Six Rivers Systems specializes in robots that operate in fulfillment centers. The Waltham, Mass.-based robot manufacturer launched its first robot in 2016 with software designed for picking, but sees returns as a growing market further down the road.

“We see a lot more opportunity and demand coming to us from [returns] as we go forward,” said Fergal Glynn, 6 Rivers vice president of marketing.

Six Rivers makes what are known as collaborative robots, or cobots. A small, but fast-growing field in industrial robotics, cobots are basically a partnership between humans and machines. As currently configured, 6 Rivers robots, called Chucks, are robotic pick carts. They lead workers through fulfillment centers, determining orders and picking routes and logging and verifying goods once picked. Once orders are completed, the robots carry the goods to shipping.

The 6 Rivers cobots rely in part on the same technology used in self-driving vehicles. Six Rivers buys advanced sensors from off-the-shelf manufacturers, but its machine learning better enables Chucks to maneuver a warehouse without bumping into people or objects.

Unlike Amazon Robotics’ in-house robots, cobots such as Chuck aren’t meant to buzz around giant warehouses in large packs, autonomously picking and bring goods to workers. Nor are they designed to replace workers. Cobots are more applicable for smaller distribution centers, or the more discrete operations of larger facilities. Six Rivers robots now inhabit warehouses as small as 60,000 square feet. A Chuck costs about $40,000. One facility has just eight robots, while the largest deployment to date at 65. Customers can either buy or rent the cobots.

6 Rivers robots, called Chucks, are robotic pick carts.
6 Rivers robots, called Chucks, are robotic pick carts.

“As a business we believe the most demand is going to be from the mid-market, those companies with say $100 to $500 million in revenue and they’re the companies who just haven’t been well served by the incumbent hardware manufacturers and also software manufacturers,” said Glynn. “Their alternative would be spending millions of dollars on a piece of hardware or a piece of software. Now with 6 River Systems we can provide the same type of productivity gains but for costs that are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

It’s the software that makes a difference and 6 Rivers plans to continue developing packages that enable its cobots to take on additional tasks. Last year, for example, 6 Rivers released a software package that targets replenishment, whether individual items or full cases. Only a “handful” of customers have opted for that feature so far, said Glynn. As more add this capability, 6 Rivers believes it can better tackle that aspect of warehousing, which includes returns.

“You really need to get more experiences, more at bats, to really build out what a fully mature replenishment capability is,” said Glynn. “So that’s why we know as more customers talk to us about how they want to, for example, handle returns, we will learn more about what’s needed in an operation, and then we will continuously add to that capability.”

Glynn doesn’t envision that 6 Rivers robots will be able to determine the quality of a returned good. “We’re focused on the problem of getting stuff into the warehouse and getting stuff out of the warehouse, around the transport and picking, but not scanning a good to understand its quality,” he said.

The entire cobot marketplace globally totaled only about $600 million, according to two research studies, Markets and Markets and Interact Analysis. That represents less than 4% of the industrial robots market, which topped $16.2 billion in 2017, according to the International Federation of Robots. However, Markets and Markets pegs cobot growth rate at 50% annually, while Interact Analysis forecasts the cobot marketplace will total $7.6 billion by 2027, equal to 30% of total industrial robots sales. By far, the biggest cobot manufacturer is Universal Robots, now a division of Teradyne, which commands about half the marketplace.

Robots manufacturers are benefiting from steep drops in costs of everything from sensors to cloud-based computer power. They’re gaining as well from open source software to all the R&D that’s going into self-driving vehicles, which have applicability to other kinds of robots as well.

“Now is the perfect time to set up a company like ours where we’re getting to benefit from the advances that have been made,” said Glynn.