Months before Black Friday or the online onslaught of Cyber Monday, retailers and e-commerce companies prepared for peak demand. Many invested in automation, including software and hardware from inVia Robotics Inc., which this week added inVia Connect to its offerings.
“The past few months have been busy for us,” said Lior Elazary, CEO of Westlake Village, Calif.-based inVia. “We’ve been concentrating on deployments and getting all our customers through peak.”
“We’ve also introduced additional software. It used to be robots for picking, and now it’s a comprehensive solution to solve issues within the warehouse,” he told The Robot Report. “It can help with labor management, figuring out where to best utilize resources from robot and human points of view.”
Introducing inVia Connect
inVia Robotics has updated its core system with inVia Connect, which is designed to streamline integration and automate replenishment, cycle counting, and returns.
The company’s warehouse automation system already includes inVia Logic, which calculates and synchronizes inventory movement, and inVia Command, which maps a warehouse and optimizes workflows for inVia Picker robots and warehouse workers.
According to inVia, Connect is a drag-and-drop data translator that matches data fields between a customer’s warehouse management system (WMS) and inVia’s systems. Application programming interfaces (APIs) simplify the integration process, which can be costly and take months to complete, said Elazary.
“To move items as efficiently as possible, we had to do the integration,” he said. “We had hoped the WMSes could do that, but we noticed they weren’t doing a good job.”
“The inVia Connect software has APIs that integrators can connect to and business rules to implement,” explained Elazary. “inVia Connect adapts to the WMS with an array of different protocols, and we have a great templated system.”
“For example, with our translation layer, the product or item ID comes across — you don’t have to program that task,” he said. “This really helped us do deployments as quickly as possible.”
Beyond the WMS
“Within the past six months, the response has been amazing,” said Elazary. “People have commented how much more efficient inVia’s system is than what they were using. It generates reports and other things that are traditionally missing from WMSes. Those missing details are important for resource planning and giving them more visibility into their operations.”
“Some customers are using our software to run their entire e-commerce operation, from replenishment to returns and cycle counting,” he said. “It’s not designed to replace a WMS, but to work hand in hand. There are things that we don’t do; the WMS takes a holistic view of the warehouse. We’re more of a WMS module or warehouse execution module. Once items are at a warehouse, it decides where and how to store them.”
inVia offers its warehouse automation products such as Connect in a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model. “We push out updates so customers always have the latest and greatest, which differentiates our performance,” Elazary said. “Customers are excited by quicker integration with WMSes. You could integrate robots within a weekend, but deployment took longer.”
inVia Connect enables collaboration with people, other robots
Of course, in actual warehouses or e-commerce order-fulfillment facilities, there are a lot of items that people can still handle better than robots. inVia’s systems are ready to handle such limitations.
“Our optimized picking solution can guide people to anything the robots can’t pick,” said Elazary. “It’s an 80/20-percent situation. The software guides people and tracks how to do that efficiently.”
“For example, a consumer might order a fish tank and accessories,” he said. “Robots can’t pick the tanks, but they can pick the accessories and then guide a warehouse worker to efficiently get the right fish tank.”
“We’re gamifyiing some of the screens that pickers see to make their jobs more interesting,” Elazary said. “People are now doing higher-level jobs, not just walking in warehouses. We’re transitioning pickers into more fulfilling roles, and some companies are hiring or moving people into robot-wrangler jobs.”
Are heterogenous environments emerging, where multiple robots from multiple vendors must coexist?
“The way to look at robots is how they affect workflows,” replied Elazary. “For instance, 6 River Systems’ Chuck follows a person, but Locus Robotics is different. Our system gets the tote and brings it to the person. We collaborate in different ways.”
“We have a customer right now that’s using another system,” he said. “Our view is that the software and systems must adapt to changes in the warehouse. For example, many people put carts for lighter items. In a mixed facility, some robots go out to people.”
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More change coming to supply chains
“If you look at the e-commerce market, in the past, most consumers went out to stores, and they were the labor point,” said Elazary. “Now, when you click on a cart, you expect someone else to do it, but we can’t have half of the U.S. ordering and the other half working in warehouses.”
“From last year, we’ve seen growth to 400 robots out in the field,” he said. “Our customers all grew their number of warehouses, as more people are ordering online. We’ll announce more enterprise customers soon.”
“We’re also seeing interest in robotic arms and end effectors able to grasp a huge variety of items,” Elazary added. “We’re working with one customer on an end-to-end system, from picking to totes, as it tries to get to lights-out operations. Robotic hands today are able to do only 40% to 50% of picks.”
As a cloud-based service provider, is inVia looking forward to 5G wireless networks? “We think it will be a huge factor,” replied Elazary. “One customer had a downed line, and our robots were still able to run while the WMS was down, but it would be nice to be able to connect without the need for extra redundancy or infrastructure.”
inVia Robotics raised a $20 million Series B last year and doesn’t expect to raise more funding until next year. Elazary noted that the company is hiring field technicians, deployment engineers, and staff for its robot operations center (ROC), which monitors all robots in real time.