Berkshire Grey: The low down – with Pete Blair

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We were given an early Christmas present in 2018 when when we managed to get rare access to execs high up in Berkshire Grey. Here’s your share of the goodies we got from Pete Blair!

Can you give us a brief overview of Berkshire Grey?

Berkshire Grey was founded by Tom Wagner the former CTO of iRobot with a vision to bring impact through AI-enabled robotics to companies that serve connected consumers.  Tom looked at a lot of different markets and applications and really landed on retail and ecommerce supply chains.  We are basically applying Intelligent Robotic Solutions to the back rooms and distribution centers of retailers and logistics companies for picking, packing, sorting, and shipping goods.  Our solutions handle both direct-to-consumer eCommerce and pick-up-in-store orders as well as store replenishment orders for restocking store shelves.  We support all of the different modes of commerce embraced by today’s connected consumers.

Which verticals do you currently operate in and what areas are you planning to move into in future?

Our primary customers today are retailers. They’re typically Global 100 type enterprises running traditional retail stores as well as e-commerce. We also have customers in the logistics services industry.  Those are our primary customers along with pure play e-commerce companies. That is plenty for right now. These are huge markets that are ripe for disruption. Over time we’ll look at manufacturing, we’ll look at medical device distribution, we’ll look at other places where Intelligent Robotics handling things at an item level can deliver value.

In terms of your clients, can you please tell us a little bit more about the types of clients that you are working with?

Our typical client today is a large enterprise – very large retailers who are household names in the US and large logistics companies that support eCommerce.  you would recognize our customers’ names, their stores, and their multiple retail formats.

What is your geographic distribution? What are the next steps in going global?

Today all of our implementations are in the United States and we are engaged with others across North America. We will go to Canada, and potentially Latin America as well in the near future. Western Europe and Asia are both huge markets for eCommerce and automation of all types, so I would assume that we’ll be there as well. But for right now, we’re concentrating on North America.

So in effect you’re saying that North America hasn’t been saturated yet, so once that is activated then you’re going to go global direct?

I think global expansion is going to be more opportunistic based on our customers needs. Customers greatly impact where we focus both in terms of what we do for our next generation of products as well as to where we go geographically. So, if a customer wants to take us some place new we’ll probably go there sooner rather than later.

In terms of say, warehousing and distribution, those particular areas are often the most costly components for eCommerce businesses. With that in mind, how does Berkshire Grey deliver value for money to its clients?

At Berkshire Grey our focus is on intelligent robots that pick individual things for orders.  We do item level picking with industrial-grade robots then we surround that with other technology and infrastructure needed to ensure that our picking solutions can be implemented by our customers as part of their current environments.  We can plug into traditional conveyor-based automation. We can plug into manual operations. We can leverage our own mobile robots to transport goods and items.  And, we integrate with other automation systems such as Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) as well. We automate the entire pick pack, sort, and ship process for retailers.  That includes the goods and order movement that allows traditional retailers to embrace omni-channel by efficiently picking smaller and smaller orders. Order picking is incredibly labor intensive and expensive to do in a manual environment. Even traditional automation solutions for the most part are built to handle cases and pallets and things of that nature. Going down to each picking typically still involves a significant manual component. The heart of what we’re doing is robotic each picking surrounded by the mechanisms to complete real work for our customers.

Is it possible to retrofit your solutions to an existing warehouse as opposed to having to rebuild the whole warehouse?

Yes, our solutions can be phased in to an operation. Most of our customers are taking a slice of what we do, implementing that, and gaining value right away. Then they are phasing more in over time at existing locations.

You work with industries that handle FMC goods. This means that you must provide cleanliness and safety to a high standard. So, in an environment where reputation is very important, how will Berkshire Grey ensure that it can compete with more established players in the market?

Ultimately, because we’re picking at the each/item level it’s a little different than what you’re seeing from others.  What we thrive on and what we really excel at, is picking individual packaged items in unstructured environments – from totes, from belts, from carts, etc – to assemble orders.  Much of the existing material handling used to handle food for instance is set to handle very standard structured packaging over and over again in a rote manner. That’s not what we’re competing with.  We’re competing with what companies use downstream from that.  Berkshire Grey is what customers use when they need to put several items together into an outbound order. That’s really what we do. On multiple occasions we’ve run side by side comparisons of our technology with our customers’ existing solutions as well as against manual picking operations to analyze the quality and salability of the goods our solutions pick. This involved using our customers’ own quality standards for packaging and order quality. Customers conducted blind tests to compare the goods and orders handled by our systems versus those handled by their legacy processes. In all cases Berkshire Grey solutions have met or exceeded customer quality standards, and we typically exceed the quality results from picking orders manually.

I think probably what I would leave you with is this – what is really different about Berkshire Gray in terms of robotic solutions for logistics and supply chain in the retail distribution space is the holistic approach we take and our unmatched team which is committed to deliver complete, workable solutions for customers. There are plenty of technology companies who want to disrupt this industry, but most of those companies come at it from one specific angle or another. They come at the problems with just one or two components of a solution.  They concentrate on grippers or a new robot form factor or they hang everything on data analytics or data mining or whatever specific technology they are passionate about. At Berkshire Grey we have been focused from day 1 on solving our customers toughest challenges.  To do that you need a spectrum of technologies – hardware, software, vision systems, machine learning, gripping, sensors, and even engineered fixtures.  You need a holistic approach developed by a world-class team that is creative, pragmatic, and driven to make positive impacts for customers.