Warehouse Robotics Maker 6 River Systems Grabs $15M

[Updated 7/26/17, 4:56 pm, with comments from co-CEO.] 6 River Systems has scooped up $15 million from investors to help push its robots into more warehouses.

The new funding round was led by Norwest Venture Partners, with contributions from earlier backers, including venture firm Eclipse and consumer robotics company iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), according to a press release e-mailed to Xconomy. The company says it has raised a total of $21.6 million from investors.

6 River Systems was founded in 2015 by Jerome Dubois, Rylan Hamilton, and Christopher Cacioppo. Dubois and Hamilton previously were executives with Kiva Systems, the Boston-area warehouse robotics company acquired by Amazon for $775 million in 2012.

Earlier this year, 6 River Systems began selling its mobile robots that assist warehouse workers with picking operations. As TechCrunch reported, 6 River Systems’ load-carrying mobile robot (dubbed Chuck) has a screen that shows warehouse workers where items are located on the shelf, how much of something they need to pick, and where they need to go to complete the next task. The machine’s software and sensors also track worker performance so it can provide feedback and even celebrate accomplishments.

6 River Systems says its early customers include retailers and third-party logistics companies in North America.

The company is part of a broader trend in the robotics industry around emphasizing human-robot teamwork. (6 River calls its product the “Collaborative Fulfillment System.”)

The warehouse robotics sector is getting more crowded. In the Boston area alone, other players with mobile robots include Vecna, Locus Robotics, NextShift Robotics, and Stanley Innovation.

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In an interview, Dubois says 6 River Systems’ robots are larger than some competing systems—about the size of a big shopping cart at a grocery store. That means his company’s robots can carry more items at one time, and customers don’t need to purchase as many of the machines to achieve the same level of productivity, he says.

Dubois—the company’s co-CEO, along with Hamilton—also emphasizes how Chuck guides warehouse workers through their tasks, rather than following workers around. For example, the robot leads the worker to the location of the next item to be picked and displays a picture of the item on its screen, Dubois says.

“We have a robot that’s leading you through the entire process,” he says. “We do a lot in terms of machine learning and A.I. to think through … the most efficient way to plan the [fulfillment of] orders that are available. We’ll break up the orders in such a way to try to reduce the amount you’re walking in the warehouse, which makes you faster.”

Dubois says he and his team made a point of designing a system that could be quickly implemented in warehouses, without disrupting the current layout of the facility. That was one of the biggest lessons from Kiva, he says. Kiva’s robots required lots of space, and customers had to install special shelves from which the robots would pull inventory, he says.

Another difference with 6 River Systems: Kiva’s robots worked in separate areas from humans, Dubois says. “The collaboration wasn’t there,” he says.

The field of logistics robots is getting noisier, but the demand for such technologies is growing, too, Dubois says. 6 River Systems will use its new funds to try and capture a bigger piece of the market. The approximately 30-person company will grow to 40 employees by October, Dubois says, with much of the hiring focused on sales, marketing, and customer support. The company employed fewer than 20 people at the beginning of this year.

“We’re moving pretty quickly,” Dubois says.

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