April 16, 2016      

The chorus is getting larger and louder

Frank Tobe, the publisher behind The Robot Report; and someone who seems to have nearly every technology conference anywhere in the world on his dance card, strolled into the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta for a peek at MODEX 2016 (April 4-7) — as Frank called it, the “big material handling equipment, technology and systems show” that is collocated with the Supply Chain & Transportation USA conference.

The inevitability

With over 850 exhibitors sharing 250,000 square feet of expo space, Frank noticed what many have also noticed: the inroads of robotics creep moving through the hundreds of assembled material handling vendors.

That’s why new-guy-in-town Red Sea Ventures was there, hosting what it called a “logistics robotics event” as part of the conference. That’s a first for MODEX. In an email to Robotics Business Review, Red Sea wrote: “This industry is going through a radical change driven by e-commerce which is bringing extremely high caliber talent to the space. Lots of new and innovative companies on the horizon!”

On the 25th floor of the Crowne Plaza, Red Sea hosted an evening for what it called, “Bringing together industry leaders & the cutting-edge technologies that will define the future of supply chains.”

The attendees consisted of many of the young Turks who are making the disruptive machines that will soon do much of the “defining”: 6 River Systems, Bionic Hive, Clearpath Robotics, Convoy, Flirtey, Iam Robotics, Locus Robotics, Optimus Ride, Project 44, Righthand Robotics, Wise Systems, and Zipdrug.

A month previous, Robotics Business Review‘s webcast, “Industrial Automation and the ‘New’ Productivity,” as well as the accompanying research report by the same name, played on the same theme and featured many of these newbie material handling and supply chain tyros plus some old-line autonomous vehicle manufacturers that clearly see the screaming inevitability of robots taking over warehouses, DCs and supply chains.

This softness in logistics is what last year’s PcW report, “The New Hire,” saw in logistics; an exactly similar theme that McKinsey also writes about taking place in China: “China’s e-commerce soft spot: Logistics.”

From Red Sea to PwC to McKinsey, seems everyone is watching the demise of the era of goods-to-man quickly on the wane. What Red Sea called, “Lots of new and innovative companies on the horizon!” are moving in to fill the growing void.

Frank offers up his own view of these upstart logistics companies. He sent us the following for your review and consideration. -The editors

Frank’s take

[excerpted from: “Filling the void left by Kiva’s 2012 acquisition by Amazon” by Frank Tobe]

Fulfillment systems

  • Iam Robotics, a Pittsburgh startup founded by a couple of CMU grads, is the only vendor that uses a robot arm to grip goods. It 3D scans and identifies items to be picked into a cloud library and then uses a mobile picking robot to go to and pick items, place them in a tote, and then place the completed tote on the nearest conveyor to a packing station.
  • Locus Robotics, a Massachusetts-based company founded specifically in answer to the Kiva situation by a Kiva-using DC owner, uses a fleet of robots integrated into current warehouse management systems to provide robotic platforms to carry picked items to a conveyor or to the packing station thereby reducing human walking distances and improving overall picking efficiencies.
  • 6 River Systems, a Massachusetts startup comprised of ex-Kiva execs, had a booth but wasn’t even showing a photo of their solution. VCs have seen the 6 River System, however, and value it highly: 6 River just got $6 million in financing from a group of VCs including iRobot.
  • Fetch Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup that uses two different robots: one to pick and the other to assist workers as they pick by carrying the items and taking completed orders to the shipping station – autonomously.
  • Magazino, a German startup that was not at MODEX, has a mobile picking system that has a retractable and rotatable column with a gripper system and a removable shelf. It is able to grasp rectangular objects from small softcovers to shoeboxes up to heavy cases. The robot stores items in its built-in shelf and delivers it to a shipping station.
  • GreyOrange, an Indian startup that was also not at MODEX, has a system and product line strikingly similar to Kiva’s original offerings except that their robot is square and Kiva’s is round. GreyOrange has over 300 employees and its robots provide service to India’s e-commerce giants Flipkart, Jabong and Mahindra and has been signing distribution partners in Japan and throughout Asia and the Pacific.
  • InVia Robotics, also not at MODEX, a Southern California startup with two robots very similar to Fetch Robotics’ except InVia’s method of picking is similar to Magazino’s. It grabs items and slides them onto a platform which then slides the item into a bin and, when the order is complete, slides it onto an autonomous mobile delivery robot.

Mobile platform systems

Mobile platform systems are designed to work across multiple environments — DCs, warehouses, factories — and are autonomous mobile platforms that can be fitted with special-purpose payloads such as for receiving, restocking, inventory, moving material from work cell to work cell, picking, supporting human pickers, packing and palletizing.

Many vendors have provided AGVs, carts, lifts and tows, and have done so for many years. The older versions of these systems use markings, tapes, beacons, sensors and other things on the floors and ceilings to provide location information. Newer systems use the latest 3D vision systems, collision avoidance and mapping software to easily enable autonomous point-to-point navigation.

  • Clearpath Robotics is offering 2 transporters: one for heavy loads of up to 3,300# and the other for light loads of up to 220#. Both can be fitted with a carrying cart, bin carrier or a plain flat plate, and both have an intuitive lighting system similar to white headlights in the front, red in the rear. Clearpath is an established provider of robotic utility vehicles for the military and academia and are taking that experience to provide solid mobility platforms for customers to do their own thing.
  • MiR Mobile Industrial Robots, a Danish startup headed by Thomas Visti (who was VP at Universal Robots of collaborative robots fame), has begun to sell a small transport for logistics and healthcare. It operates as both a tug and/or a platform. It has 2 scanners and a 3D camera to make sure that it sees people and obstacles.

Next-gen AGVs: vision-guided robots

Armed with lower-cost LiDARs and Kinnect-like infrared 3D camera systems, new players like Aethon and Seegrid entered the market with new capabilities – including being able to autonomously unload containers: vision guided robotic lifts, tugs and platforms.

  • Aethon is a Pittsburgh-based provider of autonomous tugs used in hospitals and factories. Some of their AGVs (they have more than 400 in the field) have been outfitted for secure medication delivery, and all of their robots are assisted with their Cloud Command Center, a 24/7/365 remote monitoring service to get the tug out of whatever unplanned situation in which it finds itself.
  • Seegrid, also based in Pittsburgh, has focused their vision guided kits and lifts on the distribution center marketplace (their main investor/partner is Giant Eagle, a large East Coast grocery chain supported by multiple distribution centers). Seegrid has also partnered with forklift manufacturer Raymond to integrate their vision guided system onto Raymond lifts. Most recently Seegrid unveiled a monitoring system likened to a subway platform display showing when the next train is coming, to provide awareness to approaching devices and also to provide human assistance when needed.
  • Balyo, a French manufacturer of handling robots has recently partnered with Linde and Hyster Yale to integrate and provide their vision guided systems onto forklifts and tows manufacturered by Linde and Yale.

See related: Concern Over Productivity Splits Economists