Numerous companies have entered the supply chain automation market in the past few years, as the demand for rapid and accurate order fulfillment outstrips available labor. Companies supplying mobile robots, grippers, and the software to connect them to human workers and enterprise systems are offering warehouses and logistics operations greater throughput. One example is Locus Robotics, which is working to scale up.
The global market for mobile robots will grow from $4.4 billion in 2014 to $10.6 billion in 2020, predicts Markets and Markets.
Saving steps with mobile robots
Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk gave Robotics Business Review a tour of his company’s facilities in Wilmington, Mass. Locus’ mobile robots are designed to augment human capabilities, not replace them, he said.
Human warehouse pickers can easily scan a wide variety of items and place them in a bin. The LocusBots work with warehouse management systems. The robots know where to go next, saving people travel time and miles of walking.
The user interface is a tablet mounted above the bin on the mobile platform, and it can be customized to 13 languages. In combination with a Bluetooth worker badge, Locus gives warehouse operators tools for visibility and optimizing orders through clustering, Faulk explained.
“With our visualization system, we can show ‘heat maps’ of waves of orders to adjust slotting,” said Sean Johnson, chief technology officer at Locus Robotics. “We look at pick efficiency, length of time in the queue. Multiple robots can work with multiple pickers, so we’re parallelizing picking.”
How LocusBots work
“Simplicity is one of our differentiators,” said Kary Zate, director of marketing communications at Locus. “We have a heritage of solving problems in warehouses. We’re not a robotics company looking for an application.”
A 100,000-square-foot warehouse can be mapped in an hour. After that, Locus’ mobile robots can easily navigate through standard 5-foot aisles and go around people and obstacles, thanks to two cameras, a lidar scanner, and moveable stickers of “Locus points” every 15 feet or on bins.
“What we do is hard, and math for the cost of the electrical suite and lidar didn’t work,” said Brad Powers, Locus chief roboticist. “Robots could escape Moore’s Law.”
Lidar was once the most expensive component at $70,000, but thanks to Tesla and others’ work on self-driving cars, the cost is dropping, enabling a host of robotics applications, noted Faulk.
SLAM live remapping is coming, and Locus has about 30 patents in the works, according to Johnson. Parts for the LocusBots come from Asia, but the robots are assembled in Massachusetts.
Unlike Amazon’s Kiva systems, the LocusBots can operate alongside people in busy facilities. Locus’ mobile robots have a capacity of about 100 pounds, in compliance with Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requirements.
In between tasks, the LocusBots can dock themselves to recharge, taking about an hour to do so. A single charge lasts up to 16 hours.
Customers and RaaS
“Ninety nine percent of supply chain operations have no automation, including many major brands,” Powers said. “Most are still cart-based.”
Locus is moving past the pilot phase and is working on full deployment with DHL and third-party logistics providers (3PLs) Geodis and Barrett Distribution, among others. At Geodis’ fulfillment center for a women’s apparel client, LocusBots operate in a 139,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in Indianapolis.
While Locus Robotics is looking to work with other applications, including mobile piece picking and automotive or aerospace manufacturing, it’s focusing on scaling up for e-commerce order fulfillment for now.
“Our portfolio of applications is designed to provide the right tool for the job,” said Zate. “The rule of thumb is one mobile robot per 2,500 square feet, or three robots per human picker.”
“With robots as a service [RaaS], we lower the barrier to entry and provide scalability,” said Faulk. “It takes two to three weeks to optimize, and then customers can see 2x productivity gains in weeks.”
“This is important because many large companies have a mandate from the top to automate quickly in response to labor shortages and cost issues,” he added. “If you have to bus workers in, you need automation to help.”
“We see ourselves as a partner rather than a supplier,” said Powers.
In the customer-service center in Locus’ headquarters, technicians can see metrics of any facility and remotely troubleshoot any robot around the world. In addition, Locus uses telepresence robots for its own remote workers.
Locus plans to expand into Europe and Japan later this year. “We consider ourselves a mature startup, since we’re still an emerging business,” said Faulk.
Funding and competition
Locus received $25 million in Series B funding last November. “In Massachusetts, success breeds success,” Faulk said. “VCs from the West Coast come east [for robotics].”
Amazon may have created the market, and “it’s success is our best marketing program,” said Faulk.
Locus isn’t worried about competition because of the breadth of demand. 6 River Systems’ offerings include larger mobile robots, and Fetch is working on goods-to-person systems. Mobile piece picking is still the “holy grail,” according to industry experts.
Faulk said he is confident that Locus Robotics will be able to scale up production to meet demand, adding that educating the market is still the greater challenge.