Small sensors, big goals: Q&A with ForceN CEO Robert Brooks and VP of engineering Albert Chen

Judy Lin, DIGITIMES, Taipei

The advent of Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 has increased the demands for robots and edge computing, and the tasks are becoming more and more complex. Force sensors are critical to preventing the machines from breaking. Toronto-based startup ForceN has developed customizable force sensors that are thin and flexible, and do not require design change on machines to accommodate them.

Robert Brooks, CEO of ForceN, told Digitimes in a recent interview that his team aims to revolutionize the third wave of robotics by making the best sensors and the easiest sensors to integrate in the world. The Canadian startup company's vice president of engineering Albert Chen was also at the interview.

Q: Could you introduce ForceN, the core team and why you decided to create this company?

Brooks: My background is in mechanical engineering. I did my PhD at the University of Toronto. I did my thesis on what the next generation of robots would look like from a sensing and actuation standpoint. Before I did my PhD in sensors and actuators, I had extensive experiences working across the robotic automation industry. My first job was in a particle-physics facility, designing sensors. After that, I had worked in steel and manufacturing industry implementing the early forms of mobile robotics. Finally, I worked in manufacturing robotics for pharmaceuticals before specializing in surgical robotics.

I have a broad knowledge of the industry, and with my background as a PhD, I noticed one of the things we are missing out on robotics: Right now, robot arms typically operate in cells or in cages. These systems are designed to do the exact same movements repeatedly.

We are rapidly manufacturing different types of products; we are manipulating and moving these products faster than ever. We can design products in a much shorter period of time, so we need robots that can work much more flexibly and outside of cages.

Enter the first generation cobots (collaborative robots). The cobots need to get a lot more intelligent and a lot more sensing capability. So ForceN was created as a way of creating robust, multi-point, multi-dimensional touch-sensing for this third wave of robotics. That's where the "n" in ForceN comes from. It means n dimensions of force, or n points of forces.

Our VP of engineering, Albert Chen, is our expert of sensors.

Chen: I was born in Taiwan but I spent the latter half of my education in Canada. My PhD was in MEM sensors: I specialize in designing MEM transducers. To manufacture them, I worked in a cleanroom for three years. The latter part of my PhD was figuring out how to integrate sensors in a smart way. You can design a very accurate and sensitive sensor, but if you don't design it to interact with the system in an elegant way, you would not maximize its capability. At ForceN, one of the things we place a significant amount of effort into is packaging these ForceN sensors into a compact form-factor and optimize its sensitivity and robustness.

We design it in such a way that our customers find simple to integrate into their systems. So, we work with the customers very intimately, to make sure our sensors would not break, and are incredibly easy to install, and easy to use.

So it's not just the sensor design; we put a lot of efforts into edge computing, as well as user experience.

Brooks: (Showing a sensor) This is the sensor we talked about. It is incredibly thin and flexible. It is glued to the surface, and it has multiple sensing points in it. That is why it gives you multi-point, multi-dimensional touch. Albert has been putting a huge amount of effort into making this film mass-manufacturable and easy to install. And then we have a very high-density electronic module. This module does all the edge computing.

You can actually plug a cable and connect it to a computer, and you can get an incredibly clean, high sensitivity force data. Our goal is to bring human-level sensitivity, dexterity, and robustness to the next generation of robotics.

We were founded in December 2015. In the first year and a half, it was only R&D. With three more people coming in this year, our team will consist of 12 people, pretty much all working on engineering at this point. We are scaling up for production now. In house, we are able to manufacture up to 50 robotic sensors a month. Then we have manufacturing partners who are able to manufacturer up to 1,000 units a month.

We work with new customers on proof of concept, which would be between 1-10 units. And once they are satisfied, we usually make a pre-production prototype, that being between 10-50 units. And from there, we move into production through our manufacturer partners. We are at the early production stage now, working with 18 major customers.

So we build quite a bit of a system at this point, including surgery robotics, logistics, industrial robotics, and robots solving Covid-19 issues.

Chen: I would also like to emphasize that more than half of those customers are leading companies in their field, definitely a few Fortune 500 companies.

Q: Besides those verticals that you are working with your customers, are there other verticals that also have potential for your technology to apply?

Brooks: A couple of areas we think would be interesting. We do manufacturing and surgical robotics. Pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical device manufacturing, and even food production are the areas that our technology could be applied to. Because they care about biocompatible and safety to the point you could use share a lot of similarity with surgical instrument. There are robotic surgical instruments with our technology installed on it but we also make robots that handle anything from optics and boxes. So it makes sense that we will go after those markets, especially those which rely on automation. That is becoming very popular. The other one area we are working on is the human-machine interface (HMI). Most of the time when we use our robots to interact with the outside world, we usually use it as a control device. Albert is now developing a technology that can turn a solid plate of stainless steel into a HMI. It is multi-point, multi-dimensional; you can create something that acts like a joystick or dial, or treadpad. But that is a solid piece of metal, so you can put it in a very harsh environment such as under water, you can even operate it wearing gloves. Or you can put it in a very clean environment, for use of, say, nuclear or semiconductor wafers, or medical device manufacturing. They are the same size as the business card, you can take it to a conference and show it to the people. They make wonderful development kits.

Chen: The important thing to know is that engineers in the automation field require force sensors, but the machines are already built. They don't want a force sensor that is chunky or require design change on their machine just to accommodate the force sensor.

Whereas we come in and say, our module is incredibly small, and our force sensor is a film. We can put it on your robotic finger, or robotic arm. Sometimes it doesn't even need to look like a robot, such as a surgical tool. Your form doesn't need to change. We can put on the film for you, so you can retrofit and take a technological leap from what you currently have. Just the fact that it is so small and so thin, our customers love it, because it doesn't have any footprint on what they have.

Q: What you just showed me is a strip, so you can actually make it into a film or a plane?

Brooks: Yes we can laser cut it into any kind of shape, size, profile, or cut-out. We can put in any number of sensing points and any number of sensing dimensions into a single film.

Q: What are the possible areas you can collaborate with Taiwanese companies?

Brooks: We pride ourselves by making the best sensors in the world. We typically don't make the end product. So we look forward to working with companies which will benefit from integrating force and torque sensing. We are looking for the innovators in end equipment, or OEMs. And we are looking for applications which will benefit from this force-sensing technology.

Chen: In Taiwan there are many great contract manufacturers. We work with many of their customers, especially many high-tech medical equipment companies: they do a lot of R&D, and then send it to Taiwan. If Taiwan is already using tons of force sensors, and they try to integrate, we can definitely try to be part of that supply chain.

We can do anything the other force-sensor companies can do, but we only takes up 1/10 of the space.

There are also a lot of robots in Taiwan. Typically, companies which use a lot of robots would use a lot of sensors. And they constantly need to detect force, because if the robot experience too much force, it will break. So you really want to be there to stop things like that from happening.

The trend is, those robots are pushed to work harder and harder. There will be conditions where those robotic arms need different types of force equipment. We would be a good fit, being capable of being customized to any shape.

Brooks: Besides equipment manufacturers, we are also looking for system integrators and specialty manufacturers. You can get one from us customized for just your application, and don't need to buy the ones off from shelve. That will get the sensor much lighter, and much smaller. Which means your robot can move faster, so you will be able to get much more working volume for the robots.

Lastly, our film allows us to separate the sensing element from the protection element. For typical sensors, your protection element is your sensing element. So if your robot clashes for some reason, that affects the life of your sensor. Typically, your overload is based on your sensing range. So if you sense 10kg, and your overload 100%, your device will break at 20kg. By separating them, we build a very strong overload element for very sensitive sensor, such as 1 kg range but 50 kg overload with our technology.

This would be really useful if you have fine tasks. But if you still work with people it is easy to break the sensor. We've done this a lot with surgical robotic series, but that can be applied across the industries.

The flexibility of the film, the size, and weight savings are our strength. We can also make the integration of the system incredibly robust.

Chen: We are getting to make small volumes really quick at really high quality. But at larger quantities, everywhere we looked, it seems to point to Taiwan. We would be looking for contract manufacturing partners in Taiwan to help scale up our production. I will be doing factory tours when I go back to Taiwan.

We need to manufacture the film, it is the more difficult one. The sensors are not made on silicon wafer, but flexible substrates. This is really difficult to make the film into a sub-1% accuracy sensor that will last decades. That's where we need some Taiwanese manufacturing partners to help build giant industrial rolls of this film.

Q: So you would need companies with specialty in special materials, precision manufacturing, and semiconductor companies to work out a solution?

Chen: Yes. The size of our electronic module is the same as my fingernail. The competitor module is the size of a wallet. That little chip makes a huge difference. It means saving a robotic control engineer maybe six months of development work. Robert spent blood, sweat and tears on that board, to make all this possible.

Q: Are there any plans for expansion or fund-raising? What is your status as a startup?

Brooks: We are considered pre-A. We finished our seed round with a total of CAD2.25 million. Canada also has quite a few grant programs, so we are well-funded. Our goal is to work with, hopefully, every major robotic manufacturer in the world, using our technology. We want to create a robotic sensing revolution, especially with the advent of AI coming along. Edge-computing is the muscle memory to artificial intelligence. For example, once you learned to ride a bicycle, you remember that for the rest of your life, and that's muscle memory. That's what we do, enabling the organic edge computing.

We have already sold our system to many manufacturers in the US and in Europe. But two thirds of the world's robots are operating in Asia. We already have one customer in Taiwan and two customers in Japan. And we will continue to expand our business in Asia. Early next year, we will raise our series A. We will continue to grow our technical team to make the best sensors in the world, and the easiest sensors to integrate in the world.

Robert Brooks

Robert Brooks, CEO of ForceN

Albert Chen

Albert Chen, VP of engineering at ForceN
ForceN sensor

A ForceN sensor on a flexible strip
Photos: Company