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E-commerce & FulfillmentFulfillmentModern ShipperNewsRecent NewsTechnology

Warehouse robotics CEO: ‘I don’t think there is a ceiling’

Leading robotics experts assess current market — and opportunity ahead

Robotics have been around for a long time, but in the warehouse space they are just beginning to make a noticeable impact.

Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) acquisition of Kiva Systems for $775 million in 2012 really triggered a robotic arms race that is finally accelerating.

“Prior to that, a lot of people were a bit gun-shy about robotics … but that was a proof point on robotics,” said Melonee Wise, vice president of robotics automation for Zebra Technologies.

Wise brings a historical perspective on robotics, having been involved in the space for two decades. She was manager of robot development for Willow Garage, which shut down in 2014 but prior to that developed the Robot Operating System (ROS), an open-source middleware software robot developers widely use today.

Wise went on to co-found Fetch Robotics, which Zebra Technologies (NASDAQ: ZBRA) acquired in 2021 for $290 million. Speaking Thursday during the TC Robotics 2022 event, Wise said venture capital became interested in robotics following Amazon’s lead and that it “really helped accelerate the growth of the robotics community over the last 10 years.”

Wise was joined in the discussion by Rick Faulk, CEO of Locus Robotics, and Jessica Moran, senior vice president and general manager of Berkshire Grey (NASDAQ: BGRY). The group agreed that there is a large potential for warehouse robotics moving forward.

“I don’t think there is a ceiling,” said Faulk, noting that only about 5% of warehouse space is automated today. “There will be another 6 or 7 billion square feet of warehouse space built over the next several years and that all needs to be automated.”

The warehouse robotics market is expected to grow to $14.7 billion by 2030, up from $6.2 billion last year, according to Statista.

Faulk cited the growth of e-commerce and labor issues as driving factors. “Pair that with the problem all these companies have, which is how do they deal with seasonal peaks,” he added. “The way to do that is with automation.”

 Amazon lifts all boats

Echoing Wise, Faulk pointed out Amazon remains a big factor in the growth of robotics. “We look at Amazon as probably the best marketing arm in the robotics business today,” he said.

Looking ahead, Wise expects to see more consolidation and alignment of products as companies look to create end-to-end solutions. An example is Zebra’s acquisition of Fetch, which pairs the robotics with Zebra’s extensive portfolio of printers, barcode scanners and other warehouse solutions.

“There are a lot of proof points out there where you are seeing large corporations seeing robotics as a [an option] to tie all the work together,” Wise said.

Moran agreed, saying Berkshire Grey is looking for “partners that play well with our story … and better fit the needs of our customers.”

“Our primary focus is the best execution of the tech we have, both on the hardware and software side, and then picking the right partners,” she added.

 Changing minds

Faulk related that prior to the pandemic, he attended several industry conferences.

“Prospects would come up and give you a funny look and ask, ‘What do these robots do?’” he said. “And then they would end with, ‘Why would I risk my job [to deploy robots]?’”

The pandemic, e-commerce boom and labor challenges have flipped that conversation.

“Now they know what robots can do,” Faulk said. “Three years ago, they thought they were putting their jobs at risk if they deployed robots. Now they realize they are putting their jobs at risk if they don’t deploy robotics.”

Wise said Faulk is correct. Her company used to see customers consistently ask for proof-of-concept programs, but that has almost disappeared.

“They don’t want to hear of any kind of delay,” she said. “They trust the tech.”

Moran added that humans will remain a key part of the equation as more companies look to find solutions that work for both their customers and their employees.

“There is an opportunity to give their employees more job satisfaction because they are working with robotics or alongside robotics,” she said.

Faulk said the opportunity for the industry remains massive, with over 140,000 brownfield facilities that can be automated, plus the additional facilities coming online monthly. He advised third-party logistics providers to bid automation as part of their offerings.

“They will be more competitive,” he said.

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and fleetowner.com. Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at bstraight@freightwaves.com.