As ProMat DX begins this week, Vecna Robotics is among the vendors that will be presenting at the virtual event for materials handling. The Waltham, Mass.-based company will be demonstrating its latest mobile robots and orchestration software, which it claims can improve productivity across busy warehouses and factories for both humans and robots.
“When you pair humans and technology, you have superhuman warehouse workers,” said Daniel Theobald, founder and CEO of Vecna Robotics. “Where you have dynamic environments, such as medical device manufacturers or big distributors, our systems can unambiguously beat our AGV [automated guided vehicle] competitors.”
“Our overall goal is to have solutions from dock to dock,” said Jeff Huerta, senior vice president of sales at Vecna Robotics. “We want to do everything in between to outbound receiving, so you'll see more vertical solutions like our new counterbalanced truck.”
Pandemic causes shift to RaaS
“Early in 2020, everyone hit the 'pause button' for a couple of months, and we re-evaluated our business model,” Huerta told Robotics 24/7. “We were strongly in the capex [capital expenditures] model, but during periods of uncertainty, people hold onto capital.”
“We're one of the first in the market offering robotics as a service, or RaaS, for big robots,” he added. “This allows us to unlock opex, or operational expenses, and it allowed us to build out our fleet for applications into 2021. We didn't have to change much—we already offered a recurring model with our Network Operations Center [NOC]. It's now a monthly package.”
In addition, RaaS can help customers scale for seasonal demand, said Huerta. “When sizing a fleet with a customer, we take a consultative approach to learning about its baseline fleet and peak times,” he said. “Some customers are thinking about using RaaS for two to three months to meet seasonal demands.”
“We'll be conducting a series of 'hearts and minds' trainings to introduce robots in a way that's not so abrupt,” said Theobald. “We've had positive feedback, as two other major customers want to use it with other technology initiatives. It's not a binary thing—whether a project succeeds or fails—but if more staffers feel that the robots' success is their success, they'll get better returns on investment [ROI].”
Are bigger AMRs better?
Over the past few years, many autonomous mobile robot (AMR) providers have offered larger models. What's behind that trend?
“For materials handling in general, there aren't enough people,” responded Huerta. “Even as Amazon fulfillment centers are growing, people are jumping ship for a 50-cent change in salary. In addition, people see the advancements in driverless cars and ask, 'Why aren't they in our warehouses?'”
“We're one of the few applying an AMR philosophy to forklifts, tuggers, and palletization,” he said. “Our primary focus is on logistics, but we're also holding onto our development aspect for advanced robotics applications such as healthcare.”
“Once we can do what we can in the warehouse, we want to go outside in the trucks, where we understand there are more tasks to automate,” Huerta said. “Anything we'll bring to market can't just work in a test environment. We want to make sure it's safe, reliable, and meets customer demand.”
Orchestration and interoperability
In addition to its hardware and NOC, Vecna Robotics' Pivotal orchestration software is designed to coordinate tasks in real time, sharing information across people, robots, and warehouse management and manufacturing execution systems.
“Interoperability is an important piece of the puzzle,” Huerta said. “It's part of our customer phasing process. 'We have different AGVs; how do we get there?' We're fully committed to interoperability and are part of the MassRobotics working group. We're trying to build it into our roadmap.”
“We're able to accomplish things with Pivotal depending on the complexity of the workflow,” said Theobald. “Robots and people could do different things depending on the time of day and respond in real time to changes. None of our competitors can do that.”
“While we deal with a lot of our customers directly, because they don't understand autonomous robots yet, in the long term, partnerships are needed to grow the industry,” Huerta said. “We need to have relationships with partners like Körber, which operate in different arenas than just 3PLs [third-party logistics providers].”
ProMat DX demo schedule
Vecna Robotics plans to host the following demonstrations (all times are CDT):
- April 12, 2:30 to 2:45 p.m.: Pivotal Orchestration Engine
- April 13, 10:30 to 10:45 a.m.: Autonomous Counterbalanced Fork Truck
- April 14, 1:15 to 1:30 p.m.: Autonomous Pallet Truck
- April 16, 10:00 to 10:15 a.m.: Autonomous Tow Tractor
“We want to educate people on how we can help them use automation,” Huerta said.
In addition, Vecna will be hosting a session on “5 Considerations in Designing Successful Autonomous Mobile Robot Deployments” on Thursday, April 15, from 1:00 to 1:30 p.m.
“It's one thing to make a commitment to using AMRs,” said Huerta. “We want adoption, not just at the corporate level, but also with operations.”