With $25M in Tow, 6 River Systems Aims to Advance Warehouse Robotics

The land grab in the warehouse automation market is intensifying.

After Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) paid $775 million for Kiva Systems in 2012, it began deploying the startup’s package-toting robots in its distribution centers worldwide—and stopped selling the machines to other companies. That move helped spur a new wave of warehouse robotics startups trying to meet the demand for automation technologies among retailers, logistics companies, and industrial firms.

Today, one of those newer entrants, 6 River Systems, announced it pulled in a $25 million Series B funding round to help it seize a larger share of the market. The investment was led by Menlo Ventures, with contributions from earlier backers such as Norwest Venture Partners, Eclipse, and iRobot, according to a press release. The startup—whose founders include two former Kiva executives—has raised a total of $46.6 million in venture capital, including a $15 million funding round last July.

6 River founders (L to R) Jerome Dubois, Rylan Hamilton, Chris Cacioppo. Submitted photo.

The Waltham, MA-based startup’s latest investment should help it keep pace with its rivals in mobile warehouse robotics, at least when it comes to the size of war chests. San Jose, CA-based Fetch Robotics closed a $25 million Series B round in December, which brought its fundraising total to $48 million. A month earlier, Wilmington, MA-based Locus Robotics said it also snagged a $25 million Series B round, upping its venture capital haul to at least $33 million. Other players include Vecna Robotics and NextShift Robotics. (You can hear from executives at several of these companies next week at Xconomy’s Robo Madness event in Bedford, MA—more info here.)

They’re all trying to serve the evolving needs of retailers and logistics businesses, which are investing heavily in both technology and people to keep up with the explosion in online shopping. Although warehouse operators seem to be more willing these days to adopt new kinds of robotic systems, it’s hard to tell how prevalent they are and how much they’re challenging products and services from well-established industrial automation companies like Dematic, SSI Schaefer, and Knapp.

It’s still early, but 6 River says it’s gaining momentum with Chuck, its load-carrying, mobile robot that assists warehouse workers with picking operations. (Chuck is pictured in both photos above.) Jerome Dubois, 6 River co-founder and co-CEO, says his company had deployed more than 100 of its robots across more than 10 customer warehouses by the end of last year. This year, the 62-person company is aiming to have 600 robots in use at 30 sites.

“We’re moving quickly toward that,” Dubois says, adding that he projects 6 River will book more than $10 million worth of orders this year. The company says it plans to hire at least 80 more employees over the next 12 months.

The company’s customers include Barrett Distribution Centers and XPO Logistics, Dubois says. 6 River is also selling to large retailers that Dubois says he can’t name.

“We’re certainly going to go and get systems installed at those top retailers for sure; some of those are already our customers,” Dubois says. “But I think the market is bigger downstream in the sense that you can only sell so much to the top 10 retailers. You can sell a lot more to numbers 11 through 500.”

Dubois, the former director of global sales at Kiva, says it has gotten easier to sell mobile logistics robots since his days at that company. That’s because warehouse operators are now more accepting of the technology and the systems have become a less risky investment, he claims. Customers of 6 River can expect to recoup their initial investment within 18 months—compared to about four years with Kiva’s robots—and the 6 River system can be deployed in about four weeks, with “very little operational disruption,” Dubois says.

“It makes it easy for people to try these systems out and grow with them quickly,” Dubois says.

Chuck, the 6 River robot, was designed to guide workers through their tasks, rather than follow them around. The robot, which is about the size of a big grocery shopping cart, has a screen that displays a picture of the item the warehouse worker is supposed to pick and shows how much to pick for the order. The machine can also lead the worker to the location of the next task, Dubois has said. The machine’s software and sensors also track worker performance so the system can provide feedback and even celebrate accomplishments, TechCrunch reported last year.

One of the industry’s unsolved challenges is to develop robotic grippers that can … Next Page »

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