Robotics has been one of the hottest technology fields for a while, with startups and tech giants alike developing everything from autonomous cars and personal assistant speakers to combat robots. The population of robots in the world is growing rapidly, but today, as in the recent past, most of them are found behind the scenes, in manufacturing lines and other industrial applications. The brighter ones can be found in warehouses.
Clearpath’s 30 million dollar financial round from last week is an evidence to the thriving industry of warehouse robots. The Ontario firm that developed self-driving vehicles that move boxes, crates, and pallets around factories secured $30 million in a Series B round of venture funding from investors such as INovia Capital, Caterpillar, GE, and others. Clearpath is yet another startup to raise millions of dollars in the rally to automate storage and make it efficient, less dangerous, and less capital intensive.
Clearpath OTTO. From: YouTube.
The idea behind most of these startups is to replace manned forklifts, reduce workforce size, manage the warehouse in a much more efficient manner, and by retrieving and packing items faster and with zero faults. But, the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into these companies are spent differently in each startup, with each of them seeing the future of logistics quite differently.
Clearpath is not designed solely to build an automatic warehouse. The company was founded eight years ago as a robotics engineering consulting firm and since then has developed several mobile robotic platforms like robots that serve manufacturing purposes or robots that ride through rough terrains for outdoors missions, even crossing a river.
But more and more startups, tech enterprises, and e-commerce giants are beginning to understand the potential of an automatic and smart fleet of robots running in a secluded and defined environment like a warehouse or a store. Don't just imagine black boxes running in the darkness of a dull warehouse. Imagine a supermarket operated by robots, or a warehouse that changes its structure several times a day in order to fulfill the changing demand of various items.
It makes much more sense that deployments of robots and drone fleets will happen inside enterprises, even before they will hit your neighborhood. Remember that in 6 months from now, Walmart will begin to use drones to check warehouse inventories in the United States.
The Good Year
2016 was a great year for warehouse robotics. Since the grand acquisition of Kiva by Amazon for $775 million four years ago, it seems like the money flying into robotics companies is never ending. Seegrid, a startup that developed a 3D vision navigation system and a wireless robot, secured $25M in August from Giant Eagle. The company previously raised funds also from Volvo, BMW, 3M, Honeywell and USPS. Locus Robotics which apparently develops a similar system, landed a $8 million funding deal.
Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics. Bringing the shelves to you. From: amazonrobotics.com.
Another one, Six River Systems, founded by former Kiva Systems executives, raised a seed round of $6 million dollars from Eclipse ventures. Six River is still operating from Boston and Israel in stealth mode, so the information available on the company is rather scarce. The company declares it will redefine “fulfillment automation for e-commerce and retail operations.” The investor, Eclipse partners, is managed by Lior Susan, who claims to invest in manufacturing technologies, supply-chain, and logistics. His investments include almost only robotics companies; Clearpath is also among them.
Six River's vision sounds similar to another Israeli startup, CommonSense Robotics, that would like to build unmanned robotic supermarkets in city centers and completely automate the grocery supply chain.
Other startups in the field include Indian company Grey Orange ($30M raised), which already has over 300 employees. Its robots provide service to India's e-commerce giants Flipkart, Jabong, and Mahindra. German company Grenzebach also provides mobility devices that can handle different types of shelves, move along the floor reading barcode stickers for localization, and bring shelves to different areas for item packaging.
Caja: The Modular Warehouse
Amazon's Kiva robots are agile and efficient but they operate in no more than dozen of the total of 130 warehouses Amazon holds. In addition, Kiva's vision does not include an all-automatic warehouse. The tiny Kiva robots pick up shelves of products from the warehouse floor and bring them to a human employee who picks items and then packs them for shipping.
Also, Kiva's robots cannot separate shelves from one another, they are limited to the height of a human being, and can lift only up to 400 Kg - heavy weight makes them slow down.
A more innovative attitude towards the smart warehouse is presented by yet another robotics startup from Israel, Caja, which takes the Lego model and implements it into the logistics field.
Caja combines mobile robots, software, and hardware to create a solution that manages storage facilities with little to no human participation. Caja's system is based on patented bins that enable dynamic warehouse structure with a fully automated solution. The company's name comes from the Spanish word for box, alluding to the stackable crates that the company utilizes to store items and move them around.
Caja's robots will be able to automatically arrange warehouses and pick up specific items to be packaged as they are ordered. The robots developed there can transport individual crates, as well as rebuild and organize stacks of crates to meet demand. Unlike supermarket warehouses, e-commerce can be very trend based, and Caja is able to organize items in a warehouse accordingly in order to maximize efficiency.
Unlike some competitors, Caja plans to utilize three different robots, including a big one to carry large amounts of crates, a small quick one for moving individual boxes, and a mechanical arm to transfer items from crates into packaging for delivery. Caja's robots will be able to reach up to 6 meters in height, increasing space efficiency in warehouses.
Because Caja's system eliminates the need for human workers, it also allows for warehouses without lighting or air conditioning, as the robots can work in hot or cold environments. The company has mentioned plans to begin commercial use by the end of 2016.
Caja does not yet have a finished product, but has already been in negotiations about working together with a large German robotics company and with a large Russian logistics company to offer solutions to warehouses. The company has also considered selling their solutions to delivery services like DHL and Fedex, and even possibly temporarily leasing their robots.
Caja Systems' investors include former CEO of online casino company 888 and leading Israeli angel investor Gigi Levy-Weiss, Mark Lauterstein of the Sagi group, iAngels, and funding from the Israeli Office of the Chief Scientist. Levy-Weiss was also a Co-Founder and investor in social casino gaming company Playtika, which has since been sold twice. French billionaire Xavier Niel’s prolific Kima Ventures also invested in Caja Systems, along with at least 343 other companies in the firm's history.
According to Zirra,a research company that uses AI technology to analyze startups, Caja is valued only at about $3.2M - $5.2M dollars, with a low exit probability. The company is currently fund raising a Series A round from established VCs. See other insights taken from Zirra's algorithms here:
The global e-commerce market is worth $180 billion a year. Online stores have had to double their warehouse storage space every four years due to increased online shopping, and as more people buy online there is a greater need to manage warehouses faster and more efficiently. The bar for exits in Caja’s industry has been set by Kiva’s $775M sale to Amazon in 2012, although the field has become more crowded with competitors.