Friday, August 26, 2016
Interview with Lior Elazary, Invia Robotics
As e-commerce continues to grow, one part of that business, one area continues to be a very difficult area to scale efficiently--the labor intensive, back end warehouse, shipping, and fulfillment operation. Our interview this morning is with Lior Elazary, co-founder and CEO of Agoura-based Invia Robotics (www.inviarobotics.com), who tells us how the company is hoping to make automation and robotics available to even mid-sized e-commerce operators.
What does your robotics system do and how does it work?
Lior Elazary: What we have is a robotics system for the fulfillment industry. What that means, is we're able to take items from a shelf, and transport them to various locations in a warehouse. That allows our customers in e-commerce to be able to take a single item, or one or two from the shelf for delivery to customers. Robotics allows humans to go to the warehouse to concentrate on quality control and other aspects of the businesses.
Where did the technology come from?
Lior Elazary: We started at USC, working on various robotics related products. Most of them were DARPA related, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, working on autonomous cars and things like that. After USC, I wanted to do a startup robotics company, and looked at various parts of the market to figure out which are right for a robotics solution. The main market tha people think about with robotics is the home, but we quickly realized that it would take a $100,000 robot to do all of the things people want in a home, and it would be cost prohibitive. We also saw that even if a robot might be able to do 20 to 30 percent of what they needed in a house, they can probably hire a company to do the same thing for much less than that. So, from the cost perspective, even though the technology can get there, the cost is effectively not three yet. So we started looking at agriculture and other industries. We saw that with e-commerce and the way it's been growing, the biggest issue is with labor. It's constant, repetitive labor that most people just don't want to do. There's a real pain point for them, because what people don't realize, is that these companies are really a surrogate for you. Those people who don't want to spent a half hour to go pick up and item and bring it home, don't realize that when you add an item to your online shopping cart, there's someone in a warehouse who is picking that item off a shelf for you. So, as society has gone to e-commerce, those e-commerce providers actually have a hard time scaling. What we have developed, is a robot who is cable of doing that work, which enables most of our customers to grow their businesses faster and fulfill more orders.
What's the biggest challenge in providing robots to do that kind of work?
Lior Elazary: The biggest challenge is cost effectiveness. We have many artificial intelligence software algorithms we had to develop, but there have been other automation solutions that have been able to do similar things. The problem, is you had to spend millions on those solutions, and they can only do two or three items. Plus, deployment was a very big amount, and you had to revamp your warehouse to handle those solutions. So, we started with a simple robotic platform, and developed software to make up for the lack of precision hardware. That development came mostly in the areas of perception and visual algorithms, coordination between robots, and artificial intelligence algorithms not just for coordination and localization but also to realize when a robot has failed. That can be a big problem. A robot not only has to realize it has failed, it has to ask someone to fix it, and not just stand there. So we developed our core technology around that. We recently started a robotics operation center, that lets us know if there is an issue, and reports back to us to let us fix things remotely and move forward. That really allows our customers to basically not have to worry about the robots at all, and just know that they are working. They really don't see any of the issues.
I understand you provide those robots on a subscription plan?
Lior Elazary: Early on, what we wanted to do was create a solution, which would be something cost effective, and allow our customers to grow with their business. So we really looked at doing this as robotics-as-a-service. If you imagine, in the past, if someone wanted to go purchase a 100 robots, their business now is beginning to look like a robotics company. They had to hire engineers, people to build their workflow, and to do all of the programming of those robots. We've taken that all away, and let them concentrate on what they do best, their business. It's Robotics-as-a-Service, where they pay us per-pick, and we negotiate a price per pick, which is usually around 10 cents a pick, and they provide a minimum commitment of picks which they will utilize the robot for. As a result, we can create a system that is able to produce the throughput that they need. If they do 10,000 picks a day, we create a system that will do 10,000 a day, and they don't have to worry about the robot. We allocate 10 percent more robots so that is something fails, their throughput doesn't suffer, and if the robot does fail, it reports back to our robotics operation center, and we ship them another robot, and they send back the old one for us to fix.
So where are you now in deployment?
Lior Elazary: There are a few deployments we have gone through that are now live, although a few are under the radar. One that we have done, and published a case study on, is a live deployment picking up thousand of live items for LD Products. Most likely if you've ordered an inkjet cartridge in the last few months, it was delivered by our robots. They're very happy with our robots. They are growing their facility to include 20 to 30 robots by the end of the year, and they're also looking to build another facility and launching there with our product too. In the past, it would take you more than two years to set up a warehouse with something like this.
Finally, what's next for you?
Lior Elazary: Right now, our funding has been private, from a seed round. There are lots of talented people here, and we're now looking to raise a Series A round to really grow this to its fullest potential.