arculus: "Manufacturers can hardly predict what their customers will demand in the future, but they need to invest in production systems designed for specific outputs that will last for years. With Modular Production we can now ensure optimal productivity for our customers, whatever the volume or mix. This technological shift in manufacturing, from linear to bespoke, has been long overdue but for manufacturers looking ahead at the coming decades of shifting consumer buying behaviours it is mission critical to survival".
To that end, Arculus is making some bold claims, namely that the company's technology increases worker productivity by 30% and reduces space consumption by 20%. It also reckons it can save its customers up to €155 million per plant every year "at full implementation".
Siraj Khaliq, Partner at Atomico, says the manufacturing sector "is huge and the inefficiencies are well known".
"We estimate that the auto industry alone could save nearly $100bn, were all manufacturers to adopt Arculus's modular production technology," he tells TechCrunch. "And beyond auto, their technology applies to any linear/assembly line manufacturing process - in time perhaps a tenfold greater market still. We've already seen the Covid-19 crisis hugely boost interest in the wave of startups democratizing automation, as companies try to build resilience into their supply chains. If you're an exec thinking through this kind of thing right now, the way we see it, using Arculus's technology is just common sense".
Asked why it is only now that assembly lines can be reinvented, the Atomico VC says a number of building blocks weren't in place until now. They include cheap, versatile sensors, reliable connectivity, "sufficiently powerful compute resources", machine vision, and "learning-driven" control systems.
"And even if the tech could have been deployed, the motivation doesn't come until you buckle under the pressure of increasing product customisation," he says. "High-speed linear production lines are pretty efficient if you're only producing one thing, ideally in one colour. But as this has become less and less the case, the industry reacted by incrementally improving, such as adding sub-assemblies that feed into the main line. You can only go so far with that... to be really efficient you've got to start fresh and be modular from the ground up. That's hard".
Meanwhile, Arculus also counts a number of German entrepreneurs as previous backers. They include Hakan Koc (founder of Auto 1), Johannes Reck (founder of GetYourGuide), Valentin Stalf (founder of N26), as well as the founders of Flixbus.