Since the emergence of “cobot” in the late nineties, the term has gone from a cute buzzword to a common aspect of the workforce across an increasingly wide range of industries.
The first collaborative robots were motorless and required people entering commands in a computer to make them move. They were used on automotive assembly lines, and over the years, technological advances have expanded the application of these once hulking pieces of hardware, with their contemporaries now assisting surgeons performing sophisticated procedures in the OR.
With roots in material handling, cobots were always well suited for industries that have traditionally required lots of human hands to lift, sort, stack, package and even drive products in bulk from Point A to Point B. Now, as the fragility of the world’s supply chain takes center stage, a new generation of collaborative automatons are in the spotlight.
That was the focus of a recent discussion convened by the world’s largest trade association dedicated to the advancement of autonomous vehicles and robotics, AUVSI, which brought together leaders from across the supply-chain ecosystem — from trucks and warehouses, to robotics startups and investors in the space. Representing the venture capital perspective was Eclipse Partner Seth Winterroth.
Leading the discussion was Los Angeles Times reporter Russ Mitchell, who covers the global auto industry, including EVs and driverless cars. He kicked off things by bringing up our broken supply chains and asking if that has “hurt or accelerated the move toward automation.” The consensus among the panelists was clearly the latter.
“It’s just fantastic to see this category that’s been under-invested in and under-focused on for the last generation be in the spotlight — to see serious capital be allocated and to see leaders of some of the premier global organizations focusing on the implications of transparency, resiliency and performance through the adoption of next-gen automation systems,” Winterroth said.
A new era of automation
Throughout his career, Winterroth has built and invested in technology companies at the nexus of human-computer interaction — with a deep focus on integrated systems that improve the movement of people and goods. As such, he led Eclipse’s investments in 6 River Systems, Wayve, Third Wave Automation, ForSight Robotics, and several others.
Those companies represent the broad acceleration in automation across industries — building robots for uses ranging from e-commerce to eye surgery, and self-driving systems for automobiles and forklifts. They also embody this new generation of cobots, which are smarter and nimbler than their predecessors because they incorporate machine learning, computer vision, sensors and benefit from infrastructure-level innovations, such as GPS, cloud computing and IoT connectivity.
“In the early days, you needed to really wrap your arms around the problem and control everything: deploy infrastructure on-prem, build greenfield facilities with laser-leveled floors,” Winterroth said. “Now, we’ve seen the entire ecosystem mature. You’ve got better infrastructure, ubiquitous connectivity at a lower price point and the proliferation of open-source operating systems that set an initial standard that you can build on top of.”
He explained how companies like Kiva Systems, the collaborative warehouse robot company acquired by Amazon, and 6 River Systems — an Eclipse portfolio company co-founded by former Kiva executives that was acquired by Shopify in 2019 — set the standard for what it means to digitally transform logistics in a way that creates great economic value for everyone, from the enterprise customer that sees enhanced throughput and uptime, to the average consumer who benefits from the speed and efficiency of automation.
And yes, even the humans on the facility floor are happier. “It’s great to go into warehouses now, and employees are eager to see how they can work with robotics,” said Grant Aylward, a product manager at the robotics-design firm Boston Dynamics. “Computer vision solutions have come a long way, and those have really driven new technologies that are able to work flexibly within a warehouse, able to adapt to what we all know here to be a very dynamic place.”
Addressing Endemic Challenges
The panelists also discussed how advanced automation addresses the perennial problem of labor shortage that runs through all the major links in the supply chain — from the factory and fulfillment centers, to the fleets that haul products to stores and supermarkets. “There was a huge discussion concerning Britain, post Brexit, and the fact is they are currently missing about 100,000 drivers at the moment,” said Christofer Laurell, VP of Research and Public Affairs at Einride, a Swedish transport company specializing in electric and self-driving vehicles. “The figure for Poland is 125,000. The figure for France is 45,000. The figure for Germany is 50,000. And if I remember correctly, in 2023, there is going to be a deficit of 100,000 drivers in the U.S. — and this list goes on and on.”
Taking it back into the warehouse, Winterroth talked about how the prospect of fully autonomous forklifts coming to fruition within the next five years will vastly improve occupational safety for one of the most important aspects of logistics. He also spoke about the need to prime the talent pipeline and, by dissecting the technology stack that is advancing automation today, Winterroth explained what knowledge the next generation of innovators must obtain.
“If you’re going to get an undergrad degree right now, get a broad-based engineering degree with a focus on mechanical engineering and basic CS. If you wanted to take it a step further, I would say understand how engineered systems leverage computer vision as a means of localizing, navigating and understanding the world perceived around them — and then ultimately making controlled decisions,” Winterroth said. “These are integrated systems that sense the world, compute to understand what they see, and then inform action or take action.”
The discussion also covered a vital area at the outer edge of the supply-chain ecosystem: the regulatory environment and how best to work with those stakeholders to continue driving the acceptance of emerging technologies that improve operations. This is another perennial problem that tech startups face once they scale to a point where they become viable contenders to established incumbents in the market with close ties to their local lawmakers.
Winterroth’s comments on the panel began with him saying, “In order to get a long-term gain, you’ve got to go through short-term pain.” Part of his point was that the increased precision, efficiency and resiliency that technology introduces to antiquated industries confer societal benefits that ultimately outweigh the interim casualties caused by disruption.
And by helping lawmakers see the future, industry and government can build a new economy together. “When you’re honest and straightforward, and you do what you say you’re going to do, and you tell them beforehand, the regulators on the other side of the table are eager to see these solutions come to fruition,” Winterroth said. “We need technologically astute policymakers who are leaning into the adoption of these systems, because they see the value of what they’ll bring across a number of different social and economic challenges that we’re going to be facing as a society over the next couple of decades.”