Another funding round for automated materials handling robots

Following the recent news regarding SeeGrid, another manufacturer of AGVs has secured substantial venture funding. Last Wednesday (October 5, 2016), Canada’s Clearpath Robotics announced $30m in a funding round with participation from Caterpillar Ventures, GE Ventures, Eclipse Ventures, RRE Ventures, and Silicon Valley Bank.

Clearpath, started in 2008 by four University of Waterloo graduates, was initially created as part of a US Department of Defense competition to build a robot that could detect and defuse land mines. It now makes vehicles that “automate the world’s dullest, dirtiest, and deadliest jobs.”

Among the most successful of these is Clearpath’s OTTO Motors division (not to be confused with the recently acquired autonomous trucking company Otto), which produces line-side delivery machines principally utilised in support of warehousing or manufacturing operations. It is to this operation that the majority of Clearpath’s latest funding will be allocated.

The OTTO robots employ LiDAR and other sensors to guide their movements and avoid collisions. In addition, the software underpinning the machines supports integrations with common WMS platforms such as offerings from SAP and Oracle, expediting their implementation within an existing warehouse operation.

The key to the successes of Clearpath, SeeGrid and other businesses developing automated solutions for industrial applications is that their products operate within controlled environments. Unlike the systems touted by Tesla and Google, autonomous vehicles are already widely applied in various sectors. For example, Rio Tinto has been operating driverless trucks at two of its iron ore mines in Western Australia for nearly a year, whilst Amazon has used robots to assist the warehouse picking process since 2012.

These stories are all part of a wider shift towards automation as a result of increasing labour costs and competition from abroad. As the CEO of Clearpath himself has stated: “If you’re a manufacturer in Canada, you have to be very advanced or you’ve already been shut down.” By allowing human workers to spend their time more productively, Clearpath has cultivated a growing clientele of manufacturing customers including investors GE and Caterpillar, as well as John Deere, Honda and Bosch, among others.

It has been proposed that the acceleration of this automation trend may soon reverse the off-shoring of manufacturing, bringing production closer to end markets. Recently, Adidas announced that it will return footwear production to Germany next year, through its “Speedfactory” in Ansbach, which is currently under construction. This facility will be wholly automated.

As described in more detail in Ti’s latest report, Global Warehousing & Logistics Networks, “manufacturing costs across the world appear to be converging.” With the development of solutions such as Clearpath’s OTTO robots, manufacturers are increasingly looking to technology to find an edge, with important consequences for the structure of supply chains.

Source: Transport Intelligence

Author: Alexander Le Roy