Fetch Robotics Exec: Autonomous Mobile Robot Demand Is Surging

CMO Barry Phillips: COVID-19 supply chain shortages have increased demand.

Jeffrey Schwartz

April 27, 2020

8 Min Read
Robot Worker Army

Time will tell whether supply chain shortages from the COVID-19 pandemic will hasten the deployment of robots in warehouses. Last week, we reported that autonomous mobile robot suppliers are seeing a surge in demand.

Among those beneficiaries is Fetch Robotics, regarded as a leading supplier of autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs. Founded in 2014, CEO Melonee Wise was the second employee at Willow Garage, an R&D lab influential in advancing robotics. DHL, Ryder and Universal Logistics are among those that have deployed AMRs from Fetch Robotics.

Last summer, Fetch Robotics raised $46 million in a Series C round of funding. Fort Ross Ventures raised the round with CEAS Investments, Redwood Technologies, TransLink Capital and Zebra Ventures. Overall, the company has raised $94 million. Earlier investors include O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Shasta Ventures, SoftBank Capital and Sway Ventures.

Fetch Robotics last month partnered with Zebra Technologies. Among other things, Fetch Robotics will use Zebra’s recently launched Fulfillment Edge optimization software to manage its mobile robots. Both companies described the partnership last week.

Among those participating in the discussion was Fetch Robotics CMO Barry Phillips. Afterward, Channel Futures reached out to Phillips, who explained why Fetch Robotics and Zebra are working together.


Fetch Robotics’ Barry Phillips

Phillips discussed the near-term opportunity for the company and partners to use autonomous mobile robots to advance supply chain automation. What follows is a synopsis, edited for clarity.

Channel Futures: What does Zebra’s Fulfillment Edge bring to your autonomous mobile robot solution that you didn’t already have?

Barry Phillips: Fulfillment Edge can take a list of SKUs across multiple orders and then assign those to different pickers. That way, you can essentially optimize the pick path for each of the pickers. If they’re picking for six orders, they can essentially pick down one aisle and get everything for those six orders. And then I can go to a different place. It’s a much more efficient way than with serial pick paths with one person picking an order. The other thing that we are working with Zebra on with Fulfillment Edge is orchestrating associates and the robots.

CF: How does it orchestrate people and robots?

BP: Our Cart Connect solution moves the carts around. So, one robot can handle between three to four carts. The robot will move a cart to a place. The cart will typically have some sort of totes or orders on it or something like that. And then the associate will grab that. And then they’ll start picking to it based on what they see from the [new] Zebra [HD4000] headset display. When the associate is close to the end of the picks, Fulfillment Edge sends an autonomous mobile robot with the next cart. And that cart could be an empty one, or it could be a partially full one from a different area.

CF: And the benefit of that is?

BP: It allows the associates, who may spend half their time moving in between aisles, to remain in an aisle. The robots essentially keep the associates in the aisle picking and being more productive, rather than just moving things. Fulfillment Edge is making them much more efficient while they’re picking while they’re in the aisle.

CF: Fetch Robotics is focused on both the hardware and software?

BP: We have the robots and the software on the robots. We have about 18 roboticists on staff. Most other AMR companies …

… may have a couple of roboticists. That’s extremely important because we go from small 500-kilogram robots to 1,500-kilogram ones. The latter holds 3,300 pounds, so it’s essential that those things are extremely safe. And our big robots are especially safe. We also have cloud software. All of our software runs in the cloud just like Salesforce or Workday or anything else. Because it runs in the cloud, we can actually ship robots to a site without us going on site whatsoever.

CF: What cloud infrastructure hosts your software?

BP: We are currently in Amazon but are actively looking at some other ones in addition. Remember, these things roll around with all kinds of sensors on them. They’re kind of IoT sensors themselves and they collect a lot of different information. And that information within a cloud can be leveraged by machine learning tools within the cloud. The cloud will certainly provide efficiency that just really isn’t there with just warehouse management system data alone. For example, if a fire door was blocked or a forklift was speeding, an autonomous mobile robot can pick those things up. And that’s where having cloud-based machine learning tools can take that data and shape it correctly.

CF: Why did you decide to use Fulfillment Edge rather than create that orchestration capability internally?

BP: When you think of that whole value chain, there’s a warehouse management system, or WMS. These are from companies such as Manhattan or Blue Yonder, which used to be called JDA, or High Jump. And that’s where all the SKU data and the orders and everything else are. What you’re starting to see now is an optimization engine. Some people term these warehouse execution systems. But it essentially gathers lots of different SKUs from lots of different orders. It knows the layout of the facility, and then optimizes that pick path. We decided that that’s not something we’re going to do. WMS companies do this on their own. Zebra has theirs, Honeywell has theirs. We’re focused on providing the broadest range of AMRs out there. And we’re developing accessories. We announced at MODEX a large cart-based solution for our 500 kilogram robot.

CF: Besides Fulfillment Edge, are you working with Zebra and its line of devices and printers?

BP: There are two different ways we work in with Zebra. One is using fulfillment edge, as we discussed. Through an API it works with what we call Workflow Builder [also announced last month] that directs the robots. Also, with their handhelds, you can scan something and that will actually direct the robots. And if you think about it, really the handheld solution is for companies that want to get going right away. Then they can always add the fulfillment edge optimization piece end afterward.

CF: Do your AMRs work with other handhelds and scanners?

BP: We can work with a lot of different types of scanners that are out there. The one thing we have with Zebra is our development environment that works with our Workflow Builder. It’s essentially a Blockly-based interface. It’s simply a drag-and-drop interface that I can set a cart position. I can have a have a robot go into a certain position and wait. I can have them wait for a button push. And I can have them wait for a scan like have them do all kinds of things and it’s literally just by dragging and dropping. So, the only scanner that we have any sort of native blocks for are from Zebra. We also have the ability to …

… print out the barcodes.

CF: You’re surely aware that Zebra showcased its Smart Site robot at the NRF show back in January. Is that something you’re working with them on or is it competitive to what you’re doing?

BP: We are more in the distribution fulfillment center side of things. So, you typically would not see our robots in the store itself.

CF: Given the impact of COVID-19 over the past two months, has autonomous mobile robot demand increased?

BP: Yes, in two different areas. Before everyone had to shelter in place, there wasn’t enough labor. Labor is harder now because of things like child care, elderly parents and people concerned about their own health. So AMRs certainly help with that.

CF: What is your approach to partnering? Do you work with channel partners or do you typically have direct engagements with customers?

BP: We have lots of channel partners that sell our solution. Some of them are larger partners like, for example, HighJump. They’re one of our resellers and they are also Zebra partners. We have other WMS companies we’re in the middle of partnership discussions with to where they’ll be resellers too. And then we have other smaller ones too. So there’s a really large gamut of companies that are doing it. We try to be indirect as possible, but we’re always involved in the sale. As you can probably imagine, AMRs require certain expertise.

CF: How would you characterize the sort of the opportunity curve right now?

BP: Well, we have over 100 customers in 22 countries. And lots of them have multiple sites. They go from fulfillment to distribution, manufacturing and manufacturing. In most cases, our ROI is less than a year. One thing that is increasingly mentioned is something called robots as a service. It’s like software as a service or infrastructure as a service. It’s the same idea in that you don’t have to have a major capital expenditure. Robot as a service often gets convoluted because some companies will take a lease and say that’s robot as a service. But with us, you can change the different types of robots.

CF: Are these robots going to take jobs away from people in the supply chain?

BP: I think that is always it’s always a concern. But as I said, there were labor issues before where customers could not hire enough. But remember, a lot of the work AMRs do is the dull, dirty and dangerous work. I don’t see it having any sort of taking jobs perspective. I think it just supplements as it does today.

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Schwartz

Jeffrey Schwartz has covered the IT industry for nearly three decades, most recently as editor-in-chief of Redmond magazine and executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner. Prior to that, he held various editing and writing roles at CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek and VARBusiness (now CRN) magazines, among other publications.

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