The warehouse robotics market is on the upswing. In point of fact, analysts at Allied Market Research anticipate it’ll reach $5.186 billion by 2023 as tasks like pick-place, packaging, transportation, packaging, and palletizing become increasingly automated. A recent survey published by EyeForTransport reflects this — it revealed an 18% year-over-year increase in the testing of warehouse robotics, with 25% of the 100 companies surveyed revealing that they piloted robots in a limited number of warehouses in 2019.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that firms like Vecna Robotics haven’t had trouble attracting investors. The Waltham, Massachusetts-based workflow orchestration and self-driving forklift provider today announced that it’s raised $50 million in series B financing led by Blackhorn Ventures, with participation from new backers Highland Capital and Fontinalis Partners and existing backers Drive Capital and Tectonic Ventures. It brings the company’s total funding to over $60 million following a $13.5 million series A in August 2018.
Founder and CEO Daniel Theobald noted that the capital comes after a year in which Vecna installed its robots in some of the world’s largest distribution centers, with deployments at FedEx Ground, Milton CAT, DHL Supply Chain, Geodis, Medline, and strategic partners UniCarriers Americas and Ricoh. He added that it will help to expand Vecna’s geographic footprint while accelerating the development of products in the material-handling market.
“A highly orchestrated solution that leverages the best of robots, manually operated equipment, and the irreplaceable human factor is the key to long-term success for our customers,” Theobald said. “This investment cements our position as the world’s leading material-handling automation company and helps accelerate our growth strategy in the coming year and beyond.”
Vecna — a spin-off from Vecna Technologies, which was cofounded in College Park, Maryland over two decades ago by Theobald, an MIT engineering alumni — initially received funding from the U.S. Army, DARPA, and other government agencies to develop a humanoid robot (the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot, or BEAR) capable of rescuing wounded soldiers from the battlefield. However, ahead of its incorporation in 2018 as a wholly owned Vecna subsidiary, it pivoted its focus, extracting the autonomy software from the BEAR’s hardware and using it to develop logistics and delivery robots.
Vecna’s platform incorporates fully autonomous pallet trucks and tow tractors to maximize efficiency. To this end, Pivotal — an AI-based orchestration agent — manages fleets while interfacing with workers and equipment to optimize freight capacity, warehouse capacity, and waste. Other components automate cross-docking (unloading materials from an incoming truck into outbound trailers or rail cars) and line-side delivery (using laborers to deliver materials to assembly lines), as well as case-picking (the gathering of full cartons or boxes of product), kitting (grouping and packaging related items together as one unit), goods-to-person (moving product to fulfillment operators who pick what’s needed), and more.
Vecna Robotics’ automated material-handling product line includes the RC20 Conveyor, RC500 Conveyor, RL350 Lifter, RL3600 Pallet Truck, RT4500 Tugger, and the Tote Retrieval System (TRS). At a FedEx distribution center in Kernersville, North Carolina, a fleet of six RT4500 Tuggers pull trains of carts with bulky goods too large for conveyor belts, such as car tires or canoes. And at Milton CAT’s Milford, Massachusetts warehouse, RL3600 Pallet Trucks speed up fulfillment by transporting more packages than could a team of humans.
All of Vecna’s robots are managed through Beacon, which Theobald describes as the “engine” behind their continuous performance improvements. It juggles software updates and data analytics, ingesting data collected by Vecna robots as they work and feeding it back to them to bolster efficiency through AI and machine learning. With Beacon, warehouse workers can quickly view sequenced pick lists containing SKU images, quantity, and tote information, and they’re able to coordinate machines in real time based on their location, availability, and more.
“In speaking with Vecna Robotics’ customers, it was clear that the company offers best-in-class solutions and services,” said Highland Capital managing partner Bob Davis, who intends to join Vecna’s board of directors alongside Blackhorn Ventures managing partner Trevor Zimmerman. “The company has an industry-leading position … and we look forward to working with them as they revolutionize material handling around the world.”
Vecna has competition in spades, it’s worth pointing out. Amazon acquired robotics company Kiva Systems for $775 million in March 2012, and last November, DHL announced it would invest $300 million to modernize its warehouses in North America with internet of things sensors and robots. Separately, startups like Attabotics and CommonSense Robotics have raised tens of millions of dollars for compact automated fulfillment centers that can slot into tight spaces like underground garages.