By Bob Trebilcock · June 12, 2020
Do you remember when the first iPhones hit the market back in 2007? More importantly, do you remember when you first heard the phrase: There’s an app for that? In short order, it seemed that every kid with some coding talent was developing an app.
According to a report on Lifewire, by early 2008 there were 800 apps available, jumping to 100,000 by the end of 2009 and numbering close to 2 million today. And that’s just the Apple ecosystem.
In the supply chain space, I think we’re entering the “There’s a platform for that” age. In the last month since I launched this blog, I’ve spoken to a number of startup founders, several of whom I knew in their former lives, who are addressing long-recognized and frustrating gaps in the industry with cloud-based, digital platforms. Rather than require a rip and replace strategy, these solutions sit on top of existing supply chain planning, execution and equipment control systems, upload data to the cloud from a myriad of disconnected systems and work their magic.
SVT Robotics falls into that category. Co-founded by A.K. Schultz and Michael Howes, both former Swisslog executives, the pair set out to tackle issues that had frustrated them during their careers designing and implementing automated materials handling systems. It’s the first of three blogs I’ll write on platforms.
Despite its name, SVT Robotics is not another entrant in the crowded field for industrial mobile and piece-picking robots. Rather, they have created a platform designed to make the integration of robot operating systems with other warehouse control, execution and management systems faster and quicker.
“Mike and I both came into the industry about 16 years ago,” Schultz notes. “Over the years, what became apparent to us is that the bottleneck to many projects was integrating the software, and it was on both sides – the solution provider and the customer.” It wasn’t just implementing software systems, but getting all the different control and execution systems in a highly-automated facility to not just do what they were supposed to do on their own little island, but then to play nice with all the other little islands of automation. Schultz notes a project he worked on where an entire section of automated equipment was torn out over a weekend because it couldn’t communicate with the rest of the building.
Anyone who has worked in the industry for a decade or more has similar tales to tell, but in the view of Schultz and Howes, it really became apparent starting about four years ago. “It seemed like every single executive had a collective awakening that Amazon had robots, maybe they should get robots,” Schultz says. “The problem for everyone was how to get enough software engineers to write all the code to put these solutions in place.” And then, there was interoperability: Yes, the mechanical systems worked on their own, but the different systems couldn’t talk to one another. “We realized that if we could solve the interoperability problem, we might have something,” Schultz says. “We also believed that we had the scar tissue from all the bad things we’d lived through plus a network of contacts.”
SVT Robotics was launched as an integration-platform-as-a-service the spring of 2018, and really got going that summer. The company announced the deployment of a pilot in Kenco Logistics Innovation test lab in October 2019.
The concept is simple on paper. Robotics solution providers, and any provider of automated materials handling systems that may integrate with a robotics solution, can integrate their system on the platform, for access by an end user. Schultz likens what the company is trying to accomplish to the development of the two-pronged plug that allows you to plug any electrical device into an outlet to access the grid, and the USB that allows you to plug in computer peripherals.
You can also use the iPhone analogy: The systems on the platform are like apps on the Apple store that are pre-integrated to iOS. And, like the iPhone user, the end user in this case can then download a custom-tailored solution into their facility. Upgrades happen in the platform. Either way, “We set out to create that same kind of connectivity,” Schultz explains. “Instead of enterprise systems communicating with unique or proprietary systems, you can adopt any robotics or automation technology that is integrated on the platform. And, it decouples issues around upgrades and security.”
What is Schultz’s vision for SVT Robotics? “Our vision is to reduce the friction that slows the adoption of technology,” he says. “There are so many amazing ideas that have an impediment to implementation. If we can reduce that friction and accelerate adoption, that would bring us a lot of pride.”
SCMR’s Supply Chain Startup Blog is published every Friday. If you’re a startup, a venture capitalist or a supply chain practitioner working with startups, and want to share your story, or have startup news to share, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember that the purpose is not to promote any one firm – and a blog shouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of a firm or its technology. Rather it’s to start the dialogue between me, my readers and the people creating the NextGen Technologies that will power tomorrow’s supply chains.
About the Author
Bob TrebilcockBob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.