In tune with times, software application provider focuses on frontline workers

An interview with serial industrial IT/automation entrepreneur Augmentir’s Russ Fadel

By Kevin Parker October 21, 2022
Courtesy: Augmentir

Augmentir CEO Russ Fadel’s rich and varied career within the industrial software space began as a co-founder at WonderwareNorth, a regional VAR for manufacturing operations software and hardware. Since 1989 has also served as a board member at the organization. Fadel was a co-founder, and from 1998 to 2005 served as CEO of Lighthammer Software Development, an application composition platform targeted at real-time manufacturing. In 2005, Lighthammer was acquired by SAP.  

Next Fadel served as a co-founder of ThingWorx, an application platform supplier for the connected world, serving as CEO and then president until its acquisition by PTC in 2013. Since 2018 he has served as CEO of Augmentir, a provider of smart connected worker solutions. Fadel recently sat down for a Zoom call interview with Plant Engineering 

Russ Fadel is the CEO and cofounder of Augmentir. Courtesy: Augmentir

Russ Fadel is the CEO and cofounder of Augmentir. Courtesy: Augmentir

Kevin Parker: Russ, as you look at the evolution of industrial software applications from the introduction of SCADA by Wonderware, Intellution and USData, through your own involvement with Lighthammer, ThingsWorx, and Augmentir, what are some of the continuities and discontinuities in terms of technologies and processes involved? 

Russ Fadel: The continuity between the businesses is that every time a new company was launched, at roughly 10-year intervals, a key technology innovation occurred. Regarding Wonderware, Phil Huber was one of the company’s founders and is also one of the founders of Augmentir. 

Wonderware moved software into factories and plants by leveraging the Windows operating system when everyone else was trying to use DOS to create these graphical human-machine interfaces. When Windows was chosen, everyone said it wouldn’t work because it wasn’t real-time or reliable, but they made it work. Using the Windows operating system they delivered a product that was 10 times easier to use, increasing adoption, ridding the space of the smaller players and turning software into a strategic investment for big companies.   

It was Rick Bullotta, my cofounder at Lighthammer, who said we could put smaller web servers in factories and simplify information delivery by making it browser-based (which no one was doing at the time). That helped us penetrate the manufacturing intelligence space and simplify synchronizing with SAP, which eventually acquired Lighthammer.  

For ThingWorx, we looked at the IoT space and realized that the early players were focused on the device-communication layer. We thought that would become commoditized, so we focused on building the first solution using graph database technology that combined people, devices and unstructured data. That led to applications that married Internet of Things data, structured data or unstructured data and people to create actual business value.  

For Augmentir, the key technology innovation is a combination of enterprise SaaS, which has huge advantages in terms of deployment costs, the ubiquity of mobile and applying artificial intelligence (AI) effectively at scale. This is a new set of technologies that we are bringing together into a suite of software tools that not only deliver ease of use, but also a focus on data coming from newly connected frontline workers and using AI to help cleanse that data and make it actionable.  

KP: I believe many of our readers find themselves hiring technology experts in areas where they themselves don’t have expertise. What are some important factors for you when making those technology hires?  

RF: Fortunately, in the businesses that I’ve founded, I’ve always had a co-founder who was highly qualified in terms of technology: Lawrence Fan and Phil Huber at Augmentir, and Rick Bullotta with ThingWorx and Lighthammer. They really are good at understanding people’s technical capabilities. I can read the resume but can’t necessarily evaluate how good of a coder they are. 

The other thing is that we’ve been successful in hiring across the board. When you’re in any company, but particularly a startup, people must be collaborative, no ego, here to get the job done. There’s no room for politics in small companies; everyone needs to show up, work hard, be humble and collaborate with their fellow workers. 

The opportunity for the 2nd generation of the connected worker space is to leverage frontline data to deliver on-going value to operations. Courtesy: Augmentir

The opportunity for the 2nd generation of the connected worker space is to leverage frontline data to deliver on-going value to operations. Courtesy: Augmentir

KP: Would you call solutions from Augmentir part of a new category of software solution?  

RF: Yes, I would. The connected worker space emerged around 2012-2013. The first-generation thesis was either 1) that if work can be digitized that would transform frontline operations, or 2) that augmented reality and smart glasses could transform frontline work processes.  

Both of those turned out to be false assumptions. The digitalization of work does provide a one-time improvement but turns out not to be transformational. There was a low level of adoption. Early connected-worker companies struggled and continue to struggle today. Augmented reality (AR) smart glasses never took off in the enterprise. The AR space is niche and focused around equipment OEMs as they’re the only companies that can afford to build AR experiences. It’s hard to deliver that to end customers because they have 20 equipment suppliers and each might choose a different platform.  

When Augmentir launched, we thought of ourselves as the second generation of software providers in the connected worker space. We decided to found the business when we realized the opportunity was to take the data from the newly connected and underserved workers and leverage that data to deliver ongoing value to the organization; because the data is inherently noisy, it must be processed with AI.  

We use AI to cleanse the noise from the data and use the representative data that’s left to deliver continuous insights into the performance of each person to do targeted workforce development, as an indication of what work processes deliver the highest productivity improvement. That’s transformational. Our customers select us because every day, month, year they gain new insights that help them improve their business.  

We’ve also added skills management to the suite. If you think about the big challenge with the workforce today, it’s that the churn rate is 8-10x greater than it was five years ago. Companies struggle in bringing people on and effectively getting them productive because they are using Excel spreadsheets to track employee skills, which are relatively disconnected from operations.  Augmentir’s skills management capabilities automate the process, making those processes smart – from the day a worker is hired till they retire or leave. It’s a powerful thing.  We’re the only company that’s closing the loop between the skills endorsements that employees are required to have to work in a plant and the work they actually do. Employers can know who’s performing well at their job and who could be a target for reskilling so they can do their jobs correctly.  

KP: Has the nature of frontline work changed? In many workplaces the chain of command hierarchy has collapsed so there’s not as much middle management. Do frontline workers need more skills than in the past as well as better communications skills? 

RF: I think that’s a good observation. Companies are making the frontline workforce more autonomous and responsible and that’s great. Connected-worker software gives each worker access to information. A remote or internal subject matter expert can have real-time support when doing work. However, the challenge of churn still remains; one of our customers in the food industry says that not only are frontline workers churning but supervisors as well. That leads to a knowledge and skills gap that ends in fire-fighting exercises. Companies are increasingly likely to invest in technology to mitigate some of these workforce issues. 

Augmentir deals in more unstructured processes that are human-centered, issues such as autonomous maintenance, quality control, service and repair. These are processes with a desired outcome but plenty of things can occur in the middle of the process (e.g., changing the seal line on a pump, but then there’s corrosion that requires additional work, and so forth). Augmentir shines when the process has a primary way to happen, but there’s variability – semi-structured processes.  

Skills management addresses the challenges inherent in the ongoing skilled labor shortage. Courtesy: Augmentir

Skills management addresses the challenges inherent in the ongoing skilled labor shortage. Courtesy: Augmentir

KP: We hear AI as a marketing term frequently, but in terms of working with that non-structured data it seems like a difficult task getting people what they need in terms of exact information out of an entire database. Talk a little about what AI consists of and what it’s able to deliver.  

RF: There are two views on AI – either it’s a condiment that you sprinkle on top of an existing application, or it’s really the operating system on which you build modern applications. We think of ourselves in that latter category, that we’ve built our product on an AI foundation. And when you do that, AI becomes invisible to the user.  

This approach means there’s no data scientist, no data cleansing or labeling, there’s no 80% of the money spent just trying to get the data prepared. The most obvious example of this is Google search. When you type in a search term, you’re directly benefiting from this embedded AI that keeps making the search results better and better. The knowledge base or training set gets better. 

This is exactly how Augmentir’s embedded AI works. 

Let’s say there are 10,000 maintenance processes across a company. We can stack-rank them in the order of which ones present the greatest productivity opportunities, supporting continuous improvement teams and the proficiency of every frontline worker. With the churn in today’s workforce, this allows employers to target those individuals that need skilling, reskilling or additional training, all without the need for a data scientist. None of the cleansing and tagging is needed because we deliver that behind the scenes.  

KP: What is the source for the work execution and knowledge management functions? Where is that information drawn from?  

RF: We’ve leveraged our 30+ years of experience to build a framework that allows users to deliver the data and build their own work instructions, to link to their own knowledge management capabilities, e.g., articles or manuals from their OEMs. Essentially it comes from the customers. We do have a plan to make it easier for OEMs to deliver their maintenance instructions through Augmentir to end-customers. Our largest CPG customer, for example, chose us because Augmentir enabled their “citizen developers” to author instructions at all of their facilities around the world.  Their central database sends out templates for specific types of safety instructions and changeovers, but all of the local facilities author them with their local flavor. In the first six months after selecting us they authored 10,000 new instructions across 13 facilities. It’s a foundation that enables manufacturers and service companies to embed their work processes into our product.  

KP: And in terms of manufacturing or process industries, where are you finding the most success or do you feel you’ll find the most success? 

RF: The processes that we support, such as autonomous maintenance, preventative maintenance, quality data collection, operator rounds, those are ubiquitous across all manufacturing and production verticals. While there are some vertical specific differences, they aren’t huge. Right now, we’re in 11 verticals, including automotive, CPG, food and beverage, pulp and paper, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and others. We’re not evenly distributed across all verticals, but relatively even because the use cases are common. 

KP: Is there anything I should have asked you that I haven’t? 

RF: I would say there are probably two things to think about when considering the market in general.  

A venture capitalist told me years ago, “We invest in painkillers not vitamins.” In other words, they don’t want to invest in something where five years from now you might live a little longer, they want something that people need to take now. Connected worker space solutions were a “vitamin,” i.e. a nice-to-have, for years. Most companies were able to meet their production targets with existing technology. Leading-edge companies would invest because they knew they could potentially improve, but most, because of inertia, said there’s a lot of risk and cost involved without a huge potential benefit.  

If you talk to manufacturers today, their churn rate is 5-10 times higher than it was five years ago. They have a big challenge just onboarding new employees into the plant to be safe and productive and to do things correctly. This is putting a greater urgency on digital technology as a solution. I think you’re going to see a dramatic uptick in investment in software like Augmentir’s.  

The second thing is the real opportunity is to close the loop between what it takes to bring an employee successfully and quickly into productive activity in the plant or factory, and then to be able to help guide them and support them in their work and then use the data that their activity generates to then inform as to where workforce investments should be made.  

What companies are saying to me today is that often they have paper processes for line inspections, lubing pumps, daily tasks and quality checks that they write down on paper. Because it’s on paper, they have no way of seeing it in real time, so they’re not audit ready. They don’t know that a person actually did the work. They can’t detect patterns or quality problems or anything like that. By digitalizing the processes they get a data set they can analyze in real time. It’s audit-ready for quality.  

If it’s for maintenance operations (preventative or autonomous) you actually know that the work was done, when it was done, who did it and how long it took.  You know all maintenance tasks scheduled and what percent of the work was done. The best part is providing more personalized workforce development initiatives that result in happier, more engaged workers.   

Russ Fadel, CEO & Co-Founder at Augmentir 

Russ Fadel is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and Co-Founder of Augmentir. Prior to founding Augmentir, Russ founded 4 successful companies in the industrial software sector, including the two most recent – ThingWorx, the leading Industrial IoT (IIoT) platform company (acquired by PTC), and Lighthammer, the pioneer in enterprise manufacturing intelligence software (acquired by SAP). Russ has been intimately involved in the last three software revolutions around humans and machines in manufacturing and service. Augmentir is a continuation of this theme. 

Author Bio: Senior contributing editor, CFE Media