Warehouses and distribution centers have looked to automation to improve worker safety and address labor shortages, and the novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated e-commerce demand. Third Wave Automation, which is developing a forklift using “shared autonomy” involving a remote operator, today came out of “stealth mode” and announced a Series A round of $15 million.
From 2011 to 2017, there were 614 fatal accidents involving forklifts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Each year, there were more than 7,000 nonfatal injuries requiring time off from work, reported the agencies. The accident rate in warehouses is 50% higher than the overall average.
James Davidson, Julian (Mac) Mason, and Arshan Poursohi co-founded Third Wave Automation in 2018. To address increasing strain on supply chains, they decided to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to forklifts.
“The products that we could find already available automated only a fraction of the utility of a forklift; and even in that fraction, they imposed limitations that our technologies could solve,” wrote Poursohi, now CEO, in a blog post. “So was born Third Wave Automation, to bring the third wave of AI to the problem of autonomous forklifts. We are tying together advances in robotics, the latest research on machine learning, and of course, the capabilities of the forklifts themselves.”
Third Wave Automation automates high rack put away
Union City, Calif.-based Third Wave Automation claimed that its automated forklift can reliably accomplish “high rack put away” and reduce injuries in warehousing and logistics.
“None so far have managed to reliably deliver on the tallest of orders — a maneuver that forklift operators call the ‘high rack put away,'” said Seth Winterroth, a partner at venture capital firm Eclipse. “It’s exactly what it sounds like: taking a fully loaded pallet and placing it on multiple levels of shelf storage. It’s not only difficult; it also needs to be done all the time in warehouses. And if you can’t guarantee that your automated forklift can do it reliably, you leave a clear lane for a competitor who can.”
“Our technologies enable autonomy that is robust to dynamic environments, varying payloads, and changing conditions,” Poursohi said. “Warehouses are fast-moving and messy environments, pallets are misplaced when forklift operators are in a hurry, payloads and the pallets themselves degrade over time, and there is constant movement in heavily trafficked areas.”
“Third Wave systems identify the situation immediately, make a decision about how much of a correction must be made, and are trained to confirm with the forklift operator if the correction is in any way unsure,” he explained. “We call this technology ‘shared autonomy,’ and the premise is that the robot is multiplying the potential of the forklift operators, while also keeping them out of harm’s way. Every time the operator is asked to assist the forklift, our systems learn from the interaction and are able to autonomously handle similar situations in the future.”
Investing in the future of logistics
“Particularly at a time when people must physically distance to avoid contracting the coronavirus, robots are making these facilities safe,” wrote Winterroth, who has also managed investments in 6 River Systems Inc., among other companies. “As more manual labor is automated, operations become more resilient against future crises — and the forklift is merely the next frontier in the logistics industry.”
Third Wave Automation, which currently has 15 engineers, is hiring.