Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Intelligent robots are increasingly creeping into store aisles and major warehouses. The energy and funding is there.
Last Wednesday, 6 River Systems, a robotics start-up that provides solutions for warehouse fulfilment, announced that it had raised $25 million in a funding round led by Menlo Ventures. Existing investors in the company include Norwest Venture Partners, Eclipse Ventures and iRobot.
Based in Boston, 6 River Systems builds an autonomous robot named Chuck for use in warehouses and designed to work alongside humans to accomplish fulfilment tasks. It has deployed 600 robots to 30 sites to date. These intelligent robots assist in packing medical supplies, retail products and "nuts and bolts" in industrial spaces. They can lead employees to where an item is on a shelf, let them know what quantity is needed and carry up to 160 pounds of merchandise.
The machines also choose the route they take through the warehouse, so that by taking a more efficient course products can be shipped more quickly. They collect data as they work, learning and providing insights that can be used by customers to make decisions about fulfilment problems. The robots operate autonomously with onboard sensors, eliminating the need for its customers to build out infrastructure.
As many bricks-and-mortar stores struggle against their online counterparts, robotics companies are capitalizing on the worldwide changes brought on by e-commerce, which are transforming warehouses from distribution centres to fulfilment centres. Warehouses stock thousands of different items that need to be sorted to complete online orders as quickly as possible.
Automotive companies have been using robots to perform repetitive tasks for several years. More recently, Amazon has come to embody the hope for automation, and is at the forefront of finding new ways of getting robots to do the work once handled by staff. Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2014 and renamed it Amazon Robotics. The latter develops robots that operate in warehouses and now has more than 100,000 machines in action worldwide, with plans to add many more to the mix.
In China, the area is led by Alibaba, which in September 2017 paid over $800 million to buy an additional 4 percent share in Cainiao, giving it a controlling stake in the logistics provider. Cainiao runs robot-assisted distribution centres, and Alibaba has pledged to invest with Cainiao a further $15 billion in research and development in logistics during the next three years, with robotics as a significant part of that.
Wandering armies of robots are spreading throughout factories and warehouses around the globe, as the accelerating pace of intelligent automation changes a widening range of industries. The use of these robots is creating efficiencies, allowing customers to receive their orders very quickly, often the same day they purchase. Robots are assisting workers, making employees more productive.