February 25, 2019
Byline: Rich Blake, Forbes.com
Advances in robotics are accelerating at an unprecedented pace thanks to machine learning algorithms allowing for endless experiments. Tiger Woods may have logged 10,000 hours practicing golf but OpenAI trained a robotic hand to dexterously manipulate a cube running simulations that effectively ran for two centuries.
But there’s another major force impacting robotics: Amazon, of course.
The e-commerce titan is on an ambitious mission to optimize its fulfillment operations around the globe, in turn spawning an entire ecosystem of industrial-robot startups, scientists and engineering students racing to create mechanical grippers with human-like dexterity. Amazon is redefining the warehouse supply chain realm with its fleet of mobile robots, already being deployed, and its pace-setting research into robots that can pick up and place, and which are still in development.
While it’s true that the influential industrial robot maker Re-Think Robotics went out of business during this mini boom, a slew of other companies, such as Soft Robotics, 6 River Systems, Righthand Robotics and Vecna Robotics, have all gained market share and staked claims as new darlings of the online order fulfillment robotics space. RightHand, which in December announced a $23 million B round, has drawn attention for its pick-and-place robotic system. Vecna makes self-driving warehouse “tuggers” that can autonomously transport light- and heavy-material payloads.
“Amazon has definitely been a major factor in both the need for automation and the rapid advancement of the automation provider market,” said Matthew Cherewka, Business Development and Solutions Design Manager at Vecna Robotics in Cambridge, Mass. “With the extreme labor shortages hitting the supply chain, manufacturing, and industrial industries, if companies want to remain competitive, they have to invest in these technologies.”
Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” are among the fastest growing sub-species of robots, according to the Robotics Industry Association.
“I’m certain we will be seeing a lot more robots within the warehouse, and I suspect many of them will be collaborative, such as picking arms and self-driving tuggers,” Cherewka said.