Sunday, August 5, 2018

Watch Out Ocado: "7 Warehouse Robots for Retail Automation"

After Amazon bought Kiva Systems  and their utilitarian orange automated guided vehicles in 2012 folks really glommed onto the idea that "Saaay, there might be something to this robotic warehouse stuff."

Kiva's founder, Mick Mountz had worked at the poster child of the dotcom boom, the grocer Webvan, and thought Webvan's failure was due to material handling problems. So he started working on warehouse automation.

At about the same time Ocado was founded as an online-only grocery retailer and saw the same problems that Mountz was attempting to solve and worked on them, to the point that these days Ocado presents itself to investors as a tech company while still maintaining the consumer-facing grocery delivery business.

Back to Amazon's Kiva acquisition: It excited a lot of entrepreneurial dreams and here are some of the results and the reason that Ocado's stock (OCDO.L), which has tripled in the last year may be imperiled if management doesn't keep their eye on the ball.

From Nanalyze, August 3:
Really good science fiction movies help us imagine a more exciting future, where giant robots engage in combat for our viewing pleasure or there’s a cure for baldness. These films also remind us just how far those fantastic visions are from our more mundane reality. By now we should all own flying cars and be able to control machines with our minds. At the very least, we hoped by now to have artificially intelligent robots catering to our every whim. It turns out we’re not far off from that particular future, at least when it comes to buying stuff. 

Retail automation through robotics and AI is changing the way our consumption society consumes. On one end, machines can predict the sort of useless stuff we like to buy online, while at the other end, robots are delivering said useless stuff to our front doors. Even when forced to buy something from an actual store, autonomous check-out solutions ensure the possibility of interacting with a human is relatively low. Behemoth retailer Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) put retail automation technology in the spotlight with the 2012 purchase of Kiva Systems, a company which developed warehouse robots and related technologies, and which was acquired for $775 million. 

Now known as Amazon Robotics, based in Boston, the wholly owned subsidiary combines “autonomous mobile robots, sophisticated control software, language perception, power management, computer vision, depth sensing, machine learning, object recognition, and semantic understanding of commands.” All of that so you can get stuff made in China delivered to you in days, if not hours. A number of startups have attempted to fill the hole created when Amazon snatched up Kiva, some of which we profiled in our feature on industrial warehouse robots. Companies we’ve profiled like inVia Robotics, which has raised $29 million in funding, are developing warehouse robots that can work right alongside humans, giving rise to a term called cobots. (Most of that funding came just days ago in the form of a $20 million Series B round.) Let’s look at some other startups working on warehouse robots. 

Warehouse Robots for Fulfillment Centers
Click to go to company website
If you’re going to have to collaborate and work alongside a robot, it might as well be one named Chuck. Chuck is a warehouse robot from a Boston-based startup called “6 River Systems”, which has raised $46 million, including a $25 million Series B at the start of the year. The co-founders had both previously worked for Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, so they had something of a track record before starting the company in 2015. The startup claims that Chuck, which looks a bit like a treadmill with the readout awkwardly stuck in the middle, is technologically similar to autonomous vehicles, with sensors like LiDARs and machine learning algorithms for cloud-based navigation and control.

Meet Chuck from 6 River Systems
The company says 70 percent of warehouse operations are still mostly manual, so there is plenty of work for Chuck. The warehouse robot actually comes in a couple of different sizes and configurations to handle various tasks. Chuck seems like the most bro-ish cobot of the crowd, designed to work closely with its human slave associate while telling off color jokes and hitting on chicks.
Warehouse Robots for On-Demand Grocery Delivery
Click to go to company website
A three-year-old company called CommonSense Robotics out of Tel Aviv, Israel, raised $20 million earlier this year in a bid to take a piece of the on-demand grocery market. The Series A in February brought total funding to $26 million. CommonSense appears to be engaged in a version of urban guerilla warfare, with plans to operate out of existing retail spaces no bigger than 10,000 square feet in the middle of cities, rather than in cavernous warehouses on the outskirts. So, it’s not selling its low-profile warehouse robots, but instead contracting with retailers to put together orders for them directly in what CommonSense calls micro-fulfillment centers. The Israeli company has designed robots that maneuver through tightly packed stores, picking up totes filled with groceries that a human then packs for delivery. More robots then take those packaged items to a dispatch area.

Credit: Commonsense
While the robots are outfitted with sensors, a central computer actually coordinates the complex choreography for the entire system, learning where to make improvements, such as relocating popular items to make them more easily accessible for the tiny robot army. The company claims that its warehouse robots can fill the average order in less than five minutes, about 10 times faster than a human, according to TechCrunch. And probably without crushing the Charmin.
Of course it’s not just startups like CommonSense thinking about filling grocery orders using robots. Walmart is spending heavily on robotics technology, and just 13 hours ago, announced that they’re going to use a robotics solution for online ordering called Alphabot. It’s being built by a company we haven’t come across before called Alert Innovation, and apparently they designed the solution just for Walmart with an undisclosed amount of funding. From the horse’s mouth:
When completed, automated mobile carts will retrieve ordered items – stored warehouse-style in this new space – then deliver them to our associates at one of four pick stations.
That’ great, because when we used Walmart’s online ordering service a few months back, the tools they had working in the Vancouver Washington store said they didn’t get the +$400 order we posted the day before, and then refused to rectify the problem by filling the order while we stood in the store twiddling our thumbs like a bunch of morons. Told you that would come back to haunt you lads. 
Warehouse Robots that Work in Three Dimensions...