Velocity Robotics brings advanced technology to the construction site
The construction industry is ripe for technology — tools to be connected, tasks for robots, measurements to be remembered by machines, not humans.
But contractors and construction companies balked when Brad Kriel first started pitching his company's connected, robotic miter saw accessory, Autoset.
"The thing that makes the difference is when you show them the numbers," Kriel, founder of Velocity Robotics, said Friday in his company's workshop in the basement storage area of the North Side's Nova Place. "It's really a no-brainer when you see the numbers."
Those numbers: Autoset helps contractors make a single cut 50 percent faster, Kriel said. Efficiencies compile as you add more and more cuts throughout a job. Over the course of a five to six week construction job, Kriel estimated Autoset could save a crew two to three days.
That difference, Kriel said, could help make a mom-and-pop construction company on the edge of profitability, profitable.
"There's a need there," Kriel said of construction. "It's such a tech-lagging industry."
Autoset works by taking measurements from either Bluetooth connected tape measures or laser distance meters and feeding them into a stopper bolted to a miter saw bench. The stopper indicates which way it needs to be moved to get close to the measurement and then automatically adjusts to the precise measurement. Contractors can load in multiple measurements, leaving the job of remembering how long to cut a board to the machines.
The attachment allows a contractor to make several measurements before heading to the saw or sending those measurements to a person dedicated to working the saw. Kriel said contractors told them the biggest bottleneck they run into a on job site is at the "sawman." Autoset aims to reduce delays there and make the jobs easier.
Autoset is accurate to a 64th of an inch, and Kriel said he is working on "super secret technology" that will make it accurate to a 1000th of an inch.
"No one needs to be that accurate," Kriel joked.
Velocity Robotics will represent Pittsburgh in the finals of AlphaLab Gear's Hardware Cup after winning the Mid-Atlantic Regional Competition this week at Google's office in Bakery Square. The finals are in April in Pittsburgh.
The second time was a charm for Kriel and Velocity Robotics. Kriel pitched the same company and product two years at the Hardware Cup without success. He spent the next two years refining Autoset and working on the product and his pitch, including help from Scot MacTaggart, host of Pittsburgh's The Pitchwerks Podcast. MacTaggart told Kriel he needed a slide in his deck explaining a miter saw — a stationary saw on a pivoting arm used to make cuts at different angles. That helped investors in the tech community better understand what Autoset does, Kriel said.
"I don't think I have anything that survived from that first pitch," Kriel said. "And I'm about 300 times more confident than I was."
Kriel founded Velocity Robotics two years ago. He moved to Pittsburgh in 2007 when Caterpillar opened up a research center in the city to work with Carnegie Mellon University on self-driving vehicles for mining. Kriel, an Oklahoma State graduate, worked on robotics and using radar and LiDAR for machine perception. He left Caterpillar after seven years and started toying around with what would become Velocity Robotics.
The idea for the company started while Kriel was renovating his home in Dormont. As he would move from a project to his saw, he would forget measurements, ruin the paper they were written on, misread his own handwriting or just make the wrong cut.
Kriel had ideas of a completely automated cut station for job sites where the saw would automatically adjust to needed measurements and lumber would be automatically loaded and cut and robotic vehicles to move materials around construction sites.
Autoset is where the company is starting. Velocity Robotics had a failed Kickstarter last year that turned out to be a blessing, Kriel said. Throughout the Kickstarter campaign, the company heard from potential customers how they could make Autoset better. When the campaign failed, they didn't have to go ahead with production but could instead take the feedback, gather more and work on an improved version.
Kriel and his team work out of Alloy 26, a co-working space inside Nova Place that partners with Innovation Works, Alpha Lab and Alpha Lab Gear. Kriel is the only full-time employee, but a team of 10 works in different capacities. They set up their shop in a basement storage area so their power tools wouldn't distract the other people working in Alloy 26.
Kriel hopes to have the improved Autoset on the market within a year. His target price is $499.
"It streamlines the process," Kriel said of Autoset. "And it allows our users to think about higher level things."
Humans are great at remember numbers. Machines are. Humans are great at thinking about things like design, Kriel said. Machines aren't.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.