An Interview with Warehouse Robotics Veteran, Jon Schechter
I live in the Greater Boston area. This provides me with the valuable convenience of visiting with the innovative warehouse robotics companies in this metropolitan area – a large number of companies I called the Greater Boston Robotics Cluster.
A few years ago, I met Jon Schechter at a RightHand Robotics (RHR) event. He had joined the company as a recently minted Harvard MBA graduate. What I didn’t know at the time, Jon had previously served eight years at Amazon Robotics/Kiva Systems. Fast forward to 2020, and I run into Jon as the new Business Development Manager at AutoStore. Last week I read a statement about the Kardex Group’s new relationship with AutoStore. It occurred to me that Jon likely has valuable insights and a unique perspective on the warehouse robotics market. I reached out to Jon to see if he could share some insights with Logistics Viewpoints readers. Thankfully, he accepted my request.
CLINT: Jon, the Greater Boston area appears to be the “hub” for the robotics industry in the US. Do you agree, and to what do you attribute this industry clustering in our back yard?
JON: With 50-plus great schools and many engineering, it’s no wonder that so many robotics companies are formed here with seemingly unlimited talent. Boston has a long history of fundamental technology creation, space travel, world wide web, biotechnology, etc. It just makes sense that a new generation of robotics tech starts here too.
CLINT: How did you get your start in warehouse robotics? Did you start in robotics, logistics, operations research?
JON: I feel so fortunate to have found Kiva and this industry when finishing college. I reached out to an alumni advisor Mark Mastandrea, who then invited me to interview. Only years later did I realize that warehousing and logistics had long been passions of mine: organizing my family home inventory levels in the pantry, helping my father’s mobile apparel business. And while I liked mechanical engineering, I was much more interested in operations research courses and even more in real-life material flow.
CLINT: What knowledge and insights did you gain from your time at Kiva that have been valuable at RHR and then AutoStore?
JON: Kiva alumni are now all over – 6River, Locus, Berkshire Grey, RightHand Robotics, Pickle, Third Wave – and that’s just in warehouse automation. Three core lessons stick out to me. First was our intense focus on customers. We loved technology but we only evaluated it from aspects customers cared about – throughput, efficiency, storage density. I quickly found myself drawn to the customer facing engineering – ensuring that we met performance promises and sharing data visualizations when we didn’t. Then later, the solutions-design work that transformed warehouses, as one customer put it, from the Flintstones to the Jetsons.
Secondarily, hiring a strong team that knew how to make the tech industrial. I think that’s missing from so many new systems – where the tech might perform the task but is too rough around the edges to be deployed, owned by the customer, and operated autonomously 24/7. NASA coined this as “technology readiness”, and RightHand’s CTO Lael used to say that robotics is 1 percent technology, and 99 percent integration.
Lastly, Mick used the game Mouse Trap as analogy for the process flow at most fulfillment centers. We aimed to simplify the pick-pack-ship process, largely with software. In many sites we took a 12-touch process down to 4. Unfortunately, there are many sites that solved for growth by creating more touches instead of fewer. While that can seem more efficient on paper, or even in simulation, the increased complexity can make optimal performance hard to achieve in real life.
CLINT: Then you took your skills and knowledge over to RightHand Robotics, a leading piece picking robotics company. How did this experience expand your knowledge? How did it complement your experience and knowledge from KIVA?
JON: Continuous improvement is an essential trait of any operation, and the first question after installing a Kiva system was “can you move the individual items from the shelves to orders”. It turns out this remains an incredibly deep problem space. Kiva’s co-founder Pete Wurman created The Amazon Picking Challenge inviting brilliant academic teams. Much like the early DARPA challenges, the results were hard to watch. But slowly the systems improved in speed and accuracy. I often explain to folks that piece-picking is much like autonomous vehicles – the first 80 percent is easy, but the remaining 20 percent is hard. And you can’t necessarily predict and avoid that 20 percent.
RightHand’s piece-picking technology is industry leading, But even still, it is focused on certain items and processes in the most advanced sites. This was also where I gained more exposure to systems integrators and their role.
CLINT: So, in a sense, these experiences provided you with a broader business process understanding, the mechanics and economics of these subsystems, and the way in which they interact?
JON: I found so many customers did not have the prerequisite technologies and software, so I would say “this is going to work great for you, but first let’s install an AutoStore.” That’s why I made the move to AutoStore.
CLINT: Can you compare and contrast the process differences between Kiva and AutoStore, as well as the operational and business applications for each?
JON: The contrast has been so interesting to me. Both are customer-focused, mesmerizing, modular, goods2person systems. The both utilize highly sophisticated software that ensures the costly hardware is used efficiently. Many knockoffs of both have greatly underestimated the software, and instead skimp on the hardware, but the performance can unravel quickly. However, Kiva went to market in spite of integrators and frankly struggled on a few projects with integrators. Kiva would have worked with distributors and expanded globally but was removed from the market by Amazon too early to know how the expansion would have evolved. In contrast, AutoStore has long embraced integrators, scaling to 1000 projects with a wide global footprint. The storage cost and density, as well as the ergonomics, are better in an AutoStore. But a fleet of AMRs can be inexpensive and deployed rapidly.
CLINT: How do you see the market evolving over the next couple of years?
JON: There are still hundreds of manual warehouses with paper-based picking processes. Rents appear to be going up while developers are cautious about building new space on speculation. The industry has been on a remarkable 9% growth rate for a decade, and I see no sign of that slowing even if the economy falters. In good times, companies add capacity. And in bad times, companies consolidate and crave efficiency. It’s still a great time to be in warehouse robotics.
CLINT: Jon, I have learned a lot of interesting insights from this discussion. And I believe Logistics Viewpoints readers will as well. Thank you for taking your time to speak with me and allowing our readers to learn from your experiences.