The Munich startup Vemcon automates excavators and other mobile machinery such as graders or wheel loaders. On their path from joysticks to autonomous machinery, the company applies their knowledge and experience in hydraulics, robotics and artificial intelligence. We spoke with the two founders, Jan Rotard and Julian Profanter.
The construction industry is one of the least digitized industries in Germany. According to a McKinsey study, the industry is seriously lagging behind other industries with 30 percent less productivity. The industry is also at risk of going under due to a lack of skilled professionals. It is not often that building contractors are able to execute the increasing number of projects on schedule. This is where digitalization offers major opportunities. Vemcon’s goal is to simplify machine operation in the construction industry by interlinking intuitive ergonomics with driver assistance. The startup utilizes self-learning software and cloud services to achieve that goal.
Both founders have experience that goes back many years. Founder Jan Rotard repaired tractors when he was a kid. Julian Profanter dealt with the subject of operating concepts and joysticks in detail in his thesis for his studies as an engineer. Their passion for construction sites, excavators and other heavy machinery is what brought them together. Vemcon was founded in 2012 on the concept of making mobile machinery easier to operate and more productive.
“We listen and get our hands dirty”
It quickly became evident that other products could be created that account for a larger market. The founders commented about themselves: “We are on friendly terms with excavator operators.” And that plays an important role in finding out what is needed. Julian Profanter, who is responsible for Operating Concepts & Ergonomics, said:
“We listen, we understand the people, machines and the work process, we get down to business and also like to get our hands dirty. We excavate holes together with the drivers or grade areas. For the latter, the machine operator has to control up to four, five, or even six functions with levers and pedals at the same time. It all requires a high level of fine motor skills, concentration and experience. The output depends on capability and how the driver is feeling that day.”
That is why Vemcon created a method to develop intuitive and ergonomic operating concepts. The joystick that resulted combines movements and simplifies machine operation. For the driver, a joystick is the tool that gives them control of their machine. It is also determines whether the driver is able to work precisely and quickly at any time during the day. The company even won an award for its design at the German Design Awards in the “Industry” category.
“The design award is also an acknowledgement of the fact that we go further in terms of quality and technology to provide unique selling points for our clients,”
In addition to the joystick, a driver assistance system also makes the driver’s job easier. To continue with the grading example, it can improve the flow of automatic levelling and of the movements that were previously controlled by hand. That provides a potential increase in productivity of up to 40%. It also provides another convenience for excavator drivers: repeated processes are optimized and automated.
“The driver has to deal with less mental and physical stress. And our driver assistance system also helps less-experienced operators work faster and with increased precision.”
Beyond joysticks and driver assistance systems, Vemcon also views machine control systems in a new light and provides solutions for the automation of mobile machinery. They do so by linking driver assistance systems with self-learning software and cloud services. That results in intelligent, semi-autonomous machines that communicate with one another and an increase in productivity of up to 60%.
Excavators dig holes on their own, rollers drive behind a grader without human assistance and agricultural machines plow the fields while farmers are able to take care of other tasks. The assistance system and tool tracker also answer important questions: Which tools do I need for which step? Where can I retrieve that tool as quickly as possible? What condition is the tool in?
Millions invested in Vemcon clear their path for the future
The young tech company first financed itself with bootstrapping and scholarships. With assistance from the ESA BIC Incubator, they continued to develop during the two-year program: Their scalability was increased, production costs were reduced, OEMs got on board as customers and ESA BIC, among other things, helped support the development of their basic technology, namely algorithms and sensor technology.
The founders feel certain that their success is partly due to the fact that they put their products on the market themselves. And the other factors leading to their success? Vemcon CEO Jan Rotard sees the situation as follows:
“We connect the grounded world of machinery with the possibilities provided by modern hydraulics, digitalization and artificial intelligence. We also work along with the drivers, listen to them and develop the appropriate solution.”
Last year in July 2017, the Munich startup received seed financing from a strategic investor. With an investment in the millions, the founders established a dynamic core team. The company now has more than 20 employees. And Vemcon plans to continue growing. The most challenging current issue according to Jan is that:
“We are always looking for employees who share our passion for heavy machinery as well as our vision of a digitalized construction industry.”
The key to success: A shared vision of a digitalized construction industry
That is also Jan’s ultimate piece of advice for other startups:
“Put together a strong team that thinks and works with you to become a meaningful solution provider for your customers. The team also needs to have enough staying power to tackle challenges.”
An additional important factor in Vemcon’s success is their advisory board. The three managers and investors on the board provide a total of 150 years of experience and market expertise — and the founders are able to communicate with them on a daily basis.
The founders have an optimistic view of the future. Jan said:
“In ten years at the latest, we will be an established supplier of construction, agricultural, mining and municipal machinery. […] And in five years’ time, we have already made major progress towards achieving that goal. We are proud of every employee who joins us on our journey.”