Melonee Wise, CEO and co-founder of Fetch Robotics, the five-year-old automation-as-a-service startup, describes herself as a “robotics pessimist,” which alone sets her apart in a high tech culture where hype is rampant.
One reason for the level-headed approach may be because Wise is not a marketer but a technologist who knows exactly what robots can, and cannot, do in their current state of development. She holds bachelor's degrees in mechanical and physics engineering and a master's degree in mechanical engineering, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The blunt-talking Wise, named as one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 in 2018 founded Fetch Robotics in 2014. She brought with her extensive experience in the growth of the open source Robot Operating System from leading a team of engineers developing next-generation robot hardware at the influential research and development center Willow Garage, including the PR2, and TurtleBot. She is clear-eyed about the difficulty of “building real robots in the real world doing real work:
The time scale for robotics companies is in decades. We’re moving extremely fast compared to all of the other robot companies that have been successful. Adept was more than 20 years old when it was acquired. Kiva was almost a decade old when it was acquired. We’re already achieving that with Fetch, but to be very successful, it’s going to take a while to engage and start showing the kind of success people would look for if they were to compare us to an app company.
From manufacturing to delivering products to a customer's doorstep, the demand for more efficiency is fierce. For now, Fetch Robotics is focusing on warehouses and e-commerce fulfillment centers, which are plagued by high turnover, injuries, employee theft, and a chronic shortage of workers. Said Wise:
There’s not very many people that want to do these warehousing jobs. In fact, in the United States, there’s 600,000 jobs that are not being filled and there’s not a lot of young people that want to do the jobs, and the people who are doing the jobs are getting older. And so, the challenge that a lot of our customers have is they can’t fill these jobs, and they still need to increase the efficiency of their operations to meet the increased demand that they’re seeing. So, they need robotic automation.
The Fetch Robotics system is comprised of a mobile base called Freight and an advanced mobile manipulator called Fetch. Fetch and Freight use a charging dock for autonomous continuous operations, allowing the robots to charge when needed and then continue on with their tasks. Freight carries up to 110 pounds on a rolling base that can autonomously follow a human being around. Fetch has a single arm that can pick items off a shelf and drop them onto Freight, which could make the human part redundant.
Fetch’s autonomous, mobile robots take most of the human grunt work out of warehouse jobs by making it easier to find, track, and move items. For example, its CartConnect robots autonomously pick up and drop off FetchCarts to any location within a facility. Workers can use any web-enabled device to request a pick-up and select a drop-off location. The nearest CartConnect robot will automatically go to the pick-up area, dock with the loaded FetchCart, take it to the selected drop-off area, and automatically detach from the cart.
Its fully configurable and customizable shelving system, HMIShelf, provides transport of a wide range of bins, totes and packages in virtually any facility. RollerTop robots autonomously pilot their way to conveyor ends and or robot ends to load and unload totes and bins. Two sizes of Automated Pallet Transport robots carry large and heavy payloads autonomously throughout the facility larger payloads to their destination.
Multiple sensors ensure CartConnect safely and efficiently navigates between locations, and is able to work safely alongside people, forklifts, and other material handling equipment.
In July, Fetch raised $46 million in venture capital, bringing its total funding to $94 million. This year, it also landed a major new client, Universal Logistics, which uses Fetch-designed robots to move car parts around the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, the largest auto factory in North America. The fast-growing company has several hundred robots deployed in 19 countries.
The Fetch Cloud Robotics Platform claims to be the current market’s only cloud-driven Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) solution that addresses material handling and data collection for warehousing and intralogistics environments. Cloud robotics is revolutionizing automation by bringing the kind of speed, agility and cost advantages that cloud computing brought to IT. Said Wise
We’re one of the only companies that have all of our systems supported in the cloud. You don’t have to install infrastructure. You don’t have to install stickers or QR codes. You don’t have to install IT equipment or dedicated Wi-Fi. You don’t need WMS integration to get started, but can certainly add in later once you have proven value out of your workflows.
You can just unbox the robot, connect it to your internal Wi-Fi, and the robot will start working on day one.
Fetch Robotics has quickly become a darling in the relatively new robotics as a service (RaaS) industry that make robot deployments a fast, cost-effective, less risky and scalable way to adopt robotics and automated technologies in warehouses without the large capital investments and expertise required to build those capabilities in-house.
Its customers get the benefits of robotic process automation by leasing robotic devices and accessing a cloud-based subscription service rather than purchasing the equipment outright. Smaller companies can avoid all the headaches of ownership, such as paying off an expensive piece of equipment plus handling maintenance issues that spring up, are avoided with RaaS.a cost-effective, less risky and scalable way to adopt robotics in warehouses with no additional infrastructure requirements and little training.
ABI Research estimates there will be more than 1.3 million RaaS deployments worldwide by 2026 with the largest installations in logistics, manufacturing and hospitality. RaaS revenues and deployments are rapidly eclipsing those from robot purchases, as end users discover more value in securing robotic solutions rather than just equipment, according to ABI.
Melonee Wise is well-positioned to become one of Silicon Valley’s most successful female CEOs and her reputation for outspokenness is well-earned. At a conference last year she was asked why there weren’t more women in engineering and tech generally. Her response was instructive:
Women tend to leave engineering because they don’t want to deal with assholes. Actually, at Fetch Robotics, we have a strong no-asshole policy because engineering douchebaggery is actually the biggest thing to hurt engineering since the dawn of time, and this isn’t just particular to women who leave the field, it’s actually particular to all people who have no tolerance for working with assholes and douchebags.
I, for one, am not betting against her.