If you spend any time in the manufacturing industry, or in segments related to manufacturing, such as oil and gas pipeline management, you’ll hear about a skills shortage. There are lots of workers retiring, and fewer young employees coming up to fill those gaps. Meanwhile, fears of automation have workers concerned about their jobs.
Contextere, a four-year-old startup out of Ottawa, Canada, wants to help. The company built software that pulls in data about machines and exposes to workers in the form of what founder and CEO Gabe Batstone calls a “digital conversation.”
That conversation could occur as follows. A technician might approach a machine as part of regular maintenance and ask it how it’s doing. The machine would use natural language processing to figure out what the technician asked and then it might give a response in the form of a diagnostic delivered via a mobile app, a set of physical readouts on the machine, or even, if needed, as a verbal response. This last one feels compelling but is probably impractical for noisy factories where responses would need to be sent to maintenance records.
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics and United Technologies already use the software from Contextere in some of their factories. The software uses real-time data from sensors on the machines and inside the factory environment, as well as data about the person asking for information so it can provide context for workers. This allows people who need to interact with the machines to get information that’s relevant to them.
Getting the data into the software is one of the challenges associated with setting up Contextere. The companies have to find sources of data about their machines which can range from sensor data to instructions and operating manuals. They then have to enter that data into Contextere’s system for use in a mobile app. Contextere’s software is designed to make this process easy and consistent across customers. It then shares the information with a human worker in an easy-to-digest format.
Think of Contextere as a follow-on to something like IBM’s Watson, which is trying to parse data from a variety of places to understand what’s going on at a high level. Once that analysis is concluded, a human has to get in the loop to solve whatever problem has been identified. Contextere is there to make that easy.
This is a big deal. While worker retirement was a significant contributor to the loss of manufacturing workers a few years ago, the big challenge now is that manufacturing companies can’t hire workers with enough technical skills, according to a Deloitte survey. Software like Contextere’s can help close that skill gap.
Contextere has raised less than $1 million in outside funding and has instead grown mostly through revenue. It participated in the Urban-X accelerator program, which is a sponsor of this week’s newsletter.