IAM Robotics this week announced that it has changed its name to Onward Robotics, with a new logo, visual identity, and website. The Pittsburgh-based company said it has evolved from a developer of mobile manipulation systems to a provider of software and hardware for person-to-goods automation.
“This transition has been an exciting and transformational process for us,” said CEO Lance VandenBrook in a press release. “Onward Robotics better reflects the organization’s strong forward trajectory, our bold and purposeful team, and most importantly, our commitment to moving our clients and the global supply chain forward.”
Founded in 2012, IAM Robotics had developed the Bolt autonomous mobile robot (AMR) and the Swift autonomous mobile manipulator. In late 2021, the company went into “stealth mode” to refocus its value proposition.
How IAM Robotics changed course
“I joined IAM Robotics in 2021, and the Swift AMR with a picking arm didn't have a lot of traction,” VandenBrook told Robotics 24/7. “Market data showed where the dollars were being spent, and we had to have a hard conversation with the technical teams.
Lance VandenBrook, CEO of Onward Robotics
“They had not yet solved how to pick from corrugated cartons, and after talking with the founders, we realized that we were three to four years from solving that problem and commercialization,” he recalled. “We needed to do something different, and while the business had been around for almost 10 years, you have to have a solid story to raise capital.”
“The goods-to-person market was a 'red sea,' with a lot of companies trying to get in,” added VandenBrook. “But the person-to-goods space was a 'blue ocean,' with only Locus Robotics and 6 River Systems.”
“We had a new version of Bolt, and some of the technology was already there,” he said. “We repurposed it for a person-to-goods solution, and that was the beginning of our pivot as we got our team and investors on board.”
Market responds favorably to Meet Me
Over the past year, the former IAM Robotics worked to create a new brand identity that embodied its new direction, as well as its experience with solving supply chain problems with mobile robotics.
“We started getting more customers, who got more excited,” VandenBrook said. “We had clients look at our demonstration site last year.”
In May, IAM Robotics emerged from stealth with the Meet Me system, which combined its Lumabot AMR, the Pyxis workflow management software, and wearable devices to help coordinate both robots and human associates. The company claimed that Meet Me enables warehousing, logistics, e-commerce, and manufacturing operations to increase productivity, mitigate risk, and scale without adding headcount.
“Around the time we came out of stealth, 6 River Systems announced its acquisition by Ocado,” said VandenBrook. “We were doing all of that [work around person to goods], but we were still getting questions about the picking arm, so we decided, 'Let's rebrand and better align to what we're doing and what we're about.'”
The Meet Me person-to-goods system includes Lumabots (above) and the Pyxis software. Source: Onward Robotics
Labor shortages still drive robotics demand
Despite slowed economic and e-commerce growth and consolidation among mobile robot providers, VandenBrook expressed confidence in long-term demand for AMRs.
“We went through our own downsizing in Q1,” he noted. “Investors were concerned about sizing the cost structure to make capital work. We made the right decision.”
“In late 2022 and early 2023, it looked like troubling times for the robotics industry, but labor shortages aren't going away, and most end users we spoke with are still concerned about being 20% to 25% short on staffers,” said VandenBrook. “Later, as interest rates climbed, it had an impact on the real estate market. Small and midsize enterprises [SMEs] have to get more throughput in existing facilities.”
“I also sit on the board of Diligent Robotics, which raised money this week,” he added. “For both, we focused on our key tenets and the labor market. There has been a slowdown in investment, but the same challenges we had in 2021 will still exist on the other side.”
A warehouse associate confirms a pick on a Lumabot. Source: Onward Robotics
Onward Robotics looks forward, stays focused
Mobile platforms may be similar, but Onward Robotics' software can provide agility for expanded applications, asserted VandenBrook.
“On a client visit, they said to me, 'There's nothing unique about your AMR; it's the Pyxis software and the Meet Me model for optimizing robots and people on the floor,'” he said. “It's also helping to optimize inventory, thinking about how to replenish product in pick modules.”
“Some competitors have just been taking raw data from the warehouse management system [WMS] and dumping it into systems for the robots to find,” VandenBrook said. “They're not optimizing paths. This week, I was in a warehouse that had just taken out a competitor's product because throwing in more robots just added to congestion.”
He cited Onward's team's years of experience and thinking about how to increase throughput as it build software for specific tasks. VandenBrook added that the company understands that it can't automate everything and that it will need to integrate with other equipment in the warehouse, such as conveyors.
“As a trusted adviser, it's OK to say, 'That's not a good fit for us, and we'll find a partner,'” he said. “The other side of that coin is that early adopters have a lot of input into our product roadmap.”
What sort of feedback have the early adopters provided?
“Some of them have very diverse clients, which have different picking needs,” replied VandenBrook. “Returns and replenishment are always a challenge. As I've seen at Kiva Systems [where he was vice president of worldwide sales before it was acquired by Amazon.com], while every client is unique, you want at least 60% of what you do to be the same for everybody.”
VandenBrook is meeting with the rest of Onward Robotics' executive team next week about its roadmap.
“We've built internal processes so that we go back and evaluate if there's an ROI [return on investment] every time we deploy capital,” he explained. “Does it align with our strategy? We've had to say, 'No,' numerous times over the past two years; there's only so much 65 employees can do.”
“I’m inspired every day by the bold and gritty Onward Robotics team,” VandenBrook stated. “I’m incredibly proud of the momentum we’ve built, the way we’re solving hard problems with innovative technology, and how we’re moving onward and upward together.”
Onward Robotics plans to show its new brand and technologies in Booth C6685 at MODEX 2024 in Atlanta from March 11 to 14, 2024.
About the Author
Eugene Demaitre is editorial director of Robotics 24/7. Prior to joining Peerless Media, he was a senior editor at Robotics Business Review and The Robot Report. Demaitre has also worked for BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, and TechTarget. He has participated in numerous robotics-related webinars, podcasts, and events worldwide.
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