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Pioneering robotic automation solutions: Integrating AI, 3D vision, and robot guidance technology

Interview - November 2, 2023

Since their foundation in 2014, CMES stands as a frontrunner in the robotics sector, marked by its seamless fusion of AI, 3D vision, and robot guidance technology. Prioritizing the delivery of tangible real-world results, the organization has garnered the trust of clients worldwide. This distinct amalgamation of technologies sets it apart, enabling the company to excel in offering automation solutions that outperform competitors on a global scale.

SUNGHO LEE, FOUNDER & CEO OF CMES
SUNGHO LEE | FOUNDER & CEO OF CMES

Given the disruptions brought about by COVID-19 and geopolitical tensions impacting technology sharing, large Korean corporations have been compelled to foster ecosystems with their SMEs to develop an independent and resilient supply chain within Korea. I'm aware that you collaborate with large firms like LG and have sizable investors such as SKT. Could you share your perspective on the evolution of SMEs within Korea's manufacturing supply chain? How competitive have SMEs become in today's landscape?

Before this discussion, I went through your questionnaire and I concur with its observations. Indeed, South Korea's large corporations have historically held a commanding role in the manufacturing sector, with SMEs primarily playing a supporting role. However, I believe the time has come for South Korean SMEs to leverage their capabilities and make a mark in the global arena. If we consider Japan's case, numerous SMEs have succeeded in making a significant transition from an economy centered around large corporations to one where SMEs play a central role. Thus, I strongly believe that South Korean SMEs have a high level of competitiveness in a variety of sectors, such as LCD and semiconductors.

 

It's clear that you agree with the assertion that it's crucial for SMEs to diversify their client base, to not only maintain their Korean customers but also add clients from other countries like the United States and Japan. However, as we all know, the global competition is intense, with factors like quality and pricing posing significant challenges. In your view, what constitutes the key competitive advantage of Korean companies? What sets them apart, whether in terms of their mindset or the quality of their services, when compared to competitors from countries like China or Japan? Could you define the common factor that enhances their competitiveness on the global stage?

Korea is quite unique. Despite being a small country, we are home to numerous large-scale manufacturers like Hyundai, Samsung, and SK Hynix, who have achieved significant success in the global marketplace. In this environment, smaller companies like ours have abundant opportunities to forge relationships with such high-caliber and demanding clients like these conglomerates. As you might be aware, Korean customers are among the most exacting in the world, and we have countless opportunities to strengthen our capabilities before entering overseas markets. If we can satisfy the high expectations of our domestic customers, it sets a strong foundation for all SMEs to seamlessly and effectively expand into the global market.

 

The global manufacturing landscape has indeed experienced some peculiar shifts over the past five years, with sectors like semiconductors and automotive experiencing highs and lows, and factors such as monetary policy and COVID lockdowns exerting a considerable influence.

Nevertheless, it seems that a degree of stability is starting to reemerge, with inflation being managed in Europe and the US, Chinese reopening spurring a surge in consumption, and burgeoning technologies like 5G and AI, particularly generative AI, propelling demand. Given these circumstances, how do you envision the trajectory of the manufacturing sector in the coming 12 to 18 months?

We have collaborations with battery companies in Korea, utilizing our patented 3D technology for inspections. Our partnerships also extend to renowned automotive manufacturers like Hyundai Motors and KIA Motors. It is evident that these companies are increasing their investment in manufacturing, particularly over the next two to three years. As a result, we anticipate experiencing significant revenue growth, indicating the success of our business. Looking ahead, we believe that the automotive, AI, and robotics industries will offer promising opportunities and substantial growth potential in the next decade.

 

Among the emerging technologies such as AI, augmented reality, virtual reality, and the metaverse, you mentioned implementing AI and 3D scanning, which have connections to the metaverse, particularly in design applications. In your opinion, which of these technologies do you believe will cause the most significant disruption and drive substantial growth in the future?

In my view, robotics will be the key technology that brings about significant advancements. Our company is specifically dedicated to enhancing the intelligence of robots through the integration of AI and 3D vision technology. The utilization of 3D vision involves creating a point cloud representation of objects, while AI plays a crucial role in determining efficient manufacturing processes such as dispensing and welding. I firmly believe that robotics will emerge as the dominant domain in manufacturing technology in the next five years.

 

During our recent interview with VUNO, a small company specializing in integrating AI into medical devices, they highlighted the potential for Korean companies to achieve global competitiveness in the software domain. They argued that while established players dominate the hardware market, Korea has made significant advancements in software, particularly in areas like AI and the metaverse. In your opinion, how competitive is Korea in terms of innovation? To what extent do small and medium-sized Korean companies demonstrate innovation in disruptive technologies like AI and the metaverse?

As a software company that includes AI in our offerings, we don't specifically work on the metaverse but instead focus on developing key technologies that enable its functionality, such as AI and 3D construction. While there are prominent global players in the robotics arms market like Yaskawa and ABB Robotics, Korea also boasts several small collaborative robot manufacturers. However, I believe it's not necessary for us to actively engage in hardware competition.

I'd like to share an interesting anecdote with you. Boeing is actively seeking to hire more AI engineers in Korea because the country's AI engineering technologies are considered highly advanced, while the labor costs remain relatively lower. Korean AI engineers exhibit remarkable competence and deliver excellent outputs, often comparable to those of companies based in Silicon Valley. Despite not having large organizations like Microsoft or Google, even renowned names like Naver face limitations in terms of labor availability.

In Korea, the focus of software engineering and AI engineering is to develop practical applications using core technologies and export them to major overseas companies like Google. It's similar to the manufacturing industry, where raw materials are imported, processed, and then exported as finished products. This approach has been instrumental in Korea's growth as a country. Similarly, in the software field, we excel at creating real applications. While we may not manufacture physical robots, we enhance their capabilities by incorporating advanced software technologies. This, I believe, is the competitive advantage that both our company and Korean SMEs possess in the field of AI.

 

Looking at Microsoft, we see that they collaborate with startups like OpenAI, which was once a small company but has now grown significantly. Small companies often excel in niche markets and demonstrate great innovation. Collaborations between big players and startups, combining funding and innovation, often lead to remarkable achievements. This is similar to your company's collaboration with SKT, your largest investor, where your innovative solutions were successfully applied to products. It's encouraging to see this innovation ecosystem emerging in Korea as well.

What fascinates me about your company, especially after entering the CMES, is that despite being established in 2014, you have raised substantial funds through various funding rounds, exceeding 30 billion Korean won. Moreover, your client base extends beyond Korean companies, which is uncommon for many SMEs at this stage. I would like to delve deeper into your company's journey. Could you please share the inception of your company and how you have evolved over the past 8 to 9 years to become an international player, despite being an SME?

Our largest foreign client is Nike. When I founded the company in 2014, we had a connection with Nike, who approached us for automation solutions to replace labor-intensive tasks with robotic automation in their manufacturing processes. At that time, we were the only solution provider capable of meeting their specific requirements.

One of the solutions we offered was using robots to spray adhesive on shoes while recognizing their shape. We successfully demonstrated this simple yet effective solution. Since then, Nike has shown strong support and became our biggest client last year. Additionally, a former Nike employee introduced another company to us, helping us expand our network of trusted clients globally.

Furthermore, we established CMES Robotics in Seattle, United States, three years ago. Our primary focus there is to increase sales and we are actively hiring engineers. We are eagerly awaiting positive feedback from customers regarding our robotics solutions, particularly in the logistics and manufacturing sectors. Starting this year, we anticipate attracting more logistics customers in the US market.

 

I would like to inquire about your company's growth story. Based on the available information and interviews, it appears that your sales were around 5 billion Korean won in 2021, with a goal to reach 10 billion in 2022. As we are now in 2023 and considering your employee count of 54 as of last year, it seems that you are experiencing significant growth. Could you please provide insights into your current growth trajectory and the recent developments, such as moving to a larger building?

Up until 2022, our primary focus was on technology development rather than revenue. In 2022, we had around 60 to 70 employees, with approximately 70 percent of them being engineers. However, we have experienced impressive growth this year, and our employee count has increased to around 120. This expansion in our workforce is driven by the need to promptly meet our customers' demands, particularly in terms of mass production.

We anticipate achieving remarkable growth in the future as we prepare for our customers' mass production requirements using our smart robotics solutions. This broader scope of operations is not limited to the automotive industry but extends to various sectors. Our customer base includes companies like Hyundai Motors, Nike, and another major company that I cannot disclose due to confidentiality agreements.

It is worth mentioning that in previous years, our focus was on developing "living technology" specifically tailored to the manufacturing processes of our customers. We customized and implemented these technologies to meet their real-life needs. However, in 2023, we are shifting our focus to respond to the market expansion and the requests from our customers. These clients have recognized our capabilities and have entrusted us with more significant tasks and implementations, distinguishing us from others in the industry.

To effectively address the mass production demands of our solutions and products, we are actively hiring more people to ensure agile responsiveness to our clients. This exponential expansion is a key aspect of our growth strategy for this year.

 

It's evident that your company is experiencing rapid growth, which is a positive challenge. Rather than facing layoffs, you are expanding your workforce to meet customer demands. However, let's focus on the core of your company and its technology, as that is the key topic of our discussion. In 2014, you mentioned being the only company involved in AI 3D vision software, which attracted Nike's attention. With the industry now growing, where do you position yourself among your competitors? How have you managed to maintain your competitive edge in terms of innovation against other contenders in the industry?

Our company distinguishes itself by delivering real-life results, rather than remaining confined to laboratory settings. We maintain close connections with our customers in the mass production industry and our slogan reflects our commitment to realizing our clients' dreams. Many American startups offering similar solutions are yet to provide practical outcomes to their clients. However, from the beginning, our company has been delivering tangible results to our customers. This ability to deliver real-life outcomes to our clients is a strength that helps us maintain our competitiveness against our rivals.

Furthermore, as the market expands, several competitors are striving to catch up with our technologies and explore new possibilities. However, our main competitive advantage lies in our integration of AI technology, 3D vision technology, and robot guidance technology. These three technologies work together to provide comprehensive robot solutions. Globally, no other company has successfully integrated these three technologies to the extent that we have. While some companies may utilize vision or claim to have AI capabilities, or even incorporate robot guidance, we excel by combining all three technologies seamlessly. This unique integration is a significant factor in our competitive edge. In fact, many of our multinational clients acknowledge that our technology, especially our mixed technology approach, places us at the forefront on a global scale. They consider it our biggest advantage.



It is remarkable that automation solutions are often tailored to specific industries. For instance, during our interview with ABIMAN, they mentioned their focus on injection molding and plastic, stating that their solutions might not be applicable outside of that field. However, CMES is involved in a diverse range of sectors, including logistics, automobile, footwear, and electronics. Do you consider any of these sectors as your core markets, or is your company flexible enough to cater to the unique needs of each industry?

It's an excellent question, and it's something we constantly consider as well. We need to determine which areas to focus on and where to allocate our resources. Currently, we are able to serve various industries such as footwear, IT, and automotive because we apply the same core technology to all our customers, including Nike and Hyundai Motors. This approach allows us to leverage our engineering power efficiently and avoid spreading ourselves too thin across multiple research efforts.

Our technology is highly adaptable and flexible, making it suitable for a wide range of industries. However, lately, we have been focusing primarily on the logistics field. In Korea, we collaborate with companies like Coupang, Lotte, and CJ, and we also see significant potential in the North American logistics market. We consider logistics to be the most promising market to emerge in the next five years.

It's important to note that our original mass production technology was rooted in structured manufacturing environments, with jigs and preprogrammed individual movements. However, our expertise lies in unstructured mass production technology, which can be applied to industries such as automotive, IT, and footwear. While there are other companies working on unstructured mass production technology, our goal is to implement this technology through robotics, differentiating ourselves in the market.

 

One of your key differentiators from competitors is your emphasis on making dreams a reality for your clients. Could you provide more insights into EQUAL, your platform, and how it contributes to turning these dreams into tangible results for your clients?

EQUAL, although not yet commercially available, is currently in the development stage. We have utilized it in our internal projects and have already delivered it to Hyundai Motors, with ongoing work in progress. However, we have not yet commercialized it widely as we require additional time to enhance the flexibility of EQUAL to meet diverse customer needs.

The primary objective behind creating EQUAL is to establish an AI-powered equivalent of the metaverse, integrating AI and vision technology. Suppose a customer wishes to automate a labor-intensive process previously performed by human workers using a new robot. This requires advanced technology to enable the automation. EQUAL provides an environment where the entire process is automated by AI, encompassing tasks such as putting up safety fences and defining movements. Clients can input their desired instructions into the EQUAL platform, and the AI automatically generates the corresponding movements.

EQUAL serves as a platform to control robots with minimal human effort. We focus on vision teaching AI, allowing people to construct programs. Once the program is constructed, it operates independently and continues to learn autonomously. To achieve this, 3D vision technology is crucial for scanning the real environment. Since the CAD environment may differ from the actual environment, this technology plays a key role in turning clients' dreams into tangible reality.

 

Can you provide more information about the products you are currently commercializing and share some success stories regarding their impact on the manufacturing processes of your clients, especially in relation to the integration of 3D vision AI, robot guidance, and the metaverse factor such as the 'digital twin' platform? Additionally, I'm interested in hearing about any notable achievements and collaborations, like the success story you mentioned with Nike.

One notable success story involves our collaboration with Hyundai Motors. They were facing a challenging manual process where human operators had to apply stickers beneath the car body and place jigs to protect the painted areas. Due to the heavy equipment and high costs associated with alternative solutions like welding, this repetitive task had to be performed by operators in three shifts, 24 hours a day. The labor union expressed a strong desire to automate this process and approached us for assistance, as they were not familiar with 3D technology.

To address the issue, we provided a solution that leveraged automation to replace tasks that were strenuous and undesirable for human laborers. Our system, powered by EQUAL, enabled the robots to execute the required motions. Additionally, we incorporated 3D sensors to accurately recognize the car body and apply the stickers and jigs precisely.

It's important to note that automation does not render humans obsolete in this context. Rather, our aim is to empower humans to focus on more valuable tasks instead of engaging in repetitive and physically demanding work.

For a more comprehensive understanding of this successful collaboration and the impact it had on Hyundai Motors' manufacturing process, I can share a video that demonstrates the solution in action.

 

As you specialize in industry-specific applications, particularly in automotive production lines where automating the entire process can be challenging due to the diverse components involved, I'm curious about your collaboration with hardware partners. Specifically, do you work with them to develop end-of-arm tooling solutions? This is particularly relevant in scenarios like moving bumpers, where a multi-axis machine with six different jigs is utilized, and each jig requires a unique Universal Automation Tool (UAT) solution. Furthermore, considering that the car model changes frequently, necessitating reprogramming, how do you address these complexities and ensure seamless integration with hardware partners?

In our company, we have in-house mechanical engineers who are responsible for developing end-of-arm tooling solutions. While we don't manufacture robots themselves, we design and create grippers and other essential components. Grippers play a crucial role in the robotics process and are considered a core technology in this field. By having our own team of mechanical engineers, we ensure that we can effectively address the specific requirements and challenges of each industry, such as the complexities involved in moving bumpers or handling different components in automotive production lines. This allows us to seamlessly integrate our solutions with hardware partners and provide comprehensive automation systems tailored to our clients' needs.

 

During your presentation in Seattle, you collaborated with BHS Robotics, and it seems like you work with other robotic companies as well. I'm interested to know if you are currently in the process of expanding these collaborations. In a hypothetical scenario, if you have a client, let's call them Client X, who requires a solution, do you establish partnerships with different robotics companies? This way, by combining their hardware with your software expertise, you can provide a comprehensive solution to meet the specific needs of Client X. Can you shed some light on your approach to such collaborations and your plans for expansion in this regard?

Our approach to collaborations with robotics companies is based on selecting the most suitable partner for a specific region where we conduct business. For example, in the United States, where we lack inventory and infrastructure, we have partnered with BHS Robotics, a robotic systems integration (SI) company. This collaboration allows us to leverage their expertise in robotics hardware to complement our software solutions. In contrast, in Korea, we primarily operate independently. However, we did merge with a small robot SI company last year to enhance our capabilities.

While our primary focus is on developing and leading with our software solutions, we do recognize the importance of hardware integration to meet the unique requirements of our clients. Therefore, we occasionally collaborate with robot hardware companies to ensure we can fulfill our clients' needs effectively.

Overall, our approach involves carefully selecting partners based on the region and combining their hardware expertise with our software capabilities to deliver comprehensive solutions to our clients.

 

In the context of automation, we have witnessed rapid advancements in basic manufacturing processes, such as the successful implementation of fully automated systems in areas like injection molding. However, certain sectors, like automotive and logistics, still pose significant challenges for automation. For instance, in logistics, it can be extremely difficult for robots to accurately sort defects when products appear similar, particularly within enclosed areas.

Given the technical complexities present in industries like automotive and electronics, I'm curious about your company's future focus. Are there specific fields of expertise or applications that you are actively working on to develop innovative solutions? In other words, do you have a particular area or industry in mind where you aim to provide specialized automation solutions in the future?

Our company aims to expand into various areas as long as we can provide solutions to our clients within our capabilities. As I mentioned earlier, our technology has been successfully applied in diverse industries, ranging from automotive (Hyundai Motors) to consumer goods (Nike). However, one particular focus for us is the ability to recognize everything. "Unseen object detection" is a significant challenge in the field of AI. While humans can recognize objects like bottles due to their lifelong experience with them, enabling AI to recognize unforeseen objects will shape the future of robotics. With our expertise in robot motion planning, road-based algorithm technology, and gripper technology, the ability to enhance AI object recognition will undoubtedly contribute to expanding our business further.

Currently, our company primarily engages in business-to-business (B2B) operations, continually improving our technology through collaborations with B2B customers. Once our technology has reached a sufficiently advanced stage, we plan to enter the business-to-consumer (B2C) market. In line with this, we are currently collaborating with LG on the research and development of a global robot. We believe that within the next 10 years, we will achieve significant progress toward our ultimate goal of having our robots in every household.

 

Against the backdrop of a geopolitical trend, President Yoon recently met with President Biden, following the CHIPS Act and the push to bring manufacturing back to the US. South Korean companies were invited to join the American supply chain, and a similar invitation was extended to Japanese companies as well. This presents a significant opportunity, particularly in high-end manufacturing with a focus on automation and robotics. Considering that your company already has a sales office in the US, what are your expectations for the US market in the next two to three years? Do you anticipate the highest potential for growth in the US market compared to Korea?

Our current focus is on the logistics sector rather than automotive. Additionally, we have plans to open another office in the United States next year, specifically to support the secondary battery industry. The logistics market in the United States is considerably larger than in Korea, offering significant growth potential. As you mentioned earlier, Korean customers are known to be demanding, and if we can successfully leverage our experience in mass production with prominent Korean companies like Coupang, Lotte, and CJ, it will pave the way for expansion into the US market.

Furthermore, in line with our globalization plan, our company is also exploring opportunities in Vietnam. Working towards this goal, we are planning to open a small office in Vietnam specifically for Nike. We are actively pursuing opportunities in various regions, aiming to establish a global presence.

 

I understand that your company has gone through angel funding, as well as series A and series B funding rounds. While I'm uncertain if you can provide a specific answer, could you share any insights or plans regarding a potential listing on KOSDAQ in the future?

It’s slated to be the end of next year.
 

If we were to interview you again 10 years from now, what ambitions or dreams do you envision having accomplished by then?

In the next 10 years, our vision is to continue helping humans by automating tasks that they find burdensome. We aspire to expand our technology to cover a wide range of challenging tasks. For instance, household chores like laundry washing, home cleaning, and laundry folding can be troublesome and time-consuming for many individuals, including housewives. Our goal is to automate these household errands and eventually venture into the business-to-consumer (B2C) market. Over the next decade, we anticipate significant growth in our company, driven by an increased share of B2C operations.

While there are numerous robotics companies globally, we recognize that competing solely on hardware would be challenging. Instead, we aim to differentiate ourselves as the unrivaled leader in software-enabled robots, empowering them with visibility and cognitive capabilities. By providing robots with advanced software and intelligence, our ambition is to make them work smarter, similar to humans. This technological advancement is at the core of our ambition for the future.

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