BlueBotics has been around for 20 years. And in that time, it has become one of the leading providers of navigation technology for warehouse robots such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots. In doing so, the company has become something of a fount of knowledge about the subject, and thought it would provide that knowledge as an online resource through its newly created website ANTdriven.com.
In this interview, conducted by Abdul Montaqim, Robotics and Automation News speaks to Matt Wade, head of marketing for BlueBotics, about the ANTdriven.com resource as well as wider issues relating to the entire warehouse automation sector.
This interview is available in video form on our YouTube channel, and is embedded below. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Abdul Montaqim: Hi Matt. Please introduce yourself to the audience and tell us what you do.
Matt Wade: Hi. My name is Matt Wade. I’m the head of marketing here at BlueBotics. So my job is to promote our autonomous navigation solutions. Our technology is called ANT. We work primarily with vehicle makers on developing new AGVs, AMRs, automated forklifts and so on.
AM: So I know reasonably well what BlueBotics is, and that it is mainly known for providing software and platforms for warehouse robots, but can you elaborate on the new ANTdriven.com website you are launching?
MW: Sure thing, yes. Our new project is separate to what we have done before. It is a new site called ANTdriven.com. What we’re talking more about on the website are the vehicles that this type of technology goes inside.
So we’re talking automated guided vehicles, automated forklifts, autonomous mobile robots, autonomous systems that are used in industry primarily.
And the the aim of this site is to provide education and training – a full guide and a learning journey – for anyone who is potentially interested in this type of vehicle technology.
That might be a warehouse manager, for example, or an automation manager in a larger manufacturing plant; somebody who’s tasked with improving efficiency, improving safety on site; and who is really looking to learn about this type of vehicle technology.
So on this site, we really try and move the visitor through that whole learning journey – from basic questions, like:
- how do AGVs work?
- how do they navigate?
- how does the safety work?
- how do fleets work?
- how can they work together?
It goes right the way through through different tools and explorations, like calculating return on investment or browsing different vehicles all the way through to the the final offer of the site, which is expert advice.
We have an expert logistics team behind all the information, so if anyone uses the website and they have questions and they think, for example, “Which type of vehicle could make sense for our application?”, at the end of the whole process, there’s basically the offer of a free consultation, where we can explore their application together and make some recommendations as to what type of automated vehicle could make sense.
AM: How long has BlueBotics been around?
MW: We celebrated our 20-year anniversary last year in 2021, so we were founded 2001, and the first commercial vehicle with ANT navigation inside went into operation in Italy in 2009. So we’re getting on over a decade of commercial installations and I think today the up-to-date number is around 3,500 vehicles across all our customer brands operating in industry around the world.
AM: So, you’ve been around for more than 20 years, which is about how long AGVs have been around. AMRs are newer, of course. The warehouse market has grown and diversified so much, even in the past two or three years. Tell us about the some of the things that you’ve observed in that time and how AGVs and AMRs themselves have changed.
MW: I think your historical analysis is spot on with my understanding. Three decades ago, AGVs were either running on rails or following. Then after that, following lines on the floor; and then more recently, you’ve had technologies like laser navigation; and what we do, which is natural navigation.
These machines were typically always autonomous, so they were designed to be automated from the ground up.
What you’ve seen in more recent years is more automated forklifts. For example, a manual driven forklift vehicle that the manufacturer has transformed into an automated version. We’re slowly starting to see more of those vehicles come to market.
AMRs are best served by a bit of definition, I think, because I talk to a lot of people who, in the past, may have easily got confused between AGVs and AMRs.
The way we categorize them on the ANTdriven.com site is that an AGV is basically an automated guided vehicle that’s designed and developed from the ground up to be all automated. It’s not hybrid. You can’t jump on as a driver and drive them around.
So that’s a fully automated vehicle.
The modern versions, like our customers’ versions, have things like natural navigation. For example, an automated forklift built on the base of an existing manual forklift.
So in a lot of cases those vehicles can be hybrid so they might work automatically all day. But if there’s an impromptu situation where somebody needs to jump on and go collect something that’s not programmed, they can do that as well.
AMRs, which are usually usually smaller systems, I think the American definition is basically that they have the ability to move around obstacles.
So your AGV will typically stop, (by) using its safety sensors, and you need your staff to move the blockage so it can carry on.
AMRs, meanwhile, have the ability to dynamically move around a blockage before they return to their existing path.
Just to explain where BlueBotics is positioned, our ANT navigation system is able to do both those things.
So we work with producers of AGVs and AMRs and automated forklifts, and the question of whether it has obstacle avoidance or not is really determined by the application.
In heavy industry, it’s often more intuitive not to have that, but for more smaller service robotics – maybe a cleaning robot – you’re looking to cover a surface and the path doesn’t so much matter, so, in that situation, obstacle avoidance can make more sense.
I think up to now, in terms of customers we’ve worked with, a lot of them have been AGV companies, a good number are on the smaller AMR side, and, as you might imagine, the bigger automated forklift trucks are a slower growing market for us.
The forklifts are usually with the slightly slower-moving bigger companies with big existing portfolios of manual vehicles. But we’re starting to see more and more of those now come to market. It’s a big growth opportunity for the future, but the growth trend might be slower than was the take-up of AGVs in the beginning.
AM: Am I right in thinking BlueBotics software is basically capable of fitting into any of these vehicles – AGVs, AMRs and automated forklifts? Are there vehicles where the system is proprietary and your software wouldn’t work or couldn’t be installed?
MW: Good question. Our core product is mainly software – controlling the vehicles and the fleet manager. But we do have a hardware component that slots inside.
Usually, when we work with vehicle makers, we work with them on new vehicle projects. This means we might work with a company like Toyota and help them develop the vehicle and integrate our tech into that.
Of course, there are competing navigation technologies, and there are producers of vehicles who work on their own navigation options. So, for sure, they’re not limited purely to our technology. But we typically work with them from the ground up.
We do have other types of customers, however, who retrofit existing vehicles. Meaning they might take one particular brand of forklift and take those manual models and then work as a third party to work with us and produce new automated models of those. So that’s something we see happening as well.
AM: Toyota are, of course, absolutely massive in every category of vehicle, including forklift trucks. But they’re mostly manual, human-driven ones. They must have tens of thousands of them out there. – converting them all into automated would give you a huge market. How many traditional, manual forklifts would you guess are out there in America, for example?
MW: Oh wow. I don’t have the figure exactly but tens of thousands for sure yeah.
I would say what I’ve learned about the forklift manufacturer space is that the core of their revenue is coming from manual trucks and those are usually being sold via local dealers, local distributors.
Selling and developing automated models and selling automated models is a different proposition in the sense that obviously they want to introduce these in a measured way so that they’re still maximizing revenue.
They’re not going to cannibalize the existing business, of course, but also the installation process of an automated forklift is very different to somebody just buying a new version of a manual forklift that their drivers probably have driven before or would be quick to learn.
Installing the automated vehicle would involve mapping the site, it’s about programming routes, it’s about testing and simulating different behaviors, like picking and dropping pallets and so on.
So, initially, that’s a more involved process and it needs some analysis from a forklift company’s point of view as to whether that’s the type of project that can be done by an existing manual truck dealer or whether a different type of partner is needed for that.
AM: What’s the market like been for BlueBotics? You are obviously involved with many companies in the AMR, AGV and forklift markets. And BlueBotics was either in partnership or got acquired by another company recently. Tell us about the business side of BlueBotics and give us numbers if you can.
MW: While I won’t be able to share revenue numbers, I would say since that first commercial deployment in 2009, the growth has been steady and incremental.
I would say we pushed into faster growth around 2018. Obviously, Covid was a challenge for everyone right through the supply chain, so we had a a challenging year there.
But then, at the end of last year, BlueBotics was acquired by Zapi Group, which is an Italy-based producer of components for electric vehicles – so, across-the-board motor drives, inverters, battery chargers, and over and above the AGV space, forklift trucks, golf buggies – a huge range of applications.
The Zapi Group of companies has a lot of the components for many categories of vehicles, especially electric vehicles. What was missing from Zapi’s portfolio was the software fleet management and autonomous navigation component.
So I think BlueBotics slots in nicely there and I think we really see this this integration within Zapi as having great potential for us to grow wider and faster in the future.
Their company is very well established. They have reach all over the world in terms of regional locations and so on, and great long-standing links with big vehicle makers. So we see that as being very positive and we expect to hopefully reap the benefits of that.
AM: I can see how Zapi could open up entirely new markets for BlueBotics. And it makes me wonder about the nexus between autonomous mobile robots in warehouses and autonomous vehicles out there in other spaces. What do you think of the possibility of technological and commercial convergence between autonomous robots in warehouses and autonomous vehicles on the roads or elsewhere?
MW: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t know how to answer it from a technical point of view.
What I would say is that Zapi Group has a spread of solutions that is offered across the group today and they are overlapping into that kind of outdoor commercial vehicle, on the road kind of space – so, in things like electric buses and so on.
From our side, what’s different today is that the navigation that goes inside the indoor commercial vehicles, like AGVs, tends to be things like natural navigation or laser triangulation, whereas passenger cars on the road is a very different type of technology.
I’m not educated enough to be able to explain to you why those are differently used technologies today, but definitely from an industrial point of view, and the applications where our customers are working today – manufacturing logistics those two being the big ones – definitely we see that within those applications, we see opportunity to look more into trying to work outdoors.
For example, our ANT navigation technology is installed in some very heavy shuttle AGVs which carry huge steel coils from one building to another, within an industrial estate.
These are technically working indoors, but within the perimeter of a private industrial site. They are moving loads between buildings. From storage to the processes of fabrication, for example.
Traditionally, for all the types of navigation you see in AGVs today, the outdoor piece has been very challenging. We’re working hard there and expect to be able to do more of that more efficiently in the future, so even just that part – staying on an industrial site, moving from one building to another – could be a huge expander of our business we think.
AM: Yes, outdoor vehicle autonomy is a very challenging space, technically, as far as I’ve heard. Lidar is one technology being used, but I don’t know enough about it to say what technologies may converge between indoor and outdoor autonomous vehicles. But I think the regulatory environment and other factors are making things happen and for things like long-distance trucks, I think it’s very important solutions are found.
MW: Yeah I think they could solve that. Autonomous vehicles going from roads into factories and warehouses, as well as hub-to-hub trucks, will become more important as finding human drivers becomes more difficult.
Equally, within the logistics environment, like forklift drivers, there’s a staff shortage there too.
The Material Handling Institute produce an annual report and it’s always one of the top challenges of organizations – finding people to drive and how to retain drivers.
And when we speak to end users, who are using our customers’ vehicles, that’s always one of the first reasons they give for why they are looking at AGVs or why they started using automated vehicles instead.
With automated or autonomous vehicles, obviously there’s not going to be that struggle to find somebody to drive them.
AM: Yes, the common perception is that robots will take over jobs, but the reality is that employers often find it impossible to hire and retain human workers for some jobs in the first place. How do you see BlueBotics developing and progressing over the next few years?
MW: Well, if we examine it from a market research point of view, we’re just really still at the beginning of a growth curving in manufacturing and logistics both for AGVs and for AMRs.
It will be a struggle for manufacturers of these vehicles this year in terms of supply chain because some components are few and far between, but we see that problem ending soon.
I think the indoor-outdoor segment will be important. That will help, but we’re predominantly a software company, so the the fleet aspect is really key.
In the early days of this latest generation of AGVs, it would be fairly standard for a smaller site to buy one or two and test those for a couple of years. Now, I think they will slowly think about expanding their fleet.
Also, I think there is more interest at a multinational level for companies who are thinking about automating all their warehouses across all their sites and trying to find that consistent tech platform across all of those. So we fully expect to see more advanced larger fleets.
From our side, our software for fleets – called ANT Server – can run lots of these different brands of a vehicle with ANT software inside.
We’re working on the development side to make sure that the functionality is as advanced and smooth as it possibly can be.
What that involves is, if you go to a single AGV maker today, you may find that they have five different models of vehicle. You could create a fleet using different versions of those but what we see is a more flexible future.
I mean, if you realize that you need an automated reach truck or an AGV to move trollies around, then if that manufacturer doesn’t have that particular model then what do you do? That’s the big question that I think end users often come across as they’re trying to expand.
What you want to avoid is having one fleet management system and virtual you know set of virtual paths around your site for the first brand of AGV and a whole new software set of virtual paths around your site for the second brand.
So in our case, we feel humbly that we’re a little step ahead or getting ahead of that situation, whereby if you look at the 90 or so different vehicles across brands that run on our navigation today, something like 40 of those can actually operate in what we call a multi-brand fleet.
So they can work using that one fleet management system to manage all those and one set of virtual paths but and obviously the benefit of that to the end user is that expands the breadth of the vehicles they could choose from to run on one site.
So that component there, which has been really important in the future, for future-proofing. And that’s what we’re working on with our customers; to expand and try to make sure our software keeps being robust but also bringing in new functions and as and when they’re needed to to make that run as smoothly as possible.
AM: You partner with quite a lot of manufacturers of these AGVs and AMRs. Do you find yourself doing integrations where you are using a wide variety of vehicles and technologies? Or do you find some commonalities between projects?
MW: It’s different for everyone, but it’s a great question. So typically, how it works is, we work with the vehicle maker, they develop their vehicle, they go to market with our vehicle, and if they sell that vehicle to an end customer, maybe a warehouse for example, it’s that vehicle maker who is integrating that vehicle on site and doing the installation and mapping and maintenance and so on.
What we start to see more is that third-party integrated piece, where we’re working with more and more organizations, where they’re working maybe on larger projects automating a full site and that let’s say master integrator is bringing technologies from different brands.
So obviously they could be choosing vehicle technologies that are produced by some of our customers, but we’re also building those direct links so that, number one, they’re aware of what our tech is and the vehicles that run on, how they work, but also to educate them on this multi-brand opportunity with a fleet that’s driven by ANT.
AM: What’s the competitive landscape like for BlueBotics at the moment and how has it developed over the last few years?
MW: I think in one aspect it’s similar to how it has been for a few years. And in another aspect, it’s quite new.
So, in terms of companies offering autonomous navigation that can work inside vehicles, I think we’re fairly similar to how we were over the last few years in that you have companies offering natural navigation solutions – we’re one of the main ones there; a couple of others offering different types of natural navigation that work slightly differently but still based on those positioning the vehicle in the space by having permanent references in the environment that have been that have been measured they’re still in the navigation side.
Some companies use systems based on laser triangulation and vehicles that work autonomously based on that.
On the newer side I would say you also have let’s say more vehicle agnostic fleet management solutions so so software companies basically heading in the same direction as what I’ve explained where we are today already with ANT in terms of being able to run a multi-brand fleet and so on.
What I would say there is that there are definitely some of those in Europe and some of those today are basing that approach on Germany’s standard called VDA 5050, which is designed to let lots of different vehicles work together.
But we are still two to five years behind on that standard. And it’s effectively trying to offer the same functionality that we’re offering today with ANT across different brands.
It’s still a standard that’s being developed it doesn’t effectively exist yet as a final standard but what we’re doing is making sure that our solutions are in line with that as well so that we cover that need today and we’re able to cover that globally in the future.