Ex-Apple engineers aim to help U.S. hardware makers troubleshoot from home

Friday, June 5, 2020
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(Reuters) - For years, hardware engineers at American consumer electronics firms have hopped on a flight to China to iron out manufacturing kinks on assembly lines, but the COVID-19 pandemic and Sino-U.S. tensions have made travel between the countries difficult.

A startup founded by ex-Apple Inc engineers, however, has come up with a system that would help engineers troubleshoot remotely.

California-based Instrumental Inc, co-founded by Anna-Katrina Shedletsky and Sam Weiss, has created a system that relies on outfitting manufacturing lines with cameras and then analyzing the images using artificial intelligence software.

To spot a problem, an engineer needs to just log on to the software rather than board a plane.

In the early days of a product, hundreds of issues can crop up and, to fix these, firms "send big groups of people 6,000 miles around the world to go stand on the line in random spots and hope that they catch the problems, by getting lucky being in the right place in the right time," Shedletsky said.

Cameras and artificial intelligence, by contrast, can spot missing screw, a bent spring or a damaged battery in real time and with high accuracy, she added.

Instrumental's software system, originally built to identify defects more efficiently and used by firms such as thermal camera maker Flir Systems Inc, has drawn widening interest as the coronavirus has restricted U.S.-China travel.

Air travel to China has become more unclear with President Donald Trump's administration barring Chinese carriers from flying to America starting June 16 as it pressures Beijing to let U.S. airlines resume flights.

"While certain parts of the world can be open and functioning, travel is unlikely to be open and free for a while," Shedletsky said.

Firms such as Motorola, owned by Lenovo Group Ltd, have been using Instrumental's software for several years for mobile phones, but with the travel curbs, "we've really had to rely on it a lot more," said Kevin Zurawski, a supply chain management executive at Chicago-based Motorola.

"It's been an incredible tool to be able to sit at my desk 6,000 miles away and monitor build progress," he said.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by Himani Sarkar)