Fetch Robotics’ Melonee Wise with her new fully autonomous bot and cart.
Photo by Dave Lin for Fetch Robotics
For more than a century, factories and warehouses have depended on forklifts to move heavy objects from one place to another. Roboticist Melonee Wise, founder and chief executive of Fetch Robotics, thinks fully autonomous robots could do a better job. In a conversation with Forbes, she shared a sneak peak of a new version of her giant Freight bots that has the ability to pick up items from one place and drop them off at another with no humans involved.
Fetch intends to debut the new Freight 500, which can lug up to 500 kilograms (or 1,100 pounds) at the Modex 2020 trade show in Atlanta on March 9. A fully autonomous version of the Freight 1,500, which can haul up to 1,500 kilograms (or 3,300 pounds), is in development and likely will launch later this year. The robots have attachable, industrial-grade carts that can carry bins and totes for efficiency and organization.
While San Jose, California-based Fetch has offered its Freight lineup of pallet movers since 2017, making them fully autonomous and attaching carts to them is a big step forward. “For carts, it’s completely new for the industry,” says Wise. “The robot has to find the cart, detect it and pick it up.”
As with self-driving cars, these giant robots rely on Lidar sensors, 3D cameras and mapping software to navigate safely around objects and people. Fetch ties its robots together with a software program, called WorkBuilder, that can manage their operations. Fetch typically offers the Freight 500 under a service plan, for $3,500 to $5,000 a month, depending on the robot’s configuration and accessories.
Wise’s idea comes at a time when warehouses and factories are increasingly looking to automate in order to operate more efficiently with fewer people, at a time when hundreds of thousands of jobs remain open. It also comes as the forklift industry itself has been shifting to incorporate more automation into its products, as Forbes detailed in a recent profile of Crown, the country’s largest forklift manufacturer. “What we’ve built is pretty complementary to autonomous forklifts. Most of their value is in lifting things up and putting them down. It’s not really in the transit,” says Wise. “We’re talking with some automated forklift manufacturers about bringing our two products together.”
Fetch Robotics’ robots have detachable carts, which allow them to get right up to the assembly line.
Dave Lin for Fetch Robotics
But for some customers, eliminating forklifts is a goal. GE Appliances, one of Fetch’s early customers, plans to use Fetch’s robots to help it slash the number of forklifts it uses across its nine U.S. factories from some 350 to 175 by the end of 2021. Shifting from forklifts, which require human operators, would cut costs, while also improving safety. The new Fetch robot with its connected cart allows GE Appliances to move items from where they’re stored to the assembly line. “We can take things to the line side, which helps us get rid of forklifts,” says Harry Chase, GE Appliances’ director of advanced materials. “Nothing going to the assembly lines will have forklifts.
Today, GE Appliances, which started with the smaller Freight 100 robots and helped developed the Freight 500 as a beta customer, has nearly 20 Fetch robots across five plants. It might ultimately roll out a few hundred robots across its facilities, though Bill Good, the company’s vice president of supply chain, notes that the company could choose to use a mix of robot manufacturers. “Toyota teaches us that inventory is waste, and moving that inventory is waste,” Good says. “So I want to put people in adding value to the product, and not just moving waste from point A to point B.”
Today, Fetch is one of a number of companies that make robots for warehouses, including Amazon’s Kiva Systems — though Wise argues that her robots are very different than Kiva’s because they can operate with people and don’t require extensive changes to a company’s existing warehouse space. One of its main competitors in the warehouse market is Mobile Industrial Robots, a Denmark-based industrial robotics company that was acquired by publicly traded industrial giant Teradyne in 2018. Fetch has raised $94 million, at a valuation of $221 million, according to venture-capital database PitchBook.
“[Fetch] is a quite impressive player in an increasingly saturated field, which is robotics platforms for logistics and manufacturing,” says ABI Research analyst Rian Whitton. “Melonee is one of the more charismatic CEOs,”
Wise is one of the few high-profile women robotics entrepreneurs. As a child, she wanted to be a photographer, but she also tinkered with building blocks. She studied engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she built robots in her spare time, including one called Zippy that Wired described as “an autonomous bot that wasn’t much more than a few motors tied to a piece of plywood.”
She stayed at University of Illinois to study for a Ph.D. in engineering, where she worked on building an autonomous car as part of the DARPA Urban Challenge. After a trip to California as part of that project, she dropped out of her Ph.D. program, and moved west to join Willow Garage, a robotics lab founded by Scott Hassan, as its second employee. “It was random in many ways,” Wise says. “I had no idea [Willow Garage] would become one of the most famous places to do robotics of the past 50 years.”
Willow Garage shut down in 2013. Wise founded a short-lived startup, called Unbounded Robotics, then launched Fetch. Her plan: To develop fully autonomous, mobile robots for use in warehouses and logistics operations. The Freight line of robots includes a rolling base that can autonomously follow a warehouse worker. A variety of carryons enable it to be immediately incorporated into a factory line without needing to be reconfigured.
Over time, Wise made her robots and carts larger and larger. “What we kept hearing from customers is, ‘Can you just make it bigger?’” she says. “The big challenge going from our small robots to our big robots is that the big ones are closer to the size of a car in terms of their weight so the safety standards are a lot different.”