Inside Advanced Manufacturing: This Is Vecna’s Robot-Filled Campus

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Right across the street from Alewife Station in Cambridge sits a campus sprinkled with autonomous vehicles, like a converted 1967 VW Bus and a tricycle. 35 Cambridge Park Drive is home to Vecna Technologies, a company where watching robots wander about on their own is business as usual.

Vecna, a robot logistics company, started as a government contractor. Over time, it has taken the innovations it has developed for the public sector and translated them to make commercial products. Its robots range from the “BEAR” (or Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot) to the QCBot, which you may have recently seen is being used by Dana-Farber to deliver medication to patients, to VGo, the telepresence robot technology Vecna acquired last year.

What you may not know is that every product that Vecna offers is made on its Cambridge campus.

“Building things is what it’s been about from the start,” Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna, said. “Robotics has been our focus since the beginning.”

So it would only make sense for Vecna to take on all of the prototyping and assembly operations itself, rather than outsourcing them. Theobald says making everything onsite allows the company to accelerate the engineering and manufacturing processes. He told us, “In today’s economy, agility and speed are key to getting to market. The old way, going back and forth, will put you behind.”

“Manufacturing here is flexible and fast,” Anton Richardson, a mechanical engineer at Vecna, said. “Engineers can walk over to the shop and they can all sit down to figure something out instantly instead of sending emails back-and-forth for weeks.”

“It was a different transition for us,” Bob Stocks, Vecna’s Prototype Machine Shop Manager, told us. “We converted to verbal instruction and the turnaround time has become faster.”

The manufacturing facility on campus has grown over the years, as the company gradually acquired different equipment as needed. At first, Vecna had outsourced all of its shop work. Theobald said he was becoming increasingly frustrated by issues, such as a snag with turnaround time.

When Theobald met Stocks, who previously owned a machine shop dedicated to R&D up in Wilmington, Mass., they decided to merge their two businesses. Theobald told us, “I said, ‘You know what, we really need to bring this equipment in-house. We can’t spend a week waiting every time we need brackets.”

Stocks added, “He turned to me and said, ‘I’ll take everything.’”

Since then, Vecna has personally invested in getting the latest and greatest machinery needed for prototyping, including a large-scale 3D printer that runs 24/7 and a laser cutter that wouldn’t fit in many Boston one-beds. There’s a separate building on-campus where they can handle a large volume of assembling. The space is configured based on the task at hand, making for a “flexible assembly line.”

There are times when Vecna is almost exclusively doing prototyping and focusing on innovating. Other times, the company dedicates much of its resources to assembling products.

Vecna doesn’t just manufacture its own products. Its shop services members of the community. For instance, it’s currently working with Massachusetts General Hospital on a portable MRI machine.

“We’re trying to be partners in the innovation process,” Theobald said. “That’s key. We have excess capacity and we can share with the community. We can provide value in collaboration.”

Vecna currently has about 160 employees, with numerous PhDs working in the engineering group. Their backgrounds include advanced degrees from schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon. And some team members even have Mars rover development under their belts.

That said, having an impressive resume and a PhD doesn’t make you a shoo-in hire at this advanced manufacturing company. In addition to those ever-coveted STEM skills, Vecna looks for candidates with soft skills, which Theobald says are crucial as well.

“We have seen amazing resumes incapable of being part of the team here,” he said. “They’re accomplished, but communication skills are necessary to do product turnarounds like we do.”

By Olivia Vanni, staff writer, BostInno