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Jenish Smart and Venkata Mahesh Komati on the factory of the future

Jenish Smart Venkata Mahesh Komati

Well before they joined Intuitive, engineers Jenish Smart and Venkata Mahesh Komati saw the potential of auto-ID technologies like RFID (radio frequency identification) to transform manufacturing—but most medical device companies didn’t share their vision. Luckily, Jenish, Venkata, and Intuitive found each other. Below, these two teammates explain the pilot programs that are charting the course toward the factory of the future, reflect on what it’s been like to build a new team at Intuitive, and share the innovations they’re most excited to see in the months and years ahead. 

First, tell us about your backgrounds and what brought you to Intuitive. 

Jenish: My first introduction to auto-ID technology was in grad school—I came to the U.S. in 2016 to do my master’s in industrial engineering and led the RFID lab at UT Arlington. After graduation, I started working in medical devices, which I enjoyed. But I wasn’t working with RFID technology. To me it seemed obvious that there were lots of use cases in this field; if you can use an RFID tag on a water bottle or a laptop, why not a medical instrument or accessory? But most companies had an outdated understanding of the technology. It was only about 90 percent accurate 20 or 30 years ago, though it’s 100 percent accurate today. 

Luckily, Intuitive was paying enough attention to see the potential of RFID. A few years ago, they decided to create a new team to focus on automated data capture, and called to ask if I would be open to joining. I couldn’t believe it—it was a dream job, exactly what I was looking for but didn’t think existed. Thankfully Intuitive had the foresight to invest in this space. 

Venkata: I also did my master’s in industrial engineering, and after graduation I worked at Honeywell, then Caterpillar. I got to contribute to lots of various kinds of projects; it was a good opportunity to build my skills and a good introduction to the fast-paced manufacturing environment. That’s also when I started to learn about RFID. I didn’t work with it in detail, but the benefits were clear. 

So when I came across Intuitive’s job posting for a manufacturing engineer in RFID, it piqued my interest. And right from the first call, I wanted to give it a shot. The program itself was definitely interesting—the new team Jenish mentioned was part of a strategic plan for the factory of the future, so there was obviously a lot of support from leadership to drive digital transformation. But what really made a difference was meeting the team. With Jenish, Joaquin, Rick—really, every person I talked to—I immediately felt a connection and common ground. 


What has it been like to pilot RFID here? 

Jenish: We started with one of our more complex consumables lines here in Sunnyvale, and like any other new project there were challenges. Installing RFID hardware, for example, required modifying every workbench on the assembly line, though we’ve since developed a mobile cart that we’ll be using in future implementations. We ran the initial pilot for about a year, and it ended up being a grand success: We exceeded our initial target, improving tracking efficiency by more than 50%. In a configuration process, for example, it used to take a technician an hour and a half to scan each individual barcode for all of the raw materials. With RFID, they can do it in 15 minutes. That’s especially critical because Intuitive’s products are so popular; our demand is outpacing our supply. The more efficient we can be, the more customers we can serve and the more patients they can help. 

Venkata: Absolutely, and we can use RFID to track not just our products, but other assets, too. That’s another pilot we’ve been working on this year—we’ve fitted RFID antennas across our facility, so we can automatically track the real-time locations of equipment. We’ve already deployed a small-scale version of that project, and we’re in the final stages now. 

In general, our goal is to make sure these business-critical tools are being used as well as possible, but also to reduce the time our manufacturing team has to spend on any activities that aren’t adding value. We want them to be able to focus on the most vital parts of their job. 

How do you collaborate with other organizations at Intuitive? 

Venkata: There’s a lot of cross-functional work involved, especially as we’re piloting new systems and technologies. When we first started, for example, we worked closely with the Sourcing team on the specific RFID hardware and suppliers we wanted to use. There was pre-work with Finance, too, and of course with Engineering. And then as we implement, we work with even more departments. Some of that is technical, like making sure we’re aligned with Intuitive’s security measures, and there’s an extensive compliance process whenever we bring a new device onto the floor. We also work closely with other teams on specific projects—like when we attached RFID labels onto our product boxes, that required a lot of collaboration with the Labeling team. 

Jenish: Right, our team is the opposite of siloed; we are right in the middle of the technical and business sides of the business. Our colleagues working on quality, manufacturing—and even beyond the warehouse, to the distribution center—are our customers, so we enjoy getting to talk with them. It helps us understand their processes and pain points. Then we’re better equipped to work with our colleagues on the technical side and build a solution. 

I also think collaboration in general is just part of Intuitive’s culture. We are a leader in terms of our products, and that comes from being a leader in the way we make those products. To build great robotic surgical equipment, we need great processes, great operations, and great engineers. Everything ultimately goes toward the same mission. 

Venkata: Yes—I think that’s part of why we’ve had so much support, even as a new team. When we talk about the RFID projects we’re working on, or go to our Mexicali or Blacksburg, Virginia, locations, people get excited. We did a demo of one of our solutions recently on Design and Engineering Day, and the team in Japan reached out looking to collaborate. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, which makes us happy and fuels us up. 


What’s next for your team? Tell us about the innovations you’re excited about right now.
 

Venkata: We’ve designed our pilot projects with lots of opportunities to expand. Now that we have RFID labels on the boxes themselves, for example, hospitals will be able to use that information to communicate with us about their products. So it won’t just be tracking from warehouse to warehouse; we’ll be able to see what supplies a customer has, and eventually replenish them automatically. 

Jenish: Absolutely, and we’re starting to expand in terms of geography, as well. Now that we’ve proven these use cases here in Sunnyvale, we’ll be implementing RFID in other locations—including Mexicali, which is a much higher-volume site. Our scope for the pilot here was 11 lines; in Mexicali there are more than 50. 

We’re also excited to expand beyond consumables; we’re going to be deploying RFID as part of Intuitive’s systems like Ion. And ultimately, our goal is to capture data for any manual activity we do automatically—without a team member having to log onto a computer, search, or type. That’s the dream, and I think we can make it happen in the years ahead. 

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Jenish Smart

Jenish Smart joined Intuitive in 2021 and is a senior manufacturing engineer.

Venkata Mahesh Komati

Manufacturing Engineer Venkata Mahesh Komati joined Intuitive in 2022.