French company Exotec has raised $90 million to expand its autonomous robotics system as online shopping intensifies demand for more efficient warehouse management.
The round, announced on Tuesday, was led by 83North — with participation from Dell Technologies Capital and existing investors Iris Capital and Breega.
Operating at the intersection of robotics and materials handling, Exotec helps brands solve fulfillment challenges caused by the Amazon effect: the crushing need to get individual orders to consumers as quickly (and accurately) as possible.
Back in the day, consumers shopped almost exclusively at brick-and-mortar stores, where they picked and tried on items to purchase. As shopping moved online, the burden of picking shifted to the shipper, suddenly faced with the costly expense of paying workers to trek across cavernous warehouses to track down a T-shirt, a pair of shoes or a toothbrush.
Over time, many warehouses shifted to so-called “goods-to-person” systems in which items are placed into totes or trays, and stored in high-density automated storage-and-retrieval systems. But these systems can be cumbersome, involving conveyors, complex wiring and installation times of up to 18 months.
“How do you explain that to a fast-growing online retailer?” observed Rudi Lueg, managing director for Exotec’s North American operations.
The company’s 3D Skypod system, featuring an autonomous mobile robot, speeds up the entire process. As the name suggests, the robot doesn’t just move horizontally — it also can move up and down on shelving racks stacked as high as 36 feet, allowing retailers and e-merchants to increase their storage capacity by up to five times, the company says.
“We come in, and all of a sudden the retailer gains 70% of their real estate back,” Lueg told FreightWaves.
“The advantage of the robotics approach is you have only one complex item, the robot,” Leug added, “and the robot is doing the whole thing.” The rest of the system — the shelves, the racks and the totes — are made of simple plastic and steel. As a result, the Skypod is easier to install, although it still takes about six months to get up and running, according to Lueg.
Founded five years ago, Exotec will use the new funding to continue its international expansion, said, with a focus on its newly formed Atlanta and Tokyo teams.
As of today, the company does not have a U.S. client under contract but is fielding more than $250 million in proposals. The pandemic is an opportunity, as more people shop online, but the upcoming election “is not helping,” said Lueg, as companies tend not to invest ahead of major political events.
To date, the Skypod system is deployed in two warehouses in Japan, with 1,000 in use for Uniqlo stores. A new division, Exotec Nihon, supports operations in Japan, where over 30 employees will be hired in the coming months, the company said.