Bringing robots with eyes to a warehouse near you

Seegrid is the leading provider of self-driving vehicles for materials handling, with its vehicles having driven more than 670,000 miles across factories and warehouses on behalf of companies like Amazon, GM, Whirlpool and Boeing.

Interviewee: Christopher Visnic – Vice president of Global Sales, Seegrid

Chris Visnic joined the business in March 2015 as vice president of global sales, selling Seegrid’s vision-guided vehicles around the world.

What is different about Seegrid’s vehicles is that their stereo cameras act like human ‘eyes’ to capture and build a 360-degree map of the world around them. Therefore, they are an infrastructure-free, self-driving vehicle that navigates without wires, lasers, magnets or tape.

“Really, where our technology is bringing unique value in materials handling is that we are 100 percent flexible, which means that our customers’ employees can change their process, on-demand, while production is running,” says Visnic. “In the past, most of the navigation techniques for vehicles were mechanical and required additional infrastructure within the facility to guide them along their path. Today, everybody is now looking to be more nimble and agile with their processes and Seegrid provides its customers with the flexibility to independently innovate their material handling processes, on-demand.”

Not only are these self-driving vehicles easy to get up and running, their routes can be changed by simply driving the vehicle along its new path. “The old, infrastructure-based AGV processes were really static,” says Visnic.

“Once you implemented them, they were there and they didn’t change for 20 years. Now you can change the route or change the location of the dock to suit the way your production is running. The businesses we are working with have to change their processes so quickly, and if the technology doesn’t allow them to do that, it’s a big limitation for them.”

The trick is to use self-driving vehicles not only to increase efficiency, but also to reduce non-value-added work by the labour force. Visnic says: “Every manufacturer is trying to have their people add more value into the product with everything they do. Robotics allow companies to reallocate people to do more value-added activities in their business.”

Seegrid was founded in 2003, when world-renowned roboticist Dr Hans Moravec perfected his vision technology and decided to bring artificial intelligence to materials handling. He remains the chief scientist in the business, and many competitors have sprung up in the last 15 years. The world’s largest manufacturers are snapping up the technology: “Those companies that are focused on materials handling automation are selecting self-driving vehicles to increase profit margins and become more competitive,” says Visnic.

Since Seegrid has been in existence, the technology has advanced significantly around the flexibility of the self-driving vehicles and minimising human interaction. Visnic says it is difficult to predict what the advances of the next decade might be.

“Technology is moving so fast these days that it’s challenging to keep up,” he says. “Our advice on the technology side is that it’s really about being aware of the market, and capitalising on trends that are working today, rather than waiting for the next big thing.”

Minimising touch points remains a focus for innovators today. Leaders in manufacturing and distribution are trying to reduce the need for people to participate in non-value-added activities in the process, as doing so leads to unnecessary variation and waste. Automation results in less variation and maximises efficiency.

“Everybody is looking at automating every non-value-added activity in the process,” says Visnic. “Many of our customers use our vehicles to deliver materials to a point, where a person will then exchange a payload manually. Today, many companies are looking to reallocate that person to more value-add activities, and we are seeing that as a trend, which is at the cutting edge of robotics.”

Whirlpool uses a fleet of 50 vehicles from Seegrid, and has several people managing that fleet, giving lie to the view that robotics destroy jobs, according to Visnic. He says: “We have seen studies saying up to a million jobs will be created as a result of automation. We expect that trend to accelerate moving forward, and the people working in facilities are going to be much more value-add to the product they are making, and doing fewer mundane jobs. It’s about efficiency and consistency.”

One of the value propositions for customers, he argues, is the ability to address the turnover of people in those material handling positions, where it can be difficult to keep employees engaged and motivated for long periods of time. A high turnover of staff can be tough to manage when it comes to maintaining the production process. Visnic says: “It’s not about replacing people, it’s about giving people a more worthwhile job and keeping them employed in more fulfilling roles to deliver in the production process.”

Introducing robotics into the manufacturing process for the first time can present challenges to managers. Not only is there the concern about jobs, but also questions about the financial returns that will result from what is a sizeable investment.

“Another big concern for customers is the change process,” says Visnic, “particularly the human capital change process when implementing a new technology that people haven’t seen before. That’s something we have a lot of experience with, especially working with customers that have union workers, and sometimes those can be challenging environments. We have been able to work with customers and union leaders at the plant level to explain what this means for them.”

Visnic is 47 years old, and before Seegrid worked in sales roles for a variety of other manufacturing technology firms. He says he has never had so much fun:

“It’s been quite a ride in the last two years. I’m an engineer by training, and I’ve been selling technology my whole career. This is just invigorating. The robotics and automation space is white-hot; it’s like a tsunami and the wave is just building up, so to be a part of that is so exciting.”

He has one piece of advice for prospective customers looking to invest: “Be aware of what’s going on in your industry,” he says. “See what the leaders in the industry are doing, and if you’re looking at automation technologies, a lot of things can be learnt if you go and see a provider’s other customers. For instance, we have customers like GM and Jaguar Land Rover that will allow our prospective customers to come in and see their implementation. We advise people to go see how the technology is working. Go and see the challenges and obstacles that have been overcome.”

Finally, he points out the safety record of robotics: in the US alone, every three days someone is killed in a forklift related accident, according to Visnic. Seegrid vehicles have been involved in zero personnel safety incidents: “To be able to prevent that, and not have any incidents attributed to our vehicles since our first customer signed up, is something we are extremely proud of,” he says.

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