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Fox Robotics announced the close of a $20M funding round led by BMW i Ventures. Additional new investors include Zebra Technologies, Japan Airlines & Translink Innovation Fund, and Foothill Ventures. Existing investors Menlo Ventures, ENIAC Ventures, and SignalFire also participated in the round. Concurrent with the closing of the round, Till Reuter, former CEO of KUKA, and David Fuller, former CTO of KUKA and current CEO of Artificial, will join the company as independent board directors.
The company was founded in 2018 and has raised a total of $38M to date (source: Crunchbase).
A “Holy Grail” problem
We often talk about “holy grail” applications in robotics – those applications which are deemed difficult to solve, and thus require additional invention, investment and time to mature. Tractor-trailer unloading is one of these holy grail applications. Many companies have attempted to solve this problem prior and failed. The problem arises from the awkwardness of organizing the successive unpacking of trailers at the destination.
Fox Robotics has deployed its autonomous forklifts at dozens of customer sites today, including one of the world’s most demanding environments at DHL Supply Chain. The other noteworthy robotics competitor in this space is the Boston Dynamics Stretch robot which we’ve covered previously. Both of these solutions have had a long commercialization path.
However, Fox Robotics and Boston Dynamics are designed for different types of unloading scenarios. The Fox Robotics solutions works with trailers where the items are loaded on pallets. The Boston Dynamics solution works with trailers that are loaded only with boxes, and not on pallets.
Automating forklifts to “stab” a pallet for pickup is difficult in North America, because there is no standard pallet design in the industry. Companies in Europe have simplified the process by adopting a standard euro-pallet design. The euro pallet pillars are flush with the ground, which makes it easier to autonomously acquire a pallet.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic made evident, supply chain resiliency is paramount,” said Peter Anderson-Sprecher, Co-Founder & CEO of Fox Robotics. “We have the ability to deploy our solutions to customers and have them up and running in less than one hour, which has been key to our success as it lets us work closely with our customers/partners and rapidly learn in a live production environment.”
DHL is an early customer
DHL Supply Chain, the global and North American contract logistics leader within Deutsche Post DHL Group, was Fox’s first customer and is rapidly deploying its technology across its network of warehouses.
“At DHL Supply Chain a key focus has been our Accelerated Digitization Strategy which seeks to nurture and deploy innovative technology solutions at scale. For this program to be successful it is important that we establish strategic partnerships with companies like Fox where we can collaborate to develop solutions that address the unique challenges of the logistics industry,” said Sally Miller, CIO, DHL Supply Chain North America. “Over the past three years, we’ve worked closely with Fox testing and sharing operational knowledge which has resulted in a product that delivers true value for both our customers and warehouse associates.”
Fox has designed its solution such that each forklift can be delivered and installed in under one hour, compared to the weeks or months that typical automated guided vehicles take for integration.
“Fox is executing today on one of the key visions David [Fuller] and I had always wanted to deliver with KUKA—the automation of the material handling function. At KUKA we successfully optimized the production side with robots, and now Fox is well positioned to do the same thing with pallet movement,” added Till Reuter, former CEO of KUKA, and incoming Board Director at Fox. “It’s almost hard to believe how effective they are even when you see them up and running right in front of you.”
Autonomous vehicles are utilized commercially in warehouses, but they are not yet ready for public roadways. Fox retrofits a regular forklift with sensors and software for autonomous material handling with precise navigation and robust pallet picking and moving. Deep learning systems employ onboard cameras and LiDAR sensors to recognize pallets, boxes, and other impediments in real-time, allowing the forklift to retrieve pallets from trucks it has never seen.
Zebra Technologies is a key partner
Zebra Technologies, a global leader in automation solutions for enterprises, is also investing in Fox. The company bought autonomous mobile robotics vendor Fetch Robotics in 2021 for $290M, but Fetch doesn’t have an autonomous fork truck in its portfolio.
“Zebra Technologies has been an active investor and solution provider to help businesses globally digitize and automate their supply chains and augment front-line workers,” said Tony Palcheck, Managing Director of Zebra Ventures, Zebra Technologies. “Fox has proven its ability to increase resiliency, safety, and drive measurable return on investment, and we look forward to working together with Fox on this next stage of growth.”
Fox’s objective is to deploy its forklifts in warehouses and production environments worldwide and to create new autonomous capabilities to broaden use cases. It plans to increase production, invest in talent, and expand globally with the new finances.