Q & A
Black-I Robotics CEO Brian Hart recently answered questions about how and why he founded the company and what the future holds.
A. Global mobile robot sales are estimated at $20.3 billion in 2023, growing at a CAGR of 14.9 percent to reach projected sales of $40.6 billion by 2028. Demand in our segment — autonomous mobile heavy lift robot systems — is likely higher because we solve the logistics industry’s most pressing problems, notably a severe lack of workers. Our robot replaces up to five workers per 24-hour shift while creating a safer workplace. Our mobile system also eliminates the need for expensive fixed robot systems dedicated to most production lines today. We solve economic and social issues at the same time.
A. Logistics companies have invested billions of dollars in Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). Today, those AMRs are pretty much limited to carrying bulk items placed on them by human workers. Think of AMRs as mules that carry heavy items. What Black-I has done is to link our robot to the AMR mule, giving it eyes to see objects, an arm to pick up the object and a brain to identify how and where to place it, just like a person. The system works fast, efficiently, and safely in space to precisely pick, place and move virtually any product(s) down to the SKU level and then create what is called a mixed case pallet of those objects.
A. Different robot companies focus on different segments within the warehousing and manufacturing industries. There are robots that empty trucks, others move items closer to workers, saving steps. What is different with us — and proprietary — is, we have developed an AI-based technically advanced robot that features tactile manipulation. In other words, it’s uniquely human-like in terms of its ability to grasp and move. It also lifts more weight than other mobile robot arms, handling payloads up to 100 lbs. and more, And with our patented battery technology, it can operate 24×7. It’s a brand-new segment of the robotics market.
A. I would love to name them, but for competitive reasons — theirs, not ours — they’ve asked us not to. They believes that our system will give them a significant competitive advantage once we roll them out in numbers. I can say, we are working with two multinational consumer goods companies, a giant manufacturing company and two third-party logistics companies that together represent hundreds of different plants and warehouses. Our market is massive.
A. Positively. Think about it. Businesses have had it easy since 2008. Interest rates have been remarkably low and stable, Liquidity, especially since the pandemic, has been injected into the economy like never before. Companies generated profits at a record pace. Now, that has suddenly changed. Businesses no longer have access to “free” money. Wages are going up. Consumers are tightening their belts. The easy road to profitability is over. Executives are asking, how do we sustain our profits? The answer is, as it always is in times of stress, automation. Deploying robots and other technological devices to cut costs and become more efficient is the path to sustaining profits. Robots are more economical than human workers, don’t ask for raises, don’t get injured, and are available 24×7.
A. Imagine working in a warehouse all day long, all week long, all year long lifting, pushing, pulling boxes, containers, pallets, and other heavy items. It’s boring, repetitive, and literally backbreaking. Warehouses and similar workplaces have more than their share of injuries. Lift injuries — the classic ‘“twist and shout” — are 38% of workers compensation claims in the US. These claims are expensive. They also sideline workers, who are all too scarce to begin with. The vision and path planning capabilities of our robots reduce or eliminate conditions that often lead to injuries. A safer workplace also has the benefit of raising employee morale.
A. Ascend Robotics is a world leader in robotic arm software controls and user interfaces. We partnered with them to accelerate time to market for the Fullscope product. Founders David Askey and Amy Yin, both out of MIT, have in their 20 years in the business pushed the boundaries of robotics applications, including AI and machine vision, which are critical — and unique — to our Fullscope arm. Ascend has enabled us to deliver a range of applications that the logistics industry has wanted for years. We also have our internal software development program in Boston and support team in India. Both our hardware — the joints, the cameras, the electrical grid, computers, lidars etc. — and our software have been integrated over a three-year period, giving us a head start in a new market. When we say our Fullscope Mobile Heavy Lift Arm is revolutionary, we do not exaggerate.
A. Both parties benefit significantly. Our arm can be mounted on a wide variety of chassis with a 500 kg payload capacity or higher. As I mentioned earlier, corporations have invested tens of millions of dollars in these powerful mobile robots to move big things around, but don’t get the optimum benefit from them that marrying them to our robot can. That combination has enabled a growing number of these robot manufacturers to develop a broad range of new applications that their customers find valuable and are willing to pay for. Consequently, AMR and AGV manufacturers are anxious to partner with us. We have entered into formal agreements with several of them. My thought is, if we autonomously pick and palletize with a mobile unit and add it to automated warehouse systems (AWS), it is possible to fully automate door to door logistics. The labor issue plaguing the supply chain, including huge variations in seasonal demand and customer expectations for faster, cheaper delivery, will only make the problem worse. We are the solution.
A. We built the arm from the get-go as a proprietary battery powered system to work on mobile platforms. We expressly set it apart from large factory robot arms that are stationary and plugged into wall battery power systems. They require different design configurations and, as you can imagine, minimum power efficiency versus weight. We’ve been building arms for the government for about 15 years, giving us a decided advantage in mobile robot design and experience. We understood that customers in the private sector would prefer to move away from expensive fixed robot systems to mobile systems like ours, which enable them to economically leverage their investment in the AMR fleets they have today. What we’re producing for 2024 is actually our 10th generation version.
A. We built arms for the government for many years that could lift heavy objects such as artillery shells, which weigh about 105 pounds. These big mobile arms were our specialty. In contrast, most cobot arms came from university research programs and were weak by design.
A. A traditional factory arm, or one on a conveyor belt system in a warehouse, uses alternating current power from what’s called shore power, Basically, that means it’s tethered to a wall socket — usually a really big wall socket. In contrast, our arm is battery powered, enabling us to design around a very efficient weight to power ratio. We’re free — there’s nothing stopping us from moving.
A. No. Just the opposite. Our system can be phased in and does not require infrastructure changes. This is critical for existing plants running 24×7 – they can’t shut down for retooling. We can implement while the facility stays operational – critical to ‘brownfield’ locations. Plus, we think that since AI, computer vision and battery powered systems are advancing so quickly, the days of giant 5- and 10-year automation ‘greenfield’ builds could be over. Robot aisle picking using mobile robots offers flexibility that big, all or nothing automation programs lack.
A. To pick, place and create mixed case pallets literally in the aisle of the warehouse.
A. To pick and place material loaded into totes or bins, usually weighing 25-50 lbs., and move that tote or bin from one injection molding or CNC machine to the next. The benefit is not to just offset human labor. With a fixed stationary robot arm, you need basically one robot per injection molding machine that may produce 4-7 totes full of parts per hour. That is a costly approach. If the robot arm is mobile, on an AMR that can move from one injection molding machine to another, one mobile robot arm with heavy lift capacity can service a dozen or more injection molding machines. This likely reduces the cost of material handling robots by a factor of five, since one mobile robot arm can move to the work and thus be continuously utilized from the get-go. Mobility is about to fundamentally change the economics of large bin and tote handling in manufacturing settings.
A. Humanoid and other legged robots will have their place in delivering packages to doorsteps and into offices. They’ll be really good with irregular terrain like staircases. Their weakness is in lift capacity and power management. They simply aren’t electric power efficient relative to wheeled AMRs or big arms specialized for lifting tasks. Plus, they are three to five years out at a minimum. On a warehouse or manufacturing floor where the ground is level and the lifting repetitive and heavy, humanoids are at a big disadvantage. Our focus is on warehouses and factories where our wheeled structure and powerful, intelligent arm with mechanical and vacuum gripper systems have inherent advantages of power and function. Plus, we are releasing for fielding in 2024, years ahead of humanoid robots.