By Eric Peterson | Jan 10, 2022
Warehouse automation solutions
Rongley pivoted from warehouse software to automation with Prime Robotics. "Prime spun out of a previous company of mine," he says. "I used to have a software outsourcing company based out of China. Much like an Indian company, we had 1,000 people in Shanghai and 200 people in a city called Chengdu."
It follows that he looked to pivot that company -- Bleum -- in the face of a changing economy and politics in China. "We had a strength in supply-chain software," says Rongley. "We saw that robotics was going to be revolutionary for the warehouse industry. Being a technology company, we saw that there was going to be a neat opportunity to combine robotics with scale."
Prime Robotics' hardware replaces pickers and forklifts with the MobileShelf and MobilePallet, and offers software that integrates the robots into a seamless system.
"Coming from a software background and making software for warehouses, we've designed our software from that point of view," says Rongley. "I have a lot of things in the warehouse I'd like to be able to use my robot for, and I'd like to patch these things together and create a material flow, not just optimize one single action of picking. So we've got a software stack that lets us multi-purpose the robots."
Targeting warehouses and manufacturing facilities, Prime Robotics sells its robots and can offer leased units to existing customers. First deployed in late 2020, the MobilePallet is a "heavy-lifting robot" with enough strength for two full pallets. "That's 4,400 pounds of lifting capability," says Rongley. "Then we've got the regular workhorse, which is a 1,100-kilogram, or 500-pound, shelf mover that's like what you would see with other goods-to-person robots."
Customers of Prime Robotics can see major improvements in workflow. "That's a proven 8X to 10X productivity boost," says Rongley. "A facility that had 100 people picking before now would need 10 to 15."
The company's robots are in use at two sites in the U.S. and Europe. "We now have several contracts we're working on to deploy at many more sites in the coming months," says Rongley.
A pair of conveyor-top robots are set to round out the line in 2022 and allow for an automated system. "Now we're able to start scaling the business and take larger and more complex clients, just by virtue of the way we designed the software," says Rongley. "We're following that strategy of not having a single-function robot, but having a holistic view of: How do I automate an entire flow in a facility?"
As the pallets move to pickers, a final product -- an arm from a yet-to-be-determined OEM -- will help complement the others in a broader system. "You can't just put an arm in the middle of chaos and expect it to figure everything out," says Rongley. "The software is really detailed to what you're doing with pallets. . . . We'll take existing technology, but because we're controlling other bits of it, we can make that thing be a useful gear in a whole machine."
At first, the plan was to employ an OEM model with manufacturing in China, but supply chain problems worsened with COVID-19. For that reason, Rongley proceeded to build Denver-based engineering and production teams in 2020. "We're manufacturing in our facility in China and in our facility in Denver," says Rongley.
Now with 10 employees in Denver and 40 in China, the company is "passing the survival stage of the company and starting to grow like crazy," says Rongley. "We'll be building up the U.S. site a lot over the next year."
Challenges: Rongley points to the supply chain. The cost of a container for me has gone up for me from $2,500 last year to $28,000 -- 10X!" he says. "Prototyping process that used to take two weeks now take 50, 60 days. Delivery times for things have doubled and tripled."
He sees relief by manufacturing in Denver "We hope to build up the supply chain as we start scaling up in-house, like building the racks. It's ironic: We're a robotics company, but half the cost of a system we deploy is the racks that we move around, because there are so many racks and they're made of steel, and steel has just gotten so expensive over the last year, like everything else."
Opportunities: The global market for warehouse automation, estimated at about $5 billion now, is forecast to surpass $25 billion by 2025. "The demand is there," says Rongley. "The savings for a customer is so obvious that everyone has to do it."
For Prime Robotics, "We're just in the bend at the hockey stick right now," he adds. The forecast calls for installations at about 10 sites in 2022 and 100 in 2023.
Needs: "Quality U.S. suppliers," says Rongley, citing needs for sensors, steel, machining, and additive manufacturing. "We want to build up the supply chain and build up the engineering team here in Denver. We're also going to grow the team in China."
He adds, "Ultimately, we look to be doing all of the manufacturing for North American customers from here. I suspect when we start doing European customers, we might do that out of China."