The fulfilling world of warehouse robotics

Robotics Roundup: A year and a half into the pandemic, warehouses and factories have made the biggest automation gains

With the pandemic finish line in sight — at least for some — now is a good time to start assessing which segments have been most impacted by the events of the past year and a half. In terms of robotics, investments have been all over the place — and for good reasons. COVID-19 seems destined to have a profound and lasting impact on work, and more than ever, robots and automation are going to play a part in that.

Food has been a big target. Manufacturing and health, as well — all for pretty clear reasons. When we come out of this, however, we may end up seeing that the most immediate and profound impact was on warehouse and fulfillment. Not that it needed much help, but online retail had a huge moment — led, naturally, by Amazon.

As the company butted heads with workers and union organizers at one fulfillment center in Alabama, the company has been readying additional fulfillment centers. Shreveport, Louisiana is the latest, with Governor John Bel Edwards referring to the new warehouse as a “robotics fulfillment center.”

As with all of these, that means a combination of humans and robots. There are, of course, questions with regard to what the balance will be, going forward. And, of course, it’s no surprise that pro-union Amazon workers frequently cited being treated like a robot among their biggest workplace concerns.

Attempting to stay afloat in the world of Amazon is a big part of why so many warehouses are particularly interested in robotics at the moment. After all, the tech has not only given the retailer a competitive advantage, it’s helped keep them running amid a global pandemic.

Berkshire Grey has been one of the bigger players in the category, thanks in no small part to some massive raises. To date, the Boston-area company has raised $263 million, before announcing a SPAC last year. Today, it announced that it’s using some of that money to further expand into markets including Canada and Japan.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

“2020 was a pivotal time for eCommerce companies, retailers, grocers and package handling logistics providers – and it continues into this year. The need to automate to meet consumer needs was already pronounced and the pandemic accelerated the changes and increased the need,” founder and CEO Tom Wagner said in a release. “Many of these changes in consumer behaviors are here to stay and that means, businesses need to adapt and improve operations with robotic automation to fulfill those needs. We’re honored to work with companies who have enlisted our AI-enabled robotic solutions to help meet business goals and consumer expectations.”

The already-hot China market continues to gain momentum, as well. Youibot this week announced a $15 million raise, led by Softbank Ventures. The Shenzhen company is a HAX grad that produces manufacturing robots.

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Here’s Rita on the company:

Founded by a group of PhDs from China’s prestigious Xi’an Jiaotong University, Youibot develops solutions for factory automation and logistics management, as well as inspection and maintenance for various industries. For example, its robots can navigate around a yard of buses, inspect every tire of the vehicles and provide a detailed report for maintenance, a feature that helped it rack up Michelin’s contract.