Vecna Logistics Robotics Become Generally Available

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Vecna Technologies Inc., which has been quietly developing mobile and telepresence systems, today announced its new logistics robotics division.

“Until now, we’ve really been in R&D, pilot mode,” said Daniel Theobald, chief innovation officer at Vecna. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve invested $52 million in developing an end-to-end material handling solution. We’re making our platform generally available for the first time.”

The market gets ready

After such a long time supporting hospitals, the U.S. military, and NASA, why enter the supply chain and logistics robotics market now?

“We’ve been monitoring the market, waiting for the right moment,” Theobald told Robotics Business Review. “Up until now, there has been a lot of pushing to convince people of robots, which often failed to meet expectations. There was a lot of skepticism.”

“Several years ago, when we were developing the VGo telepresence robot, people said, ‘Don’t call it a robot; that’s a bad word,’” he recalled. “They didn’t want to invest, so we called it a ‘telepresence device.’”

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna, which is a 2017 RBR50 company, acquired VGo last year.

“Now, the dynamics have changed,” said Theobald. “The market is now saying, ‘We must invest in automation … we realize we could be left behind.’ There’s a great appetite for autonomy.”

“Just in the past few months, we’ve seen a shift in attitude,” he said. “Many major corporations are now hiring chief autonomy officers. They want to know how to deploy autonomy to keep customer-focused work.”

“This allowed us to invest in the technology comparable to the level of the market,” Theobald said.

Four differences for Vecna logistics robotics

According to Theobald, Vecna’s autonomy offerings have four differentiators in the logistics robotics market.

“It’s about more than just the robot. Companies focus too much on the robot, not the overall solution,” he said. “Our first key differentiator is our installation approach. Our first step is simulating operations using historical data — flow, seasonal changes — then creating a vast number of scenarios using different technologies and automating different pieces.”

“We’ve measured throughputs to show some big-name companies that the return on investment [ROI] is realistic,” Theobald added.

“Our second differentiator is that we have the broadest range of platforms,” he asserted. “We offer robots that can lift pallets, pull carts weighing thousands of kilos, plus small lightweight robots that can move individual totes. Vecna also makes robots that can lift carts like Kiva [from Amazon Robotics], pull trailers, and provide telepresence.”

“We can seamlessly integrate our robots with third-party systems, or customers can use our autonomy kit to automate existing equipment such as tugs,” Theobald said. “There’s currently a lack of interoperability standards — you can’t build a car with a hammer. You need a whole set of tools for manufacturing, order fulfillment, logistics.”

“Our task manager system is differentiator No. 3,” he explained. “It’s a centralized ‘brain’ that knows what robots there are, their features, and what other equipment is in use.”

“The AI-enabled brain also understands personnel and what tasks they can perform,” Theobald continued. “It can effectively deploy them in an optimized way, allowing them to get more done with fewer total resources and cost.”

“This allows you to have a more agile enterprise to deal with unexpected things, like adjusting products or equipment failures,” he added. “This is a level of agility not on the market.”

“The final differentiator is a very robust remote assistance and deployment network,” said Theobald. “Once a robot runs into a problem, it can generally be identified, addressed, and resolved very quickly without having to shut down operations or send someone out to the floor to solve the problem. This is in stark contrast to many systems out there.

“Vecna’s robots can ‘phone home.’ They’re smart enough that, typically, the robots will try recovery behaviors on their own. Most of the time, they don’t even require additional help,” he said. “Whether there’s an onsite or customized call center, we can usually resolve problems within a few minutes.”

“Any one of these differentiators is good, but when you bundle the four together, it’s an opportunity to allow larger organizations to adopt automation in ways that weren’t possible before,” Theobald claimed. “Companies don’t want to spend 18 months deploying on a fixed infrastructure because the requirements will change. They need flexibility.”

Integration support

Vecna is working with an undisclosed partner on providing integration and sales support.

“We’re focusing on building an integrator ecosystem around our solution,” Theobald said. “Vecna is a cross between a traditional integrator and a robotics platform provider.”

However, the lack of standards is a challenge for logistics robotics in mixed environments.

“Without interoperability standards, customers get better results with a hybrid approach,” Theobald said. “That’s also one of the reasons we co-founded MassRobotics — to encourage standards development.”

“We won’t claim we’re the only game in town for enterprise-level app planning, but our overall approach is designed to work together from Day 1,” he said. “We’ve developed our hardware and software with a wide range of platforms in mind, and we’ve created the ability to expand the capabilities of each platform.”

Focus on mobility first

Theobald acknowledged that the supply chain industry will eventually want robots with mobile manipulation capability, “but in terms of market readiness right now, our focus is on mobile bases.”

“Customers are often looking at the robot arm side, but without mobility, they’re looking at connecting fixed-structure solutions, such as conveyor belts or manufacturing lines,” he said. “Because of e-commerce demands, the market wants to avoid anything with fixed infrastructure requirements.”

“Our approach is to give customers as wide a path as possible toward ‘lights-out’ operations, focusing on what robots are good at today. Then we’ll create a path for robots to take on a greater workload over time,” Theobald said.

“We’re working on manipulation on small VGo bases, and collaborative arms like those from Universal Robots are possible on our midrange 350- to 500-kg robots,” he said. “We also have powerful hydraulic arms on our pallet-moving robots.”

Game plan for general availability

Vecna is now working to get investors, scale up production, and market its technology to major end users in the logistics industry. It will be an exhibitor at ProMat in Chicago this week.

“We’ve never brought in outside money while developing our technology,” Theobald said. “For the first time in our history, we’re opening our doors to outside investment.”

“We’re being careful to find financial partners that are aligned with our commitment to ethical business and using technology to empower humanity,” he added.

Vecna has had “conversations with individuals and organizations about financial support,” he said. “We need to build up our manufacturer, integrator, and deployment network. It’s a tremendous growth opportunity.”

“Vecna Logistics has had executive briefings with the largest manufacturing and logistics providers and retailers during prelaunch,” he said. “We’ve had an amazing response from the market.”

Cooperation over competition

The number of logistics robotics suppliers has recently increased, but Theobald preferred to discuss the need for cooperation and better communications over competition.

“One of the industry’s challenges to date is that it has been too insular — roboticist to roboticist — now we need to get out there and work together and provide value,” he said. “We have to make it easier for small and large enterprises to apply robotics technology.”

“Why has Amazon been able to hire so many people?” he asked. “Because it has invested in automation to be successful.”

Theobald asserted that those who worry about robots stealing jobs have it wrong.

“Jobs will keep changing as they always have, but robotics can be the great equalizer,” he said. “Think of how the Internet has changed educational opportunities and free speech around the world in ways nobody considered possible. Robotics can do the same, and the industry needs to share that with the public.”

“Robots aren’t coming for your job — competitors are coming for your job,” he said. “The robots are the collaborators to help your business compete.”


By Eugene Demaitre