By Bob Trebilcock · October 2, 2020
I will admit: My initial perception of Plus One Robotics was wrong. I met Erik Nieves, the startup’s CEO and one of three co-founders, over lunch at an industry event a few years ago. We talked, and Nieves showed me a video of a robotic arm sorting packages onto a conveyor system in a parcel delivery facility. Given the name and other things happening in the industry at the time, including piece picking entrants in warehousing and distribution like RightHand Robotics and Soft Robotics, I assumed that Plus One made the robotic arm in that video. And, given the different piece picking grippers on the market, I assumed they were targeting the parcel sortation market. After all, grippers tend to be specialized: The RHR or Soft Robotics grippers that are effective at picking items from a tote, or the gripper that IAM Robotics uses to pick items from a shelf probably wouldn’t work picking and placing parcels on a conveyor.
Turns out that like BASF, Plus One Robotics doesn’t make the robot, it makes the robot work better. “The key to robotics in the supply chain isn’t manipulation,” Nieves explains. “It’s about perception, and perception is vision. You gotta see it if you want to pick it, and that’s what we do.” Nieves adds that prior to co-founding Plus One, he worked as the technology director for Yaskawa Motoman Robotics – in other words, he knew a thing or two about robotic arms and grippers. “We could’ve been a grasping company ala Soft or RHR,” he notes. “I didn’t want to do that because there is no universal gripper: The gripper that can pick up individual shoes can’t pickup a shoebox. There are different grippers for different situations. But, perception, or vision, is more generalized.”
Instead, Plus One provides the enabling technology that makes those robotic arms and grippers work more effectively, known as the PickOne perception system. That includes the software license for the company’s code, the cameras, the computer which runs the software – it doesn’t run on a robotic controller, and the link between the industrial robot and the vision system. “We’re hardware agnostic,” Nieves says. “We’ve done this on most of the platforms.”
There is also a learning loop: When the robot is confused, a remote individual steps in and completes the task over the cloud, with that information added to the robots information base. “It’s accumulative,” Nieves says. “The system takes all of this in, and then at some frequency, we redeploy the AI model.”
What’s more, in an industry that has relied on systems integrators, Plus One typically sells its products directly to the end user rather than through an integrator. For what it’s worth, I’m noticing that increasingly, robotics solution providers are dealing directly with their customers – especially the autonomous mobile robotics suppliers. The piece-picking robotic side of the industry may present a different case, since there are more structural changes to the operation. In this instance, Nieves tells me that the solution is shipped directly to the end user, who is typically Plus One’s customer, but that systems integrators are heavily involved in the implementation of a total solution.
The startup was co-founded in 2016 by Nieves, Shaun Edwards and Paul Hvass. They raised their $2.5 million seed round from Schematic Ventures and Dynamo,followed in September 2018 by an A Round of $8.3 million, led by the Pritzker Group, with participation from Eric Hippeau, SF Ventures and Zebra Ventures.
According to Nieves, the company represents the confluence of three different threads in the robotics industry. For his part, Nieves was happily employed at Yaskawa, which had a major presence providing robots to the automotive industry. Along comes 2008, and the bottom dropped out of that market. Nieves was one of the executives tasked with investigating where robots could go next. To do so, you needed a market with volume and the two candidates were supply chain and electronics assembly.
Electronics assembly looked great because it involves repeatability, just like automotive manufacturing. The problem: The electronics industry wasn’t likely to come back to North America, where Nieves worked. That left supply chain, which had volume. “The question was, if supply chain is such a great market, why aren’t 1000’s of robots a year going into that market?” Nieves recalls. The answer was variability. Instead of picking the same widget 1,000 times a shift, in warehousing you might pick 1,000 different products 1 time each during a shift. “To do that, you have to have perception – vision – to do the grasping,” Nieves says.
Meanwhile, in 2011, Shaun Edwards developed the software for the first industrial robot controlled with the simple message protocol, later to become ROS-Industrial, or ROS-I. A year later, while a visiting researcher at the Willow Garage, develops software for the first industrial robot controlled with the simple message protocol, later to become ROS-Industrial (ROS-I). In 2012, with the team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, or SwRI, Edwards launched the ROS-I repository, and Paul Hvass launches the ROS-I Consortium. In 2015, Edwards and Hvass developed the precursor to the PickOne Perception System. In 2016, Nieves and Edwards co-founded Plus One, with Hvass joining later. They were off to the warehouses.
One of the questions I ask all startups is where they see the industry, or their company going? Nieves noted that when we’re talking about automation, there’s an assumption that it takes people out of the occasion.
Nieves believes the opposite is the case. “You have to let the robot do what the robot can do of its own volition, but then let people do the rest,” Nieves says. “In supply chain, that’s the game. Robots can do a fair amount of work, but there are always these exceptions that you have to deal with seamlessly. The addition of a person in the control loop is what makes that go. It’s the “Plus One”, and it’s what gives the warehouse operator confidence that they didn’t buy a boat anchor.”
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.
Bob 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.