December 7, 2018

Berkshire Grey jumps into e-commerce fulfillment robot sector

Berkshire Grey jumps into e-commerce fulfillment robot sector

Massachusetts firm emerges from stealth mode with AI-powered omnichannel operations suite.

By Ben Ames

Logistics practitioners added one more option to the growing menu of robotic fulfillment solutions on the market this week, when well-funded newcomer Berkshire Grey emerged from stealth mode with a product it says automates omnichannel operations with artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled robotics.

Led by veterans of robotics vendors iRobot and Kiva Systems, Lexington, Mass.-based Berkshire Grey says its solutions automatically pick, pack, and sort individual items, inner packs, cases, and parcels for e-commerce and store replenishment orders, achieving higher accuracy and throughput speeds than traditional approaches.

The company intends to help customers such as large players in retail, e-commerce, and logistics apply intelligent automation to handle Amazon.com Inc.'s impact on consumer expectations, since shoppers increasingly expect free shipping and overnight home delivery, Berkshire Grey CEO Tom Wagner said in a blog post.

The company did not provide details on its solutions, but said they were based on AI, computer vision, machine learning, novel sensing, and robotics. A video provided by the company shows an array of capabilities that appear to include mobile robots, stationary robotic picking arms, and suction cup end-effectors for picking eaches.

In a statement, Berkshire Grey said it already has a number of paying customers that rank among the global 100 retailers and household name firms, but declined to disclose their identities. The company plans to announce multiple customers in 2019.

While it continues to build a roster of clients, Berkshire Grey is backed by investment funding from some of the biggest names in logistics technology, including Khosla Ventures, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Canaan Partners, and individual investors such as former General Electric Co. honcho Jeff Immelt. NEA also funds logistics startups such as Aera Technology, Clearmetal, Upskill, Transfix, and Convoy.

"Berkshire Grey assembled an amazing team that builds incredible intelligent robotic solutions for world-class customers," Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, said in a release. "AI and robotics are revolutionizing supply chains, and Berkshire Grey is at the leading edge of this step change for retailers, e-commerce companies and logistics providers. They are solving real challenges right now with commercial grade technology that is light years ahead of the competition."

Despite its roster of advanced technologies and big-name financial backers, Berkshire Grey is entering a crowded segment that includes established logistics robotic automation providers such as Grey Orange, Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems, Fetch, Invia, and Geek+.

In a statement, the firm said it has the chops to handle that stiff competition, thanks to an approach to robotic picking that is based on commercial, industrial robots deploying machine learning techniques to achieve fast and precise operations.Those robots also apply a holistic approach that combines individual specialties such as computer vision, sensors, gripping technology, multiple types of robots, machine learning, sophisticated software, and an integration with customers' workflows, Berkshire Grey's vice president of marketing, Peter Blair, said in an email.

The company's solutions include mobile robots working in concert with linear shuttle robots with optimized commercial robot arms. The mobile robots serve inventory and order containers to the robotic pick modules, which are surrounded by existing customer infrastructure such as manual storage, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), or other types of automated conveyance, Blair said.

As Berkshire Grey emerges from stealth mode and competes for a place at the table with other robotic fulfillment providers, its success will depend on its ability to install those systems with minimal disruption to customers' warehouse operations, said John Santagate, research director, Commercial Service Robotics at IDC Manufacturing Insights, an analyst group based in Framingham, Mass.

Despite the potential efficiency gains of advanced automation, implementations can be hampered if they demand "greenfield" installation in brand new facilities or shuttering portions of existing DCs, he said. "The cost, time, and expense of such implementations is what has held many lower tier facilities back and been a driver in adoption for the autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in those same facilities," Santagate said.

Still, the market for robotic fulfillment is growing so fast that it could be flexible enough to add new providers alongside the current vendors. "I believe that the market for e-commerce order fulfillment is rather large, so there is definitely room for new competitors that offer some distinct value add beyond what is already out there from a mobile robot perspective," said Santagate.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

More articles by Ben Ames

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