In 2012 Kiva, a supplier of mobile robots, was bought for $775 million by Amazon. That was a home run for the company which had estimated revenues of about $100 million at the time. Some entrepreneurs and venture capitalists believe, or at least argue, that autonomous mobile robots represent the next revolution in material handling. Automatic guided vehicles carry goods from one point to another in a warehouse or factory on predetermined paths. In contrast, autonomous mobile robots may have a preferred path to get from A to B, but can take alternative routes if there are obstacles or congestion. In addition, some AMRs are part of a larger warehouse picking process and they navigate themselves to multiple different locations to facilitate warehouse fulfillment. Because AMRs are capable of autonomous path selection, they are sometimes depicted as “smart,” while AGVs are “stupid.”
Investments in Autonomous Mobile Robots
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) can be applied to automated facility cleaning, analysis of on-shelf inventory, security, production inspection, and other tasks. But the focus of this article is AMRs – and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) – used for logistics applications. Investments in logistics AMRs are approaching $200 million, so clearly the venture capital community believes AMRs could be a smart investment.
|Autonomous Mobile Robot Suppliers||Funding Raised|
|6 River Systems||
$46 Million in 3 Rounds
$61.5 Million in 2 Rounds
$48 Million in 3 Rounds
|$30 Million in 2 Rounds|
$9 Million in 2 Rounds
$33 Million in 2 Rounds
$1.5 Million in 2 Rounds
$17.2 Million in 2 Rounds
AMRs and AGVs Exhibit a Range of “Smarts”
But the portrayal of AGVs as dumb, and AMRs as smart, is a bit too simplistic. Both AGVs and AMRs exhibit a range of different forms of intelligence. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
Process Optimized Dynamic Path Selection – AMRs from several suppliers don’t just move goods from one point to another. The robots are designed to dynamically move through a warehouse in a manner that minimizes the amount of travel and work for the human pickers collaborating with these bots.
Autonomous Path Selection – If a predefined path is blocked or congested, the ability to navigate to the destination on an alternative path.
Path Creation – the ability to use drag and drop software, rather than programming, to create a new path that a robot will follow. Or in the case of Seegrid, a human can lead a bot on the desired path, and the bot then maps and follows that path until the next time the path needs to be changed.
Traffic Management – Having rules about how many robots are allowed in a zone to prevent congestion as well as logic on which bots take priority at an intersection.
Autonomous Task Completion – AGVs/AMRs can be integrated to PLCs and other systems to allow them to better, or more fully, complete their tasks. For example, an AMR in a hospital might be integrated to elevators to allow it to take supplies from one floor to another, an AGV on a factory floor might autonomously activate the opening of an electronic door, an AGV might lift a tote onto a conveyor belt and then electronically activate the conveyor.
Grip Logic – AGVs may have grippers that are used to pick up big rolls of paper, if too much pressure is applied the paper roll is damaged. It too little, the spool can’t be conveyed securely. Similarly, IAM Robotics has bots with robotic arms that have suction cups that are used to pick small, light items and drop them in a tote; the amount of vacuum suction applied needs to fit the size and weigh of the object. If the price of robotic arms comes down, the combination of mobile bots and picking arms is potentially a warehouse revolution in the making.
In short, the autonomous path selection of AMRs is just one form of intelligence exhibited by intelligent AGVs. AMRs are actually just one form an intelligent AGV can take. And autonomous path selection is by no means the most important form of intelligence. Selecting the right forms of intelligence for a particular process, at the right price point, is what creates value. For example, in a lean factory, it is important that goods arrive to the line in the proper sequence. Obstacle avoidance might seem like a form of higher logic, but if this form of logic causes goods to arrive out of sequence, this form of logic is counterproductive.
Finally, the suppliers of AGVs are not standing still. They are actively investing in the type of navigation logic – simultaneous localization and mapping – used in AMRs. Some AGVs are supplied by material handling companies like Dematic or Omron that generate annual revenues of more than a billion dollars; victory against the entrenched incumbents is far from a sure thing.