313 million dollars has been invested by venture capital companies in developing autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) solutions in the last several years. ARC’s recent global market study on this market shows it to be a very rapidly growing market. An autonomous mobile robot is a vehicle that requires no change to a facilities infrastructure to implement and operate. Often, these vehicles are led around a facility and then create a map of the facility that is followed subsequently.
There are two types of AMRs. Path AMRs are more flexible forms of automated guided vehicles that move goods from an origin to a destination. Pick AMRs have logic that supports optimized picking, often in an ecommerce fulfillment center. Path AMRs currently have a bigger share of the market, but Pick AMRs have received more than 60 percent of the venture capital investments, and the percentage is much higher if you focus on investments made in the last two years. And while the Path AMR segment of the market will grow at double digit rates, the Pick AMR segment will grow more than two times faster than the Path segment.
To succeed, Pick AMRs need strong process optimization and defensible process patents. One firm I’m paying close attention to is NextShift Robotics.
Headquartered in Lowell, MA in the US, this 2016 startup provides second generation AMRs that have mechanical gripper arms. They received angel funding in the amount of $1.5 million in July of 2017, but they started with purchased intellectual property from a robotics company that had focused on moving pots from one part of a farm to another.
NextShift Robotics can support e-fulfillment, moving kits and components to the right locations on an assembly line, assisting existing automation solutions, or replenishment of picking locations.
In e-fulfillment, the process starts with a robot placing an empty tote from an induction point on the bottom shelf or ‘nest’ in a pick zone. Typically, the tote is associated with one or two orders or large orders may be spread across multiple totes. The picker picks and drops the items into the tote. When all the items associated with the tote have been picked in that zone, it is retrieved by a robot. The robot arrives at the location, uses its grippers to pick up the tote and pull it back into and onto the AMR. The robot then carries the tote to the next zone where other items for that order are located. When the order or orders are complete, the tote is then carried to a pack station (single item in tote) or sort station (two orders per tote or multiple totes needed to complete a single order). You can see a video of the robots in action HERE. NextShift owns a global workflow patent on these three-steps (drop tote, pick to tote, move tote).
The process logic allows workers to be more productive by reducing nonvalue added travel time. Mary Ellen Sparrow, CEO of the company, argues that they can achieve higher throughput than other AMR solutions because they have “unconstrained optimization by separating the robots from workers.” In other words, in competing collaborative AMR solutions, the worker and the robot interact, slowing the efficiency of the overall system.
The order fulfillment process can be automated through integration with a warehouse management system (WMS) or a web-based picking app that NextShift has developed. The NextShift Solution optimizes the workers’ picks and the timing of robotic moves from one zone to another.
The AMR uses LIDAR for SLAM-based navigation and a camera to fine tune navigation in situations where totes need to be gripped. The mechanical gripper option can move totes that weigh up to 40 pounds. The robots come in different heights. The company is working on a robot that can vertically adjust to varying shelf heights dynamically.
In addition to the grippers, which is their main secret sauce, Ms. Sparrow argues that other differentiators include:
- A more robust robot – the first-generation robots worked on farms – the robot can operate on rough surfaces including grated mezzanine flooring;
- There is no need to take robots offline to recharge batteries, instead batteries are swapped out. When batteries need to recharge, the fleet must be 10-15 percent larger according to Ms. Sparrow.
The company is willing to sell hardware and software to customers or price in a Robots as a Service contract. For orders of less than 20 robots, the company has robots in stock. For larger orders, the delivery time is three to four months. In this market, that is actually very good turnaround.