July 15, 2019      

As robotics continue to be introduced into retailers’ e-commerce environments and warehouse fulfillment operations, the need for flexible adaptive systems that can move goods around autonomously rises as well. In the face of continuing labor shortages for warehouse workers, mobile robotics systems that include mobility and manipulation offer customers a variety of options.

RBR50 2019 honoree IAM Robotics continues its work to enable e-commerce fulfillment for packaged goods, drug store, and grocery retailers. Founded in 2012, the Pittsburgh-based company develops  flexible autonomous material handling robotics for e-commerce order fulfillment in logistics and manufacturing. The company’s Swift Product Suite provides a robotic solution for addressing existing labor shortages, accelerating e-commerce environments, and adapting to changing consumer expectations.

Robotics Business Review spoke with the company’s CEO, Joel Reed, about the growth of robotics in the supply chain space, the challenges and adoption of mobile manipulation technologies, and whether the robotics space is moving too fast or too slow.

Has mobile manipulation been solved?

Joel Reed IAM Robotics

Joel Reed, IAM Robotics president and CEO

Q: We’re now seeing more companies develop either complete mobile manipulation systems, or combinations of picking robots that interact with autonomous mobile robots. Is this being driven more by customer requests, or has technology innovation now allowed for this, where in previous years it was a very difficult challenge?

Reed: It’s a combination of both. Mobile manipulation systems are inherently flexible. With these advancements in technology, customers are beginning to question the logic of making long-term investments in inflexible material handling systems.

At the same time, the growth of e-commerce pushes retailers to add more SKUs to their inventory and to support faster and more variable delivery times. This creates a need for more labor – at a time when labor is harder to maintain – and a need for more flexible operating environments. We’re really seeing a convergence of changing market needs and innovations in material handling systems. All of this is driven by the accelerating digitization of our society.

Q: As IAM Robotics goes from a startup to a “scale up” company, what are some of the challenges that you see on the horizon? How do you keep the team focused on its mission to avoid distractions or trying to “please everyone” with customer requests, etc.?

Reed: Robots are technical platforms that offer a promise to move and manipulate a wide variety of items. However, real constraints still exist in perception, navigation and grasping technologies.

We are seeing the adoption of mobile robots in the areas where the solution addresses key needs and achieves an economic return. To date, that is largely limited to the selection of packaged goods and the transport of material with the help of human workers. Larger systems do automate more of a workflow, but the cost of these systems makes them unrealistic to a very large part of the market. Autonomous mobile manipulating robots will change that.

For us, we are being careful to focus on the market segments where we can fully automate a manual process and offer a compelling ROI. With a standard mobile base and a high range of motion and manipulation, IAM Robotics’ solutions allow customers to experience this benefit today, and give them an investment platform from which to extend selection and material handling capabilities.

Already, our Bolt solution will work with Swift to lower the total cost of selection and extend its transportation capabilities. And our picking range will extend as well. Client-driven innovation is part of our strategy, and client-driven innovations need to make sense for our business objectives and fit within our development roadmap.

Q: What industries have shown the most interest for the Swift system, and the new Bolt offering? What challenges are those industries facing that drive the interest in robotics and automation?

Reed: Our sweet spot is in e-commerce for consumer-packaged goods, ranging from large retailers, drug store retailers, and grocery. In addition, 53% of shoppers say that speed of delivery is an important factor when it comes to evaluating their online orders.

We are also working with retailers who are looking to drive operational efficiencies by improving success rates, decreasing the amount of time wasted by employees walking in a warehouse, and filling any labor gaps.

Q: Do you feel that the robotics industry is moving too fast, too slow, or at just the right pace in terms of new innovations and advances?

Reed: Too slow. The leading retailers are beginning to realize that if you rethink operations around new technologies, they will discover new offerings, obtain greater efficiencies, and become more competitive. Disruptive innovation leads to new value curves, which changes the market and creates new leaders. We are working with those industry leaders to show the rest of the market of what is possible.

Q: A majority of companies in this year’s RBR50 were either in the e-commerce fulfillment or supply chain robotics space – do you feel the market is saturated, or is there still room new startups to emerge?

Reed: Because there are so many levels of operations within the supply chain industry, it’s hard not to think there is still room for growth and new startups entering the space. Innovation will come in the form of advanced software applications, business analytical systems driven by artificial intelligence, greater grasping and manipulation, fleet management systems, and integrated systems.

IAM Robotics Swift

IAM Robotics’ Swift. Image: IAM Robotics

Q: Are there any other technology challenges for the robotics system that you’re developing? (grasping items, autonomous movement, improving speed and accuracy, etc.)

Reed: We will always push technical boundaries to expand capabilities and improve price per performance. This will mostly occur through advancements in perception, software techniques, application of machine learning and AI, and the expansion of SKU handling. 

Q: What advice would you give to companies looking to either create a new robotics startup or scale up their existing company?

Reed: Think about the market as an ecosystem that every one of us is working to develop and advance. A new startup should decide what they are really good at, and leverage partners where possible.

Q: What does it mean for the company to be in the RBR50?    

Reed: RBR has been a leader in defining robotic business models and in developing the robotics ecosystem from the very beginning. Being mentioned in the RBR50 is a true testament to the solutions our team has developed, and to the work we are doing to build a viable robotics business and transform our target industry.