Cofounder of @Tulip
Cofounder of @formlabs
Manufacturing is what you humanity does. We're the technological mammals. We're the homo fabers – We make tools and therefore that helps us survive. In the process, sometimes we kill the planet, and now we're also trying to fix that with technology.
We're going to continuously make technology. We're going to make tools and you know what humanity does once it makes the tools? They make a lot of them. It’s called mass production. If there are a lot of humans, and there are more of us today, we're going to have to find ways to do that smartly, efficiently, while not killing the planet – especially in westernized civilizations, including Japan.
by Heidi Legg
With recurring concern about disappearing American factory jobs due to globalization and Artificial Intelligence (AI), coupled with an incessant political call to bring these factories back to the US, Natan Linder has set out to transform American assembly lines and arm workers with cutting-edge tablet technology. He’s launched Tulip, an app designed to smarten, simplify and streamline U.S. production processes. Clients include New Balance, Merk, and GlaxoSmithKline. A byproduct, he hopes, is to attract qualified younger workers and encourage younger Americans, for whom tablets and apps are the norms, to want to be part of the modernization of the American manufacturing line. In a study by the Manufacturing Institute, a Washington-based think tank, and Deloitte LLC, they predicted 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be created over the next decade in the US and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. Today, Baby Boomers continue to retire en masse and the talent to replace them is weak in STEM skills, compared with other developed and emerging countries.
Linder, who arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab from Israel in 2008, joined Pattie Maes’ Fluid Interfaces Group. He then went on to cofound 3D printing company Formlabs in Somerville before launching Tulip, the product of almost a decade of research.
Having grown up with computers in the 90s, Linder finished his national service in time to join the tech boom of 1999, when he claims, ‘Anyone who could hit the return key could get a job.’ He decided to delay formal education and get to work. For his father, an engineer and his mother, a serious academic and a doctor who teaches medicine at Tel Aviv University, rejecting university studies was pretty close to blasphemy. But Linder was fascinated by mobile phones and as an embedded engineer by training, he found work easily at Sun Microsystems before receiving what he calls “a crazy” scholarship for tech entrepreneurship at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), north of Tel Aviv. He then started a small company with a friend that became the Samsung mobile R & D center in Israel. By age twenty-three, he became an entrepreneur in residence at Jerusalem Venture Partners, a leading VC in Israel. It was his wife who moved them to Boston when she accepted a seat at MIT’s Sloan School for an MBA.
We sat down to talk about how he’s built two major Boston tech manufacturing startups: formlabs and Tulip, both headquartered in Somerville, and both quickly becoming emerging leaders in the new wave of modern American manufacturing.
When you arrived in Boston, did you already have your sights on the MIT Media Lab?
No, but I was this industry guy. I thought this would be a nice pit stop to see what's going on. I didn't know a lot of people when I started to hang out at the Media Lab and decided to apply to Pattie Maes’ group. She asked me, ‘what are you doing now?’ I told her I was sitting in my apartment and sorting songs on iTunes, which was totally factual, and she said I should meet Rodney Brooks.
Rodney Brooks started Rethink Robotics. He's like the Michael Jordan of robotics and started iRobot, and ran Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. When I met him he said, ‘I'm going to put robots on production lines and they're going to work with people.’ I thought, who is this crazy guy? He asked me ‘Do you want to do that?’ I became employee number eight or nine at Rethink. This began my romance with advanced manufacturing.
I was there for almost a year and in the process, I was accepted to Pattie’s group. I had this handshake agreement with Rod that if I were accepted, he would let me go without any guilt trip. I decided to join Pattie’s group because there's always time for companies and there's not always time for MIT and I was turning thirty.
Is that where you came up with the idea for formlabs?
Formlabs has nothing to do with my research and everything to do with being in the Media Lab environment. My cofounders of formlabs, Max Lubovsky, CEO; David Craner and I were doing this class called ‘How To Make Almost Anything’ by Neil Gershenfeld. He's the fab guru. We're all very different and at that time MakerBot was becoming a thing. We were amazed that somebody would put this 3D printer in a box and sell it. It was very clear to us that this was not what the market needed as designers and engineers.
Formlabs comes from being at MIT with great guys and deciding to do it for intangible gut-driven things that, in retrospect, you can analyze while you're in it. Together, we raised grant money and had a number of sponsors of the Media Lab who supported our research, companies like Steel Case and Intel and Pearson.
Is it ironic to you that once in Boston school became so important to you?
The Media Lab was the only place where I ever thought about it. It was like walking into the biggest toy store on the East Coast and I immediately realized that of course, I should be here. It is the perfect place. It was created for me. I can do stuff here and who knows what's going to happen.
Actually, I only turned in my PhD ten days ago. I did not drop it while building these companies. If you're looking for a personal story, I've got one for you! My story is not only hard-core tech. It's about grit because I've been working on my dissertation for the past three years and handed in my 280 pages long thesis days ago.
What is your thesis?
Rapid development and real-world deployments of projected virtual-reality applications.
What problem did you see in manufacturing that led you to create Tulip?
If you think about formlabs, it is advanced manufacturing and I've been focused on this domain for the past eight years.
What problem are you trying to address?
Since starting my work with Rod at Rethink Robotics, I’ve been staring at people on production lines and when you go to production lines, a lot of the technology companies show you stuff that looks beautiful, interconnected and so on but the reality is that the Internet as you know it doesn't really exist on shop floors!
What I mean by ‘Internet as you know it’ is that you're an information worker, we all are now. You have your apps and your iPhones and computers and if I take all that away, you're dead in the water. You can't do anything. You can't communicate. You can't make decisions based on data.
What you see on shop floors today is literally bicycle-horns, makeshift solutions with wire and clipboards, old Compaq computers, calculators, and stopwatches. On the one hand, the machines are fine and have a very long lifetime and they're doing their thing and they're well maintained but the manufacturing interfaces suck. These old tools are used everywhere to figure out what people are actually doing and it’s hard to analyze and it's biased and you can see this with all these whiteboards in factory floors. If this is how you collect data and share it, then you're not living in modern America. The Internet is meant to be a platform on which to share and collaborate and that is not the case in manufacturing.
What does Tulip want to do?
Tulip creates a platform that allows you to basically change the life of these guys on the assembly line. It gives operators, engineers, and management a manufacturing app platform to quickly write applications for their shop floor without writing code. It can help train and collect data on how a quality assurance process is going on the floor and increase productivity.
When you want a website today, you don’t call your IT department. You go to Square Space. Your ability to be your own media outlet today is because of that self-serve movement. When we give our Tulip app on a tablet to the younger workforce, they're like, ‘yeah, of course, I can do this.’ That's because interfaces work. To go full circle, our company is called Tulip Interfaces because we come from Fluid Interfaces Group under Maes at the MIT Media Lab and the whole idea is to really solve the connection between people and their physical environment in the manufacturing setting.
We are focused on shop floor IOT. The idea is that all these tools exist but it's very tough to connect them: Barcode scanners, digital scales, calipers, thermometers and all the tools somebody on the shop floor would need. Now they can do it with Tulip on a touchscreen.
What is the reaction in a factory when you hand them Tulip?
‘I was waiting for a long time for this or this is obvious.’ We also get skepticism because change is hard. Many people are talking about digital transformation and we work with leading companies like McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group (BCG.) Those are our partners and they help companies transform. A lot of it has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with the people.
What do the McKinsey’s of the world like about your app?
It gathers objective information about what people do on the line. I think you could agree with me that people are not very good at being objective, and specifically not about other people. There is this notion of inherent subjectivity in everything. This is not only true for manufacturing. On shop floors, there are many times when you don't have objective data. You can hear conversations, ‘Well, we did okay. We had a problem here and there.’ But what does it mean? With our app, those things are measured. If you compare it with a web-based lead generation engine, those things are measured and you can trust them because algorithms collect all the clicks and analyzed them and you can see the cause and effect of your decisions.
Tulip then allows them to see where there's a bottleneck?
They can see everything. They can see if there's a shop floor station with fifteen steps and the timing for each of those steps with a granularity that is unique to Tulip and that nobody else does.
What's the benefit for a worker?
This is a matter of belief, but I think people are basically good. They want to do a good job. Imagine compared to all your peers, you're struggling in step eight. You can't really dispute this because you're working with a system that might have a reading from a sensor and measures quality assurance. This is not Big Brother: Tulip is a guidance system, your coach, or trainer. In manufacturing, everything is about the cycle time. The biggest spend in manufacturing is not materials. It's people. Our tool offers many of the operations that help guide people and allow them to effectively follow Lean Manufacturing.
What is Lean Manufacturing?
It's a movement to produce ‘just-in-time’ products and continuously improve the process. The goal is not to do anything that does not create value for your customer. You do not hold inventory, etc. If you find a better way to do something that generates more value for your customer, you have to change. This is the irony of factory floors today because when I started looking at this, they have no technology and no data on the floor where it matters the most.
They're using paper, they’re using stopwatches, computers are disconnected and Enterprise Software sucks. It's not designed for people.
I would have thought that someone like Apple has a much more modern factory floor, no?
It depends on where you go. The big companies use contract manufacturers, which is a different story altogether, but many of our customers, even if they're big Fortune 500 companies, are analog shops because manufacturing changes all the time and the investments are huge. This is a $100 billion market that nobody knows about and the costs are on the floor. [IDC's 2014 Worldwide Manufacturing IT Spending Guide reports that in the US $300-$350 billion is spent in Manufacturing IT, out of which $105 billion is spent in Manufacturing Software.] What they're buying to date is by-and-large thirty-year-old software.
So for you, this is an untapped industry?
I think it's one of the last bastions of enterprise software. Once you spend some time on the floor, it became clear to me, that they are basically either slave to the machines or slave to the matrix. So we created a little tool for the in between.
Are you going to roll up that whole floor experience?
Yes. We're completely changing it. We have several dozen new customers and several dozen sites.
There are almost daily stories about AI and robots eliminating jobs. What do you say to that?
Everybody should relax. First of all, manufacturing is what you humanity does. We're the technological mammals. We're the homo fabers – We make tools and therefore that helps us survive. In the process, sometimes we kill the planet, and now we're also trying to fix that with technology. The news is that's not going to change. We're going to continuously make technology. We're going to make tools and you know what humanity does once it makes the tools? They make a lot of them. It’s called mass production. If there are a lot of humans, and there are more of us today, we're going to have to find ways to do that smartly, efficiently, while not killing the planet – especially in westernized civilizations – including in Japan.
Not everything is a sweatshop somewhere in Asia or in some Third World country where the mind typically goes to cheap labor rates and fear that all the jobs are going away. There are reasons why manufacturing is changing. It's because of technology, supply chains have become shorter, more compressed and because we are in this era where everything is built to order in Lean Manufacturing. It is the customization to order moment in time. It could be your Mac, your car, your home, or the sneaker you're wearing.
This customization moment is not going away and because of that, you have to manufacture more things locally. There's a certain class of products you're never going to make outside of the United States because of regulatory compliance.
Categories such as?
Pharmaceuticals; weapons, to a degree; automotive components; aerospace defense. I'm mostly thinking about Europe and the US and I don't see them exporting those jobs away so easily away.
What about the AI fear?
Don't be afraid. There are more examples of technology doing better for society than not. The thing I'm excited about is the notion of ‘gamifying’ the production job. When we visit production lines we see older people in their 45/50s and they've been doing some discreet production work for twenty years. Turning work into a game is a huge thing. One thing people may not realize is that they're about two million jobs missing in the United States in manufacturing. We are missing trained people who can use computers.
There are two million jobs open in US manufacturing? Why?
People walk in and they're like, ‘what is this thing? What is a clipboard doing here?’ When we give people a tablet with the applications that a line supervisor has made using Tulip. This is a big deal.
The National Association of Manufacturers reports: Over the next decade, nearly 3½ million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. Moreover, according to a recent report, 80 percent of manufacturers report a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly-skilled production positions. (Source: Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute)
What happens to the people in all of this change?
The way we think about it at Tulip is that people are effectively the smartest computer you have on your line. People are way better at certain things when you compare them to computers. They're not as good at remembering and retrieving data but humans are very good at making decisions if they have the right interfaces in front of them to facilitate that decision-making. Also, if they have the right data, they're pretty okay at judging the situation and making a call and that means it's not the little sensor on the machine that's going to alert you about some temperature going crazy. It's going to be a person holding your line for you if you end up producing a bunch of bad things.
When the robots take over, eventually, the economics of the industry are going to put the brains of humans to do other tasks that are of higher value so that capacity will be used to do other things. It's hard for us to imagine what they are today. The classic examples are – and I think Rod deserves credit for this given he has a very roboticist-point of view on this – If today you see a bunch of people digging a tunnel or laying railroad tracks, you'd think, ‘this is terrible; this is like slave labor. We have machines that do that.’ This falls into the category of technologies that humanity adopts and never looks back. In the case of digging the tunnel, you don't necessarily call it a robot today. You just call it a machine but it's the same thing. It’s harnessing the mechanical power to put a hole in the ground.
It seems like blind faith. Is there a theory in the industry pertaining to this?
I don't know of one leading theory. Our point of view is a very much a Tulip perspective is that there's a lot of deficiency in the industry and especially on shop floors where people are working. And they have yet to benefit from what information technology really brings them.
Can you imagine a marketing and sales organization working on Rolodexes and dial phones today? You can't. You're not saying, ‘where are all those people who used to run the mail room and the coffee?’ You're not even sad they’re gone. And where are those people? Well, I can tell you, they're digital content creators of this type or that. They're using their brains to do higher-level things and that's a good thing. Well… you can argue if that's a good thing or not because they're making all sorts of stupid crap on the Internet.
You believe the void will be filled and people will have better jobs?
Yes. Voids are filled and what will this usher? It will usher new types of products that you don't really think about and new collaborations between companies that you don't really think about right now. I think that's pretty exciting actually.
Why do you build your companies in Somerville?
We like Somerville or Camberville. Everything in Cambridge, plus Somerville equals ‘Camberville.’
Why ‘Camberville?’ Is it the rent or something more?
Rent is one thing though it's getting more expensive – unfortunately, people got the memo. We've been here for six years with formlabs. It's close to MIT and people like to bike and walk to their jobs. I like the grittiness but I don’t think it will stay that way. This is also used to be a manufacturing area so there is a little bit of legacy. [Union Glass Company manufactured in Somerville in the 1850s that later led to Corning Glass.]
And MIT is a place where we solve hard problems. I know it's stereotyping, but this is not the Silicon Valley. People here are grounded differently and their mindset and the tech scene are different.
How are they grounded differently?
I always tell the people that these are not lifestyle decisions. Startups are hard, enduring and about grit and all that kind of usual nonsense that entrepreneurs’ hashtag – but it’s true. A lot of it is not fun. The process of hacking into a new business, inventing new pieces of technology, seeing if it actually works and doesn't work…I think there's a lot of great stuff going on in Silicon Valley but the mentality here is completely different. I think it's more humble. It's more down to earth. It's more human.
I think it also has to do with how old this place is compared to the rest of the US and the fact that you can actually walk the streets. It’s about dimensions and, maybe, it's about the schools. This is a highly intellectual environment. And in winter, there is nothing else to do but work hard. I don't know. New York and the Valley are just different scenes. By the way, I don't want everybody to come here. I want to keep it like as it is today.