Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise has long talked about ease of use being a major challenge when it comes to robotics. Today, the San Jose, Calif.-based company is taking steps it hopes will make it easier to deploy its autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and iterate through workflows.
Fetch has launched its Workflow Builder toolkit that allows customers to design, implement, and redesign their own workflows for Fetch’s AMRs. Based on Blockly programming, Workflow Builder features a drag-and-drop interface that Fetch said non-programmers can learn. The key, according to Fetch, is that WorkFlow Builder allows customers to deploy flexible automation in days, doing all the work in-house without the need to rely on third-party integrators.
“Our customers have long desired to get the richness of integration without the onerous requirement of actually having to do the integration,” said Wise. “We are excited to introduce Workflow Builder and empower our customers to quickly deploy automation in their facilities and iterate the workflows until perfect. Workflow Builder allows even the most risk-averse organizations to feel confident with their investment in money and time.”
Although Workflow Builder is used for device, warehouse management system (WMS), and warehouse execution system (WES) integration, it is not dependent on the use of a WMS or WES. It can be deployed with WMS-related workflows such as picking and putaway, or workflows completely outside the WMS such as pack station replenishment, empty tote return or recycling removal.
“If you depend on an integrator for doing the automation, it’s expensive, and everything has to be defined very carefully,” Stefan Nusser, VP of Product, Fetch Robotics, told The Robot Report. “This is not well aligned with the cloud model of bringing functionality to market and iterating on it.”
Workflow Builder also features “partner blocks” that allow customers to use the same drag-and-drop automation development with devices such as barcode scanners, RFID detection devices, mobile printers, and network buttons so that there is no custom coding required to support these types of devices. Since Fetch provides over-the-air updates to AMRs, new partner blocks can be added and used without anyone having to visit the customer’s facility.
“Like robotics as a service (RaaS), Workflow Builder is another way to make robots like cloud storage,” added Nusser. “Users can grow or shrink workflows. It depends on what you need, but this helps make automation more like a utility. Reconfigure it on the fly and make it seamless for you.”
Nusser said Workflow Builder works with all of Fetch’s AMRs, and pricing is built into Fetch’s current options. At the moment it’s not quite as sophisticated as what a third-party integrator can do, but Nusser said eventually it will be.
“It’s been in the works for more than one year,” he said. “Not just engineering work, but the user facing component. This is designed for a certain type of user: a non-programmer, non-roboticist. We’re making sure we get it right by making it powerful enough, yet simple enough to reach the target audience.”
Universal Logistics was the first company to test and adopt Workflow Builder. The company is a full-service provider of customized transportation and logistics solutions. It provides value-added logistics services for Fortune 500 manufacturers and retailers. Universal uses 12 Fetch CartConnect robots throughout three workflows: dock to stock, a mix flow area (delivering to aisle, person puts product away), and hot parts for just-in-time automative assembly.
Lee Weisenberger, Managing Director, IT, Universal, said one of the issues he’s experienced with traditional integration and creation of automated workflows is managing the routes. He told The Robot Report he could do everything he needed to do after a one-hour training session for Workflow Builder.
“In the past, we crated specific pick-up and drop-off tasks. Pick up at Point A and drop at Point F. We required 50 different tasks due to all the starting and stopping points,” Weisenberger said. “Now we can incorporate variables and accomplish the same work with far fewer tasks.”
Weisenberger said every time Fetch released a software update, Universal would have to re-test its workflows to ensure everything still worked. “I have fewer concerns now about future updates because of how the API calls are made,” he said. “With Workflow Builder, all we have to do is drive a robot around the facility to map it, lay out workflows, drag and drop device triggers into workflows, and then deploy the AMRs.”
Fetch raised $46 million in Series C funding in July 2019. The round was led by Fort Ross Ventures, with participation from Softbank Capital, Sway Ventures, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Shasta Ventures, Redwood Technologies, CEAS Investments, TransLink Capital, and Zebra Ventures. Named one of the Top 10 ROS-based robotics companies in 2019, Fetch has now raised $94 million to date.