Friday, July 28, 2017

Quiet inroads in robotics: 4 company profiles

Posted on 06/28/17 by Frank Tobe

Robots have been around for 50 years welding, painting, handling and performing herculean tasks in harsh environments. But in the last 10 years, service robots have emerged and are performing all sorts of lesser but equally valuable tasks. Consider MiR, MakeBlock, Grey Orange and Ocado and the inroads they are making into their respective industries.

Each of the four companies profiled below are not unique nor even original - they all have many competitors including American ones and most integrate technologies from multiple vendors. All four are indicative, however, of the growth of robotics in new business arenas, and all are particularly adept at marketing and business skills to grow their version of their technology into viable businesses. Also, these four companies show the global nature of that growth.

Ocado Technology (UK)
Online grocery retailer

Ocado is quietly transforming retail groceries into online stores by overhauling warehouse and distribution center technologies and adding software, AI and communication. They are using AI for prediction, advanced monitoring and realtime optimization. They have thousands of warehouse robots all communicating to management software and cloud storage. They create dynamic websites and apps for their client merchants. And all are streaming data for analytics software to learn from and improve the system.

Ocado's UK online grocery operation had close to 600,000 online customers in 2016 with gross sales of $1.8 billion and a range of products covering over 50,000 SKUs. The average order size was $138.50. Ocado claims 95% on time deliveries with 99% order accuracy.

Ocado also powers the online operations of Morrisons, the 4th largest grocery chain in the UK.

The Ocado company has three warehouses that make grocery deliveries. They use robots, automated conveyor belts, shuttles, and cranes to pick and carry food items at high-speed to the delivery vans. The robots, although designed by Ocado and built in the UK by Tharsus, are similar to the Swisslog system. They move on top of "the hive" and then reach down to grab items below and then race the items to conveyers which shoot them to a packing station.

The company's largest warehouses, located outside Birmingham and London, process over 1.3 million items a day, and they are planning a new 563,000 square foot facility which will begin construction in 2018 and go online in 2019.

Business Insider, earlier this year, did a feature story on Ocado - with lots of pictures - thoroughly describing their operations.

Ocado, which develops most of their technology inhouse, as they continue to add and patent new IP, is likely to be in good position to benefit from the continuing channel (macro) shift to online.

MakeBlock (Shenzhen Maker Works Technology) (CN)
DIY robotics construction and STEM education platform

MakeBlock is a leading DIY robotics construction and STEM education platform for makers, hobbyists, STEM learners, and educators. Their kits provide a building block platform of over 500 mechanical parts and electronic modules, graphical programming software, and online and offline courses and tutorials.

MakeBlock has more than 1 million users worldwide with 2016 revenues of $17.5 million. They began production and sales in 2013 and now have customers in 140 countries and products being used by educators in 20,000 different schools worldwide. Last year they introduced three new products including Airblock, a DIY drone which raised nearly $900,000 and thousands of kit orders in a Kickstarter campaign in November.

Makeblock is a textbook case of how startups benefit from incubaters and mentoring. Cyril Ebersweiler, who founded HAX Shenzhen, recalls helping MakeBlock:

It was five years and 220 startups ago when we met with Jasen [Wang] at the local hackerspace in Shenzhen and was impressed by his drive and skills in experimenting. His first product was straightforward and we spent time on defining what would make the cut in the box and in what form, while of course the design for manufacturing could go underway.

Back then we were launching our first Kickstarter campaigns (now we've done 80+) and had a lot on our plate to figure out. We traveled to San Francisco to prepare the ground for Jasen (his first time in the USA) and launched MakeBlocks first campaign -- successfully, $185k which, back then, was pretty good.

Here is a shot of him at our first ever Demo Day.

MakeBlock was also part of the inaugural 'Growth Stage' program we run in San Francisco. That program is all about sales and marketing, which for the startup, means getting a good handle on direct and indirect sales channels, offline and online.

Throughout the years we've been in close contact with MakeBlock and it has become an iconic way of running hardware startups for us: a discrete way of rising to the top, with minimal amounts of capital and a maximal amount of revenue. With multiple product lines, 300 employees and a pre-IPO round [$30 million in March], we might be observing a much bigger hit in education, supported by a reliable way of making business.

Grey Orange Robotics (SG)
AI-powered goods-to-person systems

Grey Orange is a multinational company that designs, manufactures and deploys advanced robotics systems for automation at warehouses, distribution and fulfillment centers and markets their products in Asia and India.

The Grey Orange system handles automated inventory storage (put-away) and picking (using human pickers) and utilizes mobile robots that bring shelves to picking stations very similarly to the Kiva/Amazon system. The software adapts in real-time to changing inventory profiles and order fulfillment patterns, resulting in higher throughput, productivity and accuracy. Additional products include (1) a high-speed sensor-laden linear sorter for package handling and routing; (2) a pick-put-to-light system which helps operators by directing picking, put-away and sorting processes; and (3) a vision-based system for static dimensioning, weighing and scanning.

Headquartered in Singapore, Grey Orange Robotics' goods-to-person system and products only slightly vary from the original Kiva Systems product line which Amazon acquired and improved upon and uses in many of their fulfillment centers. At last report, Amazon had over 45,000 of the Kiva robots at work in their warehouses. No similar information exists for Grey Orange.

A Grey Orange press release said that they recently installed 80 of their robots at a Japanese furniture manufacturer's distribution center. Their website adds that Flipkart, Jabong.com, Pepperfry.com, Aramex, Myntra.com, Kerry Logistics, Ninja Van, DTDC, GoJavas, ekart logistics, Nitori and Delhivery are key customers in the EU, Middle East, India and Asia.

Looking at their global map of deployed systems and support centers, the most prominent omission is the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

MiR (Mobile Industrial Robots) (DK)
Mobile transport robots

MiR is a Danish startup with a connection to one of Denmark's most successful startups: Universal Robots. Thomas Visti, MiR's co-founder and CEO was UR's VP of Marketing and some of MiR investors were also UR investors.

Further, because MiR's product line is non-competitive and complementary to UR's, and also because Visti was instrumental in developing UR's global network of distributor/integrators, that same network has helped MiR jump start their global sales and reach.

To further gain exposure, MiR is participating in 17 trade shows and training sessions in the US, Turkey, Sweden, Norway and throughout the EU during the remaining months of 2017.

MiR produces a line of autonomous mobile robots that move materials from point to point inside facilities (warehouses, offices, labs, factories, etc.). They can be mounted with top modules of bins, racks, conveyors or even a co-bot.

Their two versions of vehicles can handles loads of 440 or 1,100 pounds respectively and can be outfitted with a towing hook (approximately 25% of orders thus far have opted for the hook), shelving or even a robotic arm. The systems also come with mapping and fleet management software.

MiR is on track to produce over 600 mobile robots in 2017, up from 200 in 2016.

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About the author: Frank Tobe

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report and co-founder of ROBO Global which has developed a tracking index for the robotics industry, the ROBO Global™ Robotics & Automation Index. The index of 82 companies in 13 subsectors tracks and captures the entire economic value of this global opportunity in robotics, automation and enabling technologies.

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