At Seegrid, things are new again
Seegrid is in change mode. It hasa new corporate logo, a spanking new website, a new CEO who’s got his new executive team trotting around in black T-shirts emblazoned with the logo — and who are also sporting a new vision for the 13-year-old pioneer of automated guided vehicles transforming itself into a new software company.
That’s a lot of “new” for Jim Rock’s first year helming Seegrid’s new-look reentry into the burgeoning field of logistics. Best of all, it’s working!
“We’ve doubled the size of the company, doubled sales over the last year — $6.3 million in 2014,” enthused Rock on Seegrid’s business performance. “We’ve picked up 10 new customers. Big customers: one a global ecommerce retailer, another one of the largest automotive companies in the world.”
To think, all that news came courtesy of a grim bankruptcy, lots of litigation, and the chill of hold-out leverage from a disgruntled former CEO.
From old-line hardware firm to software powerhouse
Founded in 2003 by the robot research duo of Hans Morevac and Scott Friedman from the Robotics Institute at nearby Carnegie Mellon University, Seegrid’s mission was and still is to bring vision-guided technology to the material handling industry; technology that was based on the work of Morevac and his many patents.
Seegrid’s business entails purchasing forklifts and other industrial vehicles and then outfitting them with cameras and computers that allow the automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to travel autonomously, transporting items around a warehouse or to and from a loading dock, or bringing parts to a production line in a factory.
The vehicles, as the company’s website explains, “navigate without wires, lasers, magnets, or tape.” Instead, they “learn” routes “through cameras mounted on them that take pictures of their environment twice every second, then send that information to the computer that guides the vehicle’s movement.”
The key is the ease of programming and reprogramming the vehicles to “see” and “learn,” based on Morevac’s original work as well as follow-on engineering. This is the true market differentiator for Seegrid’s software.
As Rock sees it, Seegrid’s real product is “three-dimensional vision navigation software,” which is Morevac’s research domain and the stuff of his over 45 patents. That navigation software, reasons Rock, can be applied to spaces other than material handling in warehouses.
Hence, Seegrid’s new-line VGVs are really machines that happen to be running Seegrid Vision software. Such a realization and re-orientation as a software company opens up new vistas of Seegrid utilizing its software for any task requiring 3D navigation applications.
What’s up next for Seegrid software is a world of possibilities. For now, the company is more than content with transforming the next generation of AGVs into VGVs for the likes of Giant Eagle, Cabela’s or Daimler Trucks of North America.
Tricking out the trucks
Although Rock and company have re-cast themselves as software developers, they are still very much aware that their customers have logistics needs to fulfill. To do its job, Seegrid Vision still needs a vehicle.
Adding more capabilities to those vehicles, tricking them out with hardware improvements, can only serve to enhance the Seegrid brand.
For instance, VGVs made from carbon fiber or other ultra-light but strong materials would be more energy efficient, especially spread out over a fleet of the vehicles. And speaking of energy, what about new battery types for extended use before recharging? Of course, Seegrid will never be a battery developer nor does it want to be, but to be thinking “total solution” to hard logistics’ problems is more than just a intriguing exercise to ruminate upon, it’s good business.
One obvious breakthrough as a vehicle add-on would be an arm or arms with end effectors to pick and pack materials or to unpack pallets or to generally add value to the VGV. Think, VGVs moving through a maze of Amazon aisles picking product as they go.
Rock says that he and his pals in the black t-shirts are very aware of the need to address the “handling” part of the term material handling, in order to deliver a more complete logistics solution to their customers. Although his developers are working on a handling solution, he didn’t elaborate on any of the specifics of that quest.
One thing is for sure: 3D navigation of an arm and hand reaching to pick up an object and to place it somewhere will require vision software to see where its going. On that, Seegrid already has a bit of a head start.