At InOrbit we’re always interested in the journey of robotics start-ups. We celebrate the success of our Ecosystem partners and others who are building the foundation of what will be the future of automation. Our vision of a world where humans, robots and AI work together to drive radical productivity improvements and enable people to reach new heights cannot be built alone. While we believe we can play our part as a catalyst for change, including the adoption of RobOps @ scale, others are working tirelessly to develop emerging spaces for robotics. As we explored in our recent Retail whitepaper this sector has been heating up significantly. One company poised to make an impact is Coalescent Mobile Robotics. A Danish start-up founded in 2018, their CEO Clionadh Martin recently sat down to explore the future of retail robotics with InOrbit CEO, and Robot Operations Group co-founder Florian Pestoni in the latest RobOps Masters Interview series.
The journey for Coalescent has been an interesting one. They are taking technologies becoming commonplace in warehouses and realizing them as a front-of-house retail restocking solution. Some interesting insights were shared in the conversation, and while we recommend checking out the complete interview here are a few of our key takeaways.
For some context, Coalescent makes Serena, an in-store transportation solution designed specifically for grocery stores. As a collaborative robot, Serena is designed to work alongside humans to create a more productive and effective working environment. Noted use cases for the autonomous trolley include Click & Collect, Restocking, and more. Some of the significant benefits of automating transportation of in-store goods in this context are alleviating the all too persistent retail labor concerns and providing further cost savings.
Bringing an AMR, even a nimble one like Serena, to the front of a grocery store is challenging in many ways. There’s the ever-present concern about customer safety, considerations around working effectively with store staff, and all of the expected hardware and operations management necessary for a robot pilot. While there has been varied success with inventory scanning robots in grocery stores, Serena is more akin to an automated pallet mover than a shelf scanner, and moving groceries is a considerably different task than rolling up and down the aisles. Clio explained that challenging parameters, and constraints helped Coalescent.
AMRs are built generally to target all industries. It’s a broad and flexible category of robots, so while applying certain boundaries or constraints may seem antithetical, operating within them really helped focus Coalescent’s development. Rather than develop broadly for all retail applications they built their solution specifically for the unique nature of grocery stores.
“We went after supermarkets from the very beginning, and we work very closely with them so we know their workflow, and how they work, and what paths they take to do different things. And so we’re able to approach delivering, and localization, and a navigation system (in a way) that is more constrained than the average AMR that’s out there (allowing us) to offer flexibility but also more robustness in localization.”
Finding a customer to partner intimately with early on has also been a boon to Coalescent. Many start-ups are customer-centric as limited resources often demand development to solve particular customer concerns. Developing the Serena AMR in a particular space, with the understanding that it is a translatable, practical and real-world environment rather than a development lab has allowed for faster, more directed work and feedback from human collaborators in the grocery store.
For Coalescent an open relationship with their customer is the most important thing. Aside from operational metrics, they define their success by truly filling the needs of their customer. In this case, that means managing the labor gap the grocery store is feeling. That shortage is now being felt across industries but quite significantly in the retail sector where it is limiting growth, so automation can play a key role in the solution.
As for the more tangible metrics of success, Clio shared that for a start-up even with limited customers, it can be a challenge. “In an organization like a supermarket chain” she explained, “...you need to make multiple people happy. And those multiple people have different metrics in their head…. It’s complicated.”
While Coalescent may be on a path to success they have yet to tackle the issue of scaling beyond an extended pilot. Their focus is firmly on robustness and safety for now, and added flexibility to come. As with many in nascent automation spaces, Coalescent is looking at an as yet under-developed support infrastructure for automation across retail. Scaled robot operations are of course a pain point that at InOrbit we’ve seen again and again. While a hands-on approach to 10, 20, or 50 robots in the field may be manageable there is a breaking point where stronger robot operations or RobOps are necessary.
This is also where ROG’s mission to promote strong RobOps can help. The ROG Manifesto frames the challenges of scaling a robot deployment as informed by those robot’s failures. At InOrbit we’ve also explored this concept, as it underlines the importance of what we call the Four Os: Observability, Operation, Optimization, and Orchestration. Understanding the lifecycle of failure can be a key to unlocking the potential for effective robot operations.
As for Coalescent, Clionadh teased some exciting news coming soon and advised other robotics start-ups to be confident in their vision, avoid buckling to peer pressure, and learn to be happy while being uncomfortable. In fact, she added, “The more uncomfortable you are, the further you will go.”
As a start-up ourselves we appreciate the pressures Coalescent feels, and the need to face challenges openly. We’re excited to see innovative companies like Coalescent pushing the industry forward. Retail automation is moving quicker than ever. We can’t wait to see where it will go next.
If you haven’t explored the Robot Operations Group’s RobOps Masters Interview series yet, now is the time. There are lots of fascinating conversations with developers and creators from across the automation space, with valuable insights to share.InOrbit is proud to support ROG in its efforts to promote smarter robot operations.
If you’d like to learn more about the future of retail robots, InOrbit will be hosting a webinar diving further into the topic on April 6th, with special guest speakers Martin Hitch, CEO at Coros Corp, and Thaddeus Segura, Diof Prorector duct for NextGen Inventory Management at Walmart. Registration is free and we certainly hope to see you there.