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Automation is now

Posted on July 31, 2012 at 9:00 am

Seegrid robotic truckMany successful businesses today optimize the mix of humans, robots, and algorithms. Robots have been around for years in industrial uses. More recently, robots have found new uses solving real-world problems…creating great opportunities for companies willing to tackle the marketplace challenges. One such progressive company is Seegrid, a Pittsburgh-based enterprise which manufactures and sells driverless robotic industrial trucks.

Seegrid’s robotic industrial trucks are machine-guided, so no driver is needed. These machines populate the aisles and warehouses of the company’s customers, like Walgreens and DaimlerBenz. Seegrid’s robots are manufactured in America and support American manufacturing and warehousing companies — keeping America at the forefront of innovation and technology.

Read my NewVenturist blog series on robotics and entrepreneurship:

More information about robotics and entrepreneurship can be found on Everything-Robotic by The Robot Report

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Origins.  Seegrid, named for “See” (vision-guided) and “grid” (utilizing a 3D grid of the environment), was founded to optimize business processes for the material handling industry. “The human body was never meant to move pallets!” Seegrid’s founder, Hans Moravec tells me. Hans was a research professor at The Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University when he co-founded Seegrid. He still maintains a position at CMU although he is full-time with Seegrid.

Hans is an early visionary for robotics, quite literally, as he worked on vision systems for robots. A graduate of Stanford’s PhD program in 1980, Hans’ thesis project was the famed Stanford Cart (Hans Moravec at Stanforda project which had a 15 year career from a research platform for controlling a Moon rover from Earth to a visually guided robot vehicle; it is on display in a home for retired robots at the Computer History Museum). Hans is famous for the Moravec paradox— what is hard for people, is easy for computers; what is easy for people, is hard for computers.

Coming to CMU directly from Stanford, Hans’ work on robotics deepened with the publication of two books and further research. Hans had commercialization in mind from the beginning, but didn’t think it would be possible until there was sufficient computer power (estimated about 2000). Apparent applications were large cleaning machines, patrolling security robots, and factory and warehouse transport machines. The last turned out to have a sufficiently large market. In 2003, he teamed up with Seegrid President, Scott Friedman, a physician and successful entrepreneur, to cofound the startup. Scott had read Hans’ book in high school and was always intrigued by robotics and their uses.

Hans recounts the beginning: “We started with industrial applications and then supply chain. We started testing in the field. We found customers that had needs in their warehouses.”Scott Friedman, President of Seegrid

For Scott, founding and leading Seegrid was straight forward: “Hans worked out the business plan. He knew exactly where the technology could play a major role for ground vehicles; we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. The goal was to remove the operator from the vehicle. We could take existing industrial trucks and turn them into robots.”

Value proposition.  Forklifts are used to move pallets. Why take the guy off of the forklift? Scott explains, “The first reason is monetary: three-quarters of the cost of running the forklift is labor. The second reason is safety. Driving around that equipment is dangerous. The accident rate is so high that workers’ comp is two-thirds of the direct labor of these people. The third reason is operational tempo or intensity. To increase productivity you have to remove the limitations that a person brings to the job. You have to radically change the tempo of the truck and the activity. You can’t accomplish those with people; you need machines. That’s the value of robots.”

Seegrid robotic truck in warehouseMarket.  The forklift industry is a $38B/year, the labor to drive the forklifts in $120B/year. Together, they make up a very large opportunity for automating those same forklifts. The forklift industry sells about 1M units per year. Of these, we can assume only a percentage will be converted to robotic, unmanned vehicles. There are less than 3,000 such automated vehicles in use today. But the number is increasing so the market is on an upswing of demand.

Seegrid has two sorts of customers: the end users (warehouse and manufacturing companies) and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). For the latter, Seegrid’s technology leverages other parts: “Just give us your mechanical mounting points, electrical power and a control interface, install our robotic components, and you will now have a robotic forklift.” “

Today, the company is up to 70 plus employees. When they started they had some military grant/contract money and seed money from Innovation Works, a regional economic development organization.

Thoughts on robotics.  Hans is one of those people who loves all things mechanical. He started playing with robotics at the age of four. At this point, Hans has reduced robotics down to what you can do with a computer. Building the hardware is hard, but Hans recognizes that the truly hard part, the part that takes a bit of his off-the-wall genius is about perception: “The robot needs to be able to see and interpret the data.”

Hans is passionate about the importance of robotics to the world: “Robotics will be the largest industry on earth, and eventually beyond earth. Thinking logically, how is anything else possible?” Continuing the Moravec paradox to the next level might be about imagining the work that people do today that robots can do better for you in the future: “That’s like no kind of product that we see today.”

Scott echoes these thoughts: “Robotics is unique. With robotics you can now do something physical that people have already conceived of and are doing in another way. That is very different than creating new needs. We are focused on automating known needs – those are huge markets. We are not about toys. Ours is a serious mission. And it’s worth it.”

This post is sponsored by Innovation Accelerator, the private side of a public-private partnership with the National Science Foundation to make America more competitive through innovation. This post is part of a series on robotics and entrepreneurship being published in New Venturist Summer, 2012.