Natan Linder and Trond Undheim Show the Way to the Enhanced-Lean Industrial Frontline

Natan Linder and Trond Undheim.

Serial entrepreneurs Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim show how tech is failing the needs of the industrial shop floor yet could easily revolutionize operations and production that would attract new talent.

Tulip’s Natan Linder and Trond Undheim Are Empowering Industrial Frontline Teams

Natan Linder is the co-founder and CEO of Tulip, based in Somerville, Massachusetts. It is a platform for dramatically increasing the productivity of workers on manufacturing frontlines. Critically, it can do this without requiring complicated training, giving industrial companies a new opportunity to recruit talent to a sector tech has largely ignored. 

Trond Arne Undheim is CEO and co-founder of Yegii Inc., an analytics platform, is also in the top one percent of podcasters in the world, and serves as Tulip’s “evangelist.”

They are co-authors of “Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations,” about how easy-to-use digital tools can supercharge manufacturing and industrial operations.

“Worldwide, they are still full of paper-based processes, despite having many expensive high-tech machines, even robots, on the shop floor,” Linder told Startup Savant. “Industrial workers typically are not given digital tools, even though they often have lots of experience developing skills in their online personal lives that could be adapted to their work Tulip is creating an ecosystem where they are trained to be knowledge workers to solve the problems they face, using no-code, cloud-based interfaces everyone can use at any size company.”

Linder served as a non-commissioned officer in systems engineering for the Israeli Air Force 1996–99, then spent two years as a software engineer in a company that was acquired, followed by two years at Sun Microsystems.

He received his BA in computer science and business administration from Reichman University in Tel Aviv in 2003 and did advanced education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the intersection of business, science, and the arts 2007-17 before being awarded his Ph.D.

During this same period, he co-founded and was general manager of the mobile R&D unit for Samsung Telecom in Israel from 2003–07 and Entrepreneur in Residence at Jerusalem Venture Partners in 2008. He served on various boards until co-founding Formlabs in 2011, a maker of high-resolution 3D printers, where he still serves as chairman. He started Tulip in 2014 with Rony Kubat (the CTO) and MIT Media Lab professor Pattie Maes.

Undheim’s resume is equally complicated and important to highlight so that readers of their book understand the diverse experience the authors bring to the issues. He co-founded and was CEO of Innovision, a branding company, from 1997–2001, as well as serving as a research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology until 2002. For the next two years, he was on the Norwegian Board of Technology, then spent four years in Brussels overseeing a massive investment in eGovernment for the European Commission.

Undheim was director of strategy for Oracle Corp. out of London from 2008–2012, then a senior lecturer in global economics and management at MIT for three years, and oversaw its startup accelerator from 2014–2018. He started Yegiii in 2018 while also serving as the chief transformation officer for Kantar Consulting North America 2018–19. He remains a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, a venture partner at Antler, and a research scholar at Stanford University.

Augmenting Lean and Agile Production ASAP

“There has been a lot of talk about Industry 4.0, but very little delivered, because venture capitalists have funded only one percent of software for technology for the 80% of the global workforce that is deskless on the frontlines of operations,” Linder told The Innovator. “It’s harder to do than creating software to make the IT department, marketing, HR, or finance more efficient.”

It’s especially important to address this now because finding skilled manufacturing workers is going to become an increasing challenge, just as manufacturing is again about to take on the driver of the world’s economy.

“But implementing the hyped industry 4.0 technologies might take decades, while workers suffer unnecessary complexity, older workers may retire early, and new talent might be discouraged from even entering the manufacturing track,” he told Forbes.

The World Bank reports that manufacturing accounts for 64% of global R&D spend, though most of this is on product innovation rather than process improvement. According to the Gartner consulting firm, there are 2.8 billion frontline workers globally, broadly defined to include those providing services beyond manufacturing. It projects that 70% of new applications developed by enterprises in 2025 will use low-code or no-code technologies, compared with 20% in 2020.

Executives are naturally worried about minimizing risks when it comes to tech changes, IT is concerned about security, and quality control needs to be sure processes that are regulated or critical comply with high standards. The authors point out that what Tulip is offering is a platform, not individual apps, so every company in every industry can set up whatever guardrails it needs.

This decentralized approach also means workers on the frontline can become “citizen developers” to address whatever problems they face, such as production bottlenecks, using the most appropriate technologies, such as wearables, robots, AI, and special electronic components or materials.

“There’s often a perceived opposition between human labor and mechanical automation that misses the ways that human ingenuity and automation multiply the effects of the other,” Undheim said. “When technology takes over repetitive, dull, or dangerous jobs, humans can creatively do different things that create more value and make them happier. Automation has already addressed the low-hanging fruit in manufacturing and is also about to become a powerful force for worker empowerment, augmentation.”

Collaboration between humans and machines reached a peak in 2021, according to the IDC consultancy, when much of the $656 billion was spent focused on this aspect of tech development.

In the “Augmented Lean” book, Linder and Undheim provide many examples of how their clients tackled challenges by using Tulip. One was a nonprofit MasksOn, which has produced sophisticated personal protection equipment for healthcare workers. Traditionally, it could ship just 200 units a day, but after implementing Tulip’s system, it was shipping over 1,000.

Another family-owned Double H nurseries is the largest supplier of houseplants in the United Kingdom, with upwards of 1.5 million orchids in production at any time (they take a year to grow). It broke records when over 300,000 sold on Mother’s Day weekend in 2020 (in March there). Within a few days, however, COVID restrictions were imposed, supermarkets decided to offer paper goods, and consumer habits changed.

To adapt, Double H decided to switch from B2B to B2C, using Shopify for their ecommerce storefront. On the first day, they sold 20 boxes, but soon they were getting 3,500 orders a day, and the process was unmanageable, each one requiring the pulling and packing of the products, creating labels, and shipping. Double H has always had a culture of innovation, and Tulip built on that to enable its workforce to adapt to new circumstances.

Digitizing the Global Supply Chain

The authors note that the pandemic merely accelerated supply chain trends that were already underway due to prior shocks that made it clear that an array of manufacturing management and delivery problems made labor costs less important. The US nonprofit ReshoringNow has a strong interest in its mission to bring good jobs back, and some companies are hedging by boosting lower-cost regional hubs, such as Mexico (and Turkey for Europe). The closer locations also make it easier to establish relationships with suppliers in person since Zoom calls and language and cultural differences during the pandemic have proven inadequate.

“A company’s manufacturing organization is the sum of its operations,” Linder and Undheim wrote. “The backbone of the manufacturing supply chain is small-to-medium businesses. A Small Business Administration report in 2019 found that two-thirds of new jobs and 43.5% of the Gross Domestic Product for the U.S. was due to these companies. However, due to the size and maturity of their IT operations, SMEs are typically deprived of access to technology, but this is rapidly changing. The key is to have the supply chain digitized end-to-end so small producers can compete.”

Startups and nimble SMEs have been increasingly using off-the-shelf cloud computing and mobile apps to manage their vendor networks.

Although shipping containers were standardized decades ago, most ports have lacked investment in their infrastructure to meet the demand, which became critical in the first two years of the pandemic. Given the increasing amount of trade, the lack of foresight was in large part due to the cost of upgrading and the actors involved in the details, from unions and taxpayers to terminal operators and port authorities. The authors note the lack of digitization, with so many processes still based on physical, paper-based interactions. 

But some companies are delivering many aspects of the digital transformation, notably ABB (automation and electrical systems for container and cargo handling), Dubai-based CP World, which provides cargo logistics and terminal operations, and the TIL Group (with interests in 40 port operations).

Some startups have been making progress, the authors say, highlighting Singapore’s Quantship, Norway’s Maritime Optima, and Spain’s SEAport Solutions. Startups have emerged across segments such as warehousing and fulfillment, express delivery, overland, ocean, and air transport, as well as providing inventory visibility, predictive forecasting, and traceability.

However, the authors say, the biggest obstacle is not technology itself but the regulatory infrastructure, notably the poor or lacking incentives governments have in place to deeply digitize ports and other checkpoints. 

“Starting small, using no-code technology that can be implemented by one or a few actors without requiring initial permission from the whole set of stakeholders, is likely a faster way to digitize than waiting for one big fix,” Linder and Undheim wrote. 

Augmented Lean” is the guidebook to the future of work, especially manufacturing, pointing the way to endless opportunities for startups and small- and medium-size businesses.

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Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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