The Supply Chain Matters blog highlights the hot area of venture capital investment in advanced robotics applied to logistics, warehousing, and material movement areas.

Supply Chain Matters has previously highlighted the increasing amounts of equity funding flowing into the hot areas of supply chain management focused technology. Those areas have included advanced technology support in online customer fulfillment, enhanced visibility in logistics and transportation, AI and machine learning applied to supply chain and integrated business planning. Our most recent update was in February.

Business and technology news site Xconomy reports that Vecna Robotics has recently completed its first outside equity funding round amounting to $13.5 million. Noted is that the logistics robotics sector has drawn a lot of interest from outside investors. In addition to Vecna, recent equity investments include $25 million rounds for Fetch Robotics, along with Locus Robotics and 6 River Systems, and a $20 million round for Soft Robotics. The majority of these tech providers with the exception of Fetch Robotics have evolved as Boston area start-ups.

In December of last year, this supply chain management thought leader and industry analyst had the opportunity to visit Vecna Robotics, an innovative robotics manufacturer located in Cambridge Massachusetts.  The company was founded in 1998 by a consortium of MIT engineers, and at the time of my visit, was privately funded.

Vecna initially piloted their autonomous robotics in healthcare and military applications, and then leveraged this experience and translated their technology for applied use in logistics, material movement and warehousing areas. This technology provider’s technologies are being applied to movements involving totes, bins, carts, shelves, pallets, and oversized objects. The firm’s proprietary multi-agent coordination include integration with customer Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), and other applications management and decision-support software systems.

The area of advanced machine learning and AI based robotics applied to logistics and material handling needs became visible when Amazon acquired that then Kiva Systems in 2012. Kiva’s technology was in the ability to support automated pick and pack customer fulfillment utilizing fleets of autonomous material handling robots that literally learn the frequency and occurrence of fulfillment patterns related to specific stock-keeping units (SKU’s). Over time, products that exhibit higher order fulfillment needs are automatically stored closer to specific warehouse pick and pack stations, reducing travel, and picking times. Amazon has since renamed Kiva based technology to Amazon Robotics, and this technology is now deployed within its many customer fulfillment centers.

Since that time, China based online retail retailers Alibaba and JD.com have similarly invested in Kiva-like robotics technology for warehouse and customer fulfillment automation.

Vecna Robotics technology approach addresses elements of:

Machine Perception– the perception programs that allow various machines to sense and learn objects, people, and scenes in the operating environment.

Context-Aware Navigation– the leveraging of sensor and modeling technologies to navigate unstructured environments including the planning of machine paths among various obstacles, optimal path following and autonomous routing to designated docking station.

Platform-Agnostic Automation– a range of mobile platforms ranging from small, low-cost bots for individual order fulfillment to the ability to automate various OEM manufactured and available tuggers and pallet trucks to move thousands of pounds.

Manipulation– machines that are dexterous enough to handle small parts but strong enough to lift several hundred pounds. Systems feature advance autonomy, grasp selection, collision-free motion sensing and multisensory guided movement.

Multi-Agent Coordination– the ability of Vecna-developed software to coordinate fleets of autonomous systems, multi-resource allocation, task planning and scheduling and execution monitoring. This technology utilizes Internet of Things (IoT) enablement to monitor and communicate among various robotic devices.

Readers seeking visual examples of intelligent robotics applied to online fulfillment needs can view this demonstration video.

Many of these advanced logistics and autonomous robot providers are drawing high venture capital interest because of the ongoing implications of an exploding online retail adoption by consumers and the implications on the need for higher levels of autonomous decision-making intelligence applied to logistics and material movements, literally, around the clock, 7 days per week. It is an area where many more online retailers, transportation, logistics and high-volume manufacturing firms will continue to invest in in order to increase productivity and process accuracy.

Bob Ferrari

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