Episode 10

Piece-Picking Solutions for Warehouse Automation

with Vince Martinelli

Vince Martinelli

Head of Product & Marketing

In this episode, Tee Ganbold sits down with Vince Martinelli, Head of Product & Marketing at RightHand Robotics, to talk about the future of e-commerce order fulfillment and how robotics is changing automation and traditional workflows.

This conversation covers many topics including:

  • How Vince got started in the industry (1:39)
  • The problem RightHand Robotics is solving in the space (3:19)
  • Picking Devices in Robotics and How Customers Benefit from using them  (4:50)
  • Working with Integrators in the space (10:39)
  • The need for robotics in the online shopping and operations environment (13:15)
  • Where is warehouse automation headed in the future? (17:36)
  • Exciting trends in the space coming up (21:55)

RightHand Robotics (RHR) is a leader in providing end-to-end solutions that reduce the cost of e-commerce order-fulfillment of electronics, apparel, grocery, pharmaceuticals, and countless other industries.

Automating The Chain bridges the learning gap between business executives and their technical counterparts. Each episode we learn from CTOs and experts in industrial automation as they explain their technology in an accessible way. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit https://www.automatingthechain.com/.

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Transcription

Tee Ganbold 0:10
Welcome to automating the chain, the weekly podcasts and webinars specifically engineered to support and educate executives as they explore the potential of industrial automation. Each week we sit down with an executive leader or their technical counterpart of an international organization to discuss how they plan to leverage industrial automation to advance their business, who also have startups focused on automating the supply chain, explain the technology in an accessible way. experts in the field will cover it in historical and current case studies. Without further ado, let’s get into the show. A very, very warm welcome to the fence who oversees product and marketing that righthand robotics, thank you so much for coming on automating the chain, where are you dialing in from?

Vince Martinelli 1:05
Well, today, you know, with with work from home being what it is, and my kids are doing school from home. today. I’m actually sitting outside their orthodontist office in the car. Yeah, it’s a new world. It’s quite different.

Tee Ganbold 1:18
I absolutely. And where in America, are you?

Vince Martinelli 1:21
We are just outside of Boston. Very, very nice.

Tee Ganbold 1:24
It must be getting chili. Well, Vincent is Yeah, why don’t I start by introducing you. And really, it will be fantastic for you to give us a bit of an idea of how you ended up at righthand robotics. Really? What is your history? How did you get that?

Vince Martinelli 1:43
I was thinking about this, I’ve probably been in new product development and commercialization for around 30 years or so now different industries and technologies. It’s a fun thing to do. You know, it’s a team sport, you need to execute across an organization, a lot of smart people involved. But you spend a lot of time working with customers, educating them about this new thing. By definition, whatever the new product or system is, is something they’ve never bought or used before. So they’re you know, even if it’s cool, even if it looks like it’s gonna help, they need a little guidance on what to do. And then pretty quickly, they start providing feedback, because what you thought was important about your product, you find out, oh, we missed this, or we need this feature or function to make it really, you know, a home run for the customer, right? So. So that’s what we tried to do. I spent a few years at a place called Kiva systems. A lot of people know Kiva because it got acquired by Amazon. And that was really a inflection point. For robots and warehouses since then, you know, things have taken off really, unbelievably, back in 2007, when I joined Kiva, and we had to try to convince everybody that having a robot in a warehouse was a good idea was even possible, you know, now that everybody believes that, right. So we’re hoping to do it again, with piece picking robots, which we’ll talk about today. And 10 years from now, you and I will get on a call like this and say, oh, remember when that seemed like a hard thing to do now? They’re everywhere. Right.

Tee Ganbold 3:08
Incredible. So you’ve got a huge amount of industry experience. So can you tell us a little bit about the problem that you’re solving? robotics specifically?

Vince Martinelli 3:21
Sure. Yeah. And right hand robotics, the company came about because our founders had been working on a robotic gripping systems primarily driven by some needs in the Defense Department. Why does anybody care about that? online, purchasing e commerce is growing rapidly, not a big shocker. I think people know that. But the scale is stunning. 15 to 20% growth year over year, for the last 10 1520 years going. All projections say that’s going to continue. And this year, of course, the pandemic has forced that despite when people can’t go to stores, they order their groceries online, and they order their medicines online, they order everything online. And the industry found out that they’re not ready for that level of capacity and throughput and so on. Right? So automation is a big part of the problem we looked at. Just recently, we looked at some Gartner studies, where they said the number one pain point or concern from people running fulfillment centers is where can they find enough people to handle the items to get them into boxes and ship them out the door? So it’s a huge problem. Right now that I’m picking robot can be part of the solution to solve that in the long term.

Tee Ganbold 4:31
So you’re let’s go specific to the retailers out there. And can you tell us a little about about the picking device? I can see it in your background, but for those who are listening or watching, what did it what exactly does it do? Why is it you know, why is it different to any other picking device out there? Yeah, so

Vince Martinelli 4:53
probably anyone listening to this podcast has seen factory robots. They’ve been around for a long time. 30 years 50 Here’s a factory robot is a wonderful machine, but designed to work in a very structured environment, it’s going to pick the same item presented to it exactly in the same orientation millions of times a year over and over. And even then we’re places it is exactly the same space. There’s no variation in that workspace or the task or anything. Now in the warehouse, inventory is typically stored in large plastic bins in some sort of automated inventory system. And the inventory is presented to a person to pick. So again, if I’ve ordered a blue t shirt, the bin with blue t shirts is brought to a person, they pick an item out, put it in a box for me, well, that task is simple for a person, but impossible for a factory robot. Why? Because when the items are in this bin, and they’re just sort of jumbled in there, but the factory robot couldn’t tell which one to pick. And you know, every pick is a little different, this is a key idea. In the warehouse, every time you pick an item, it is a slightly different task, even if I pick the same item several times in a row. So an autonomous picking robot for warehouse has to have a computer vision system with artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence. So we can see into the tote and distinguish items from each other, make choices about which one to grab, it needs a really intelligent gripper, you know, because every item is different if the next pick is a T shirt, the next one’s shampoo. The next one is a book, you know, each one you’re going to pick up differently if you think about it. So that grip has got to be very multifunctional, capable, and intelligent. And then, you know, you tie that all together and build a system that’s safe and reliable. And you know, that’s what we bring to the table, what we call right pick, is this integrated, autonomous picking machine

Tee Ganbold 6:44
concept. And you’re good, you fall into the AI piece a little bit. Does that mean that no one can go and build a century picking device? Because your algorithms have learned so much more, you’ve got a huge training set, can you tell us a little bit more about why it’s would be quite difficult for you, for anyone to go and create a yes. And live yours.

Vince Martinelli 7:13
It’s interesting because there are research groups around the world. And as a lot of people, you know, it’s a great academic pursuit to see who can do this slightly better with a new algorithm and so on. And in sort of controlled demos, you know, there’s all sorts of continued progress in the field. That said, getting to the point where you’re 80% good in the warehouse is kind of easy. But that’s not useful for anybody. Again, if you think about the person doing this task in the warehouse, they’re pretty close to 100% of the time, if again, if you and I had to stand in front of a bin of items, and I said, pick an item and place it over here, you could do it every time. It’s not that hard, right? So robot at 80% 90% 95% isn’t useful to anybody. But I think the real challenge in the competition right now is kind of two things. One is making the system that integrates easily with other automation in the warehouse with other software in the warehouse, and then achieves this high reliability that you need to use it every day. So it’s more of a health and not a headache for the people running the building.

Tee Ganbold 8:17
Well, thank you so much for that, let’s, you know, make sure that we’re covering for those who are very commercial executives out there, I think they’re probably thinking who your customers, what does it look like? How do you say to you, as a customer end up working with you? And can you give us a bit of an idea of your customers, which markets you are in and how a customer would approach you, typically.

Vince Martinelli 8:44
So today, again, as I mentioned, we’re based in Boston. So we’re based in the States, we have customers in the US, but also in Europe, and Japan. And what we’ve found is in all of these markets, in this high e-commerce growth, there’s huge sort of labor uncertainty and costs and so on. So there’s a motivation to try to automate if possible, most of our customers are the kinds of companies who look to leverage technology to get a competitive edge over their competitors, by serving their customers better, right? So, you know, other folks are gonna lag behind and watch and see how those people do. So I think even today, and it makes it nice, you know, we deal with a lot of forward-looking companies who are somewhat aggressive and how they go with technology. But that said, Our product is really, really great at smallish items, let’s say under a couple of kilograms, maybe up to about maybe more than 10 1214 inches on a side that was at 40 centimeters or so. You know, the kinds of things though, that people buy every day to health and beauty products, cosmetics, so many dry goods, grocery items, everyday stuff, right? So if people are picking and shipping a lot of items like that, I think That’s where, you know, we can help. And so the customers they have for looking at smaller items, retail sectors online. And at that point, well, they could, you know, we could chat with them and help them figure out if it makes sense or not.

Tee Ganbold 10:12
Your phone’s gonna start buzzing straight after this when he was going to call you and say, right, can you pick these items were getting Yes, X amount of orders, or my understanding is, you might also have a lot of partners. So my understanding is that you as a robotics company, work with integrators? Can you tell us a little bit about not just the customers you work with, but how you work with the integrators and what that relationship looks like?

Vince Martinelli 10:44
We work with integrators on maybe two or three levels here. So I’ll mention a couple partnerships that are interesting because we have some publicly named partners like element logic and based in Norway, we do projects with them in Europe as well, company Okamura, in Japan, Tompkins robotics in the States, and also of course, SVT, these all do a little bit something different element and Okamura can integrate a system called autostore. It’s an inventory storage system, but into an entire warehouse flow. And they’re both, you know, leaders in that space. And what they recognize is, you know, the one thing the inventory can’t do is it can’t jump out of the bin into the box you want it to go into right. So the robot almost makes that process. seamless, right. And so they’re seeing that as an advantage they can bring to their customers, right. And so we have a software API, we can take missions and instructions from their system and execute these tasks. and away you go right SVT is interesting, because in some warehouses, the warehouse management software warehouse execution software, may or may not be brought to the warehouse by the same company doing all the other pieces of automation. And so when it comes to integrating the robot, even if we have a pretty simple messaging API, and so on, and so forth, it may not be the kind of project may not make sense for whoever provided all the other software in the building. And SVT is finding that, hey, there’s a need there. Now just for picking robots, but for Amr and other robotic systems to make that integration easier for the end customer, again, typically doesn’t have the team who could do that themselves. And then Tompkins of course has this modular t sort sortation capability, which is interesting, as well. And again, once the robot and the T sort of combined together, the flow of the inventory becomes a lot more automated and connected than it then it otherwise is. And it can work 24 seven, and then it’ll really becomes a flexible machine for the

Tee Ganbold 12:46
for those I guess we’re living in this reality of COVID. And global pandemic. I mean, literally, I talk about it every time because they haven’t gone away, even the vaccine coming. Hopefully you have a robot to help that.

Vince Martinelli 13:02
Wish we did, yes.

Tee Ganbold 13:03
Can you? Can you tell us a little bit about, you know, what, what is? What does it meant for your customer? And what what trends and observations that you’re seeing your customers?

Vince Martinelli 13:18
Well, the first one, again, it’s been well documented as people are staying at home, they still do need items. And so anything they’re buying, you know, more than ever, they’re online. And so, you know, that’s probably the number one trend. But on top of that, in the workplace, people running large fulfillment centers need better ways to keep the workers safe. So fewer people spread farther apart is generally you know, is better. So any task you could outsource to a robot is attractive in that sense, right? Now, that said, these projects take a little time to materialize as an integration step, and so on and so forth. And early this year, a lot of companies sort of put new investment in new technology on pause while they waited to see what the impact would be. So what we’ve seen is a little hesitation in the march to July, August timeframe. But as you start hitting September, October, companies have had a chance to think ahead, even if the vaccine comes out, and within 12 months, things are back to normal. They don’t want to be caught in this situation again. And they still have this new online demand that they would rather keep. You know, they don’t want people to go back maybe to the habit of going to the store, they’d be just as happy to keep the customers business online if they can’t. And to do that they really have to up the game. This volume spike due to the pandemic has exposed that systems weren’t ready for two times the volume overnight. So anyways, we see a lot of senior-level engagement at retailers and foreign online pharmacies and grocers and so on, as they try to understand what’s that next step and they bring robots into existing facilities. Is it pretty new facilities, I think all of these things will see a wave of investment to 2021. As those plans are executed,

Tee Ganbold 15:10
I’ve mentioned COVID. I, if I’m a listener, and I’m thinking, Okay, I might have a enterprise that’s, you know, kind of over a billion, and I’m, I have quite a lot of products. How, and I haven’t yet engaged with a robotics company. How do I engage with you and your team? What is the process? How do I start? And how do I know that? I’m, I should actually be, How should I know if I should have robots or not? How

Vince Martinelli 15:44
do I qualify myself? So I think the first thing as you said, If you already understand that you have a pain point, you know, you’re worried about how are you going to pick items day in and day out? That’s a good sign. I think the next thing that we generally when we engage with people, so certainly someone in that situation to reach out to us, and we’ll help them evaluate, how does your item set look versus the capabilities of the robot? If you’re shipping outdoor patio furniture, that’s pretty much out of scope, right? We’re we’re not able to handle that maybe there’s some other robot that can, we’ll try to help you find something or point you in the right direction if we can. But assuming the items that match the range of things that we handle, well, we can help you assess what that would look like. Talk about the workflows, again, the robots, a lot of cool tech, they’re very sophisticated, but things that people can do easily. For example, if there’s a bin of mixed items, and I said, t go grab the blue t-shirt, this famous blue t-shirt, you know, if it’s in the bottom, and you couldn’t see it, you would assume it’s there, you would dig around for it till you found it right? robots don’t really do that very well. So, you know, we have to be careful, we don’t expect them to do human equivalent things. They can’t do that. But as we could help people understand what’s the scope of what it does really well. And how would that look, you know, what, what are the costs the paybacks, we can give people a first pass at that, generally, that’s really helpful for them to assess whether it makes sense to go forward with the project anytime soon.

Tee Ganbold 17:11
And in the future of overpaid warehouse automation, as a whole, where do you see it during the peak season right now? You know, you have Christmas coming up? And as an executive, you’re thinking, why did I not have this before? optimas? are they buying more from you right now, because of this peak season?

Vince Martinelli 17:36
Yeah, I think during the peak, again, pretty much anything that people are using during peak is already installed. Actually, I was thinking about it, this will be our third peak season. I mean, the products only came out three and a half, four years ago, right. So every peak season, we do some pregame preparation with the customers, they go into a full 24 seven operating mode. And we have to support that. So that’s a little bit complicated this year because we can’t necessarily have on-site and so on and so forth. So we’ve built a lot of more remote capabilities this year, the tools and network support, and so on to, to remotely manage things, again, our software team and support team are scattered working from their homes all over the place now, you know, so it’s quite different. But I think for this year’s peak, then it’s about, okay, let’s make sure all the machines are running properly 100% through the peak. And that’s laying the groundwork for the follow on projects that again, we’ve got a bit of a backlog of things that will be lighting up in the first half of next year. So So anyways, I think this year, two lessons from the peak about as there is every year, what could you do better next year, where, you know, where are there the newer pain points that you have to address and hopefully the next wave of projects will attack those.

Tee Ganbold 18:53
Well, what is the future of warehouse automation? I guess everyone has learned from this pandemic, that, you know, an external event happens, and you suddenly need you need to keep fulfilling these orders. Yeah, you don’t want as many people close to each other, you need to distance? What is going to happen in the future? And are we going to see more of an investment in this industry?

Vince Martinelli 19:19
Yeah, I think it’s clear that we will. And again, maybe I’m a little biased, I’m a vendor in the space, but all things being equal and having, again, been through some of these adoption curves over the years, you know, right now, he’s picking robots in particular, probably hundreds of millions of picks in the field, not billions of picks, but you know, gaining that experience and that that to soak in, in the real production environment, right. And if you were to flash forward to like 2030. So today, maybe if there are hundreds of robots out there and different facilities, and a lot of it now is about the note this adoption curve, right. It always takes some time. For things to prove in uncover kind of the second thing Order issues and concerns, start addressing those. And then you get broader adoption across more customers. So I was thinking about this and this way that you were a young person today starting a career. And if you want to get into industrial automation in general, but in particular robots or even piece picking robots, it’s a bright trajectory. And for the next 20 years, you will have plenty of projects and work and interesting things to do. So I’m pretty again, I’ve seen enough of how the technology is moving, whether it’s us other guys, or how many companies you know, you never know. But I think it’s a very clear trend. So if you don’t jump in now, as a customer, you can do it in two years or five years, but you will eventually get there soon as Decker but it’s coming, it’s coming, it’ll just get better and easier to integrate and use.

Tee Ganbold 20:45
Before I get to my traditional, what are you excited about? Question? I’d like to understand, are you telling your girls to get into industrial?

Vince Martinelli 20:57
Well, you know, my girls actually have a son and daughters both. But yeah, I don’t know if they’ll get into industrial automation or not, you know, honestly, as that industry grows, you need finance people, project people, marketing people, you know, there are all kinds of jobs around it as well. So we’ll see where their interests and desires take them. But there’ll be all kinds of things to do. And that’ll be a great industry in the Boston area where we’re based, is it’s a, it’s a robotics hub, between academics and companies, and startups and big companies, and so on iRobot, Amazon, robotics, and so on. So this is a great place to be in digital power and fuel this region for a long time. I think.

Tee Ganbold 21:38
That’s fantastic. And now, what are you excited about? I guess, in the next few years, what is getting you up every morning right now, and will continue to get you out of bed? And, you know, driving the growth of this industry with my hand robotics?

Vince Martinelli 21:56
Yeah. Well, I think that future state that I’ve kind of painted here a little bit helps, you know because let’s face it in a startup, some days are a little rougher than others. And there are all kinds of challenges with growth, and evolution and technical, you know, challenges and so on, and so forth, some of which you’ve anticipated and planned for, some of which come up that maybe we’re you couldn’t know until you get deeper into the adoption and evolution of the technology. So you know, that’s, that’s the life in this sort of new product, startup space it some days, you end the day on a high note, and other times is a punch to the gut. Right. But hopefully, the high notes outnumber the problems. And you keep plugging forward with a focus, you know, the so-called Northstar, this vision of where it’s going to go, I find that interesting and exciting. And I think it’ll be you know, the end state is a world where it’s easier and simpler to get products to people, which is just a very useful, helpful, necessary thing. So it’s generally to the good to be working in this space as well.

Tee Ganbold 23:02
I’m so thankful. And by the way, vents, your branding is so fantastic, that it really stands out. So I just want to thank you and the rest of the righthand robotics team for making this happen. And thank you for your time. And I hope you have a great day.

Vince Martinelli 23:21
Thank you to t really appreciate it and it was a pleasure speaking with you. Cheers.

Tee Ganbold 23:26
Thanks so much for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review and let us know what you liked. To follow along with future episodes. Be sure to subscribe and the podcasts that form your choice, or head over to automating the chain.com for the latest updates. Until next time,