6 River Systems co-founder on the state of warehouse robots
Robots have conquered ProMat. The supply chain and logistics show is a kind of perfect microcosm of where the industry is heading. Many of the show’s main attractions have moved from center stage to the physical margins of the show floor, while competitors like 6 River Systems and Locus grab the spotlight — my interviews with both happened in conference areas located on the second floor of their massive booths.
Among other things, this proved an ideal setting for speaking with founders and executives of some of the space’s biggest players. Jerome Dubois ticks both of those boxes as the co-founder of 6 River Systems, and he now serves as VP of Shopify Logistics, following the e-commerce giant’s 2019 acquisition of the robotics firm.
We spoke about the role of Amazon in the company’s foundation and what the future looks like for robotic picking and interoperability.
TC: What is the 6 River story?
JD: I’ve been in the industry for 25 years. Got my start on the software side, so warehouse management systems — [at] a company called Yantra, which is now a part of IBM. I joined Kiva in 2008, was there through the acquisition. I was [Locus CEO Rick Faulk’s] predecessor and Bruce Welty was my customer. I’m the one who told Bruce that “we’re shutting your systems down.”
Small worlds inside of small worlds.
Yeah. But we have a ton of respect for that team. We’re the two leaders in this space, between Locus and us. Fetch is probably a distant third after that.
Both you and Fetch were acquired.
Yeah. We were acquired in 2019. Fetch was acquired [in 2021].
Why was that the right move? Had you considered IPO’ing or moving in a different direction?
In 2019, when we were raising money, we were doing well, we were going. But Spotify presents itself and says, “Hey, we’re interested in investing in the space. We want to build out a logistics network. We need technology like yours to make it happen. We’ve got the right team; you know about the space. Let’s see if this works out.” What we’ve been able to do is leverage a tremendous amount of investment from Shopify to grow the company. We were about 120 employees at 30 sites. We’re at 420 employees now and over 110 sites globally.
Amazon buys Kiva and cuts off third-party access to their robots. That must have been a discussion you had with Shopify.
Up front. “If that’s what the plan is, we’re not interested.” We had a strong positive trajectory; we had strong investors. Everyone was really bullish on it. That’s not what it’s been. It’s been the opposite. We’ve been run independently from Shopify. We continue to invest and grow the business.
From a business perspective, I understand Amazon’s decision to cut off access and give itself a leg up. What’s in it for Shopify if anyone can still deploy your robots?
Shopify’s mantra is very different from Amazon. I’m responsible for Shopify’s logistics. Shopify is the brand behind the brand, so they have a relationship with merchants and the customers. They want to own a relationship with the merchant. It’s about building the right tools and making it easier for the merchant to succeed. Supply chain is a huge issue for lots of merchants. To sell the first thing, they have to fulfill the first thing, so Shopify is making it easier for them to print off a shipping label. Now, if you’ve got to do 100 shipping letters a day, you’re not going to do that by yourself. You want us to fulfill it for you, and Shopify built out a fulfillment network using a lot of third parties, and our technology is the backbone of the warehouse.
Your technology was built for brownfield structures.
That’s correct. We can go in and just implement with the technology. We can go into existing customer warehouses without having to change anything. That allows for a very quick implementation timeframe. That’s one of the big advantages. We get to that double productivity in a matter of weeks, as opposed to having to wipe out a building and start fresh with a new system.
But if they want to go greenfield, you can start from scratch and actually build around the technology.
That’s right. Maybe 10% of our install base is greenfield.
Watching you — Locus or Fetch — you’re more or less maintaining a form factor. Obviously Amazon is diversifying. For many of these customers, I imagine the ideal robot is something that’s not only mobile and autonomous, but also actually does the picking itself. Is this something you’re exploring?
Most of the AMR (autonomous mobile robot) scene has gotten to a point where the hardware is commoditized. The robots are generally pretty reliable. Some are maybe higher quality than others, but what matters the most is the workflows that are being enacted by these robots. The big thing that’s differentiating Locus and us is, we actually come in with predefined workflows that do a specific kind of work. It’s not just a generic robot that comes in and does stuff. So you can integrate it into your workflow very quickly, because it knows you want to do a batch pick and sortation. It knows that you want to do discreet order picking. Those are all workflows that have been predefined and prefilled in the solution.
With respect to the solving of the grabbing and picking, I’ve been on the record for a long time saying it’s a really hard problem. I’m not sure picking in e-comm or out of the bin is the right place for that solution. If you think about the infrastructure that’s required to solve going into an aisle and grabbing a pink shirt versus a blue shirt in a dark aisle, using robots. It doesn’t work very well, currently. That’s why goods to person makes more sense in that environment. If you try to use arms, a Kiva-like solution or a shuttle-type solution, where the inventory is being brought to a station and the lighting is there, then I think arms are going to be effective there.
Are these the kinds of problems you invest R&D in?
Not the picking side. In the world of total addressable market — the industry as a whole, between Locus, us, Fetch and others — is at maybe 5% penetration. I think there’s plenty of opportunity for us to go and implement a lot of our technology in other places. I also think the logical expansion is around the case and pallet operations.
Interoperability is an interesting conversation. No one makes robots for every use case. If you want to get near full autonomous, you’re going to have a lot of different robots.
We are not going to be a fit for 100% of the picks in the building. For the 20% that we’re not doing, you still leverage all the goodness of our management consoles, our training and that kind of stuff, and you can extend out with [the mobile fulfillment application]. And it’s not just picking. It’s receiving, it’s put away and whatever else. It’s the first step for us, in terms of proving wall-to-wall capabilities.
What does interoperability look like beyond that?
We do system interoperability today. We interface with automation systems all the time, out in the field. That’s an important part of interoperability. We’re passing important messages on how big a box we need to build and in what sequence it needs to be built.
When you’re independent, you’re focused on getting to portability. Does that pressure change when you’re acquired by a Shopify?
I think the difference with Shopify is it allows us to think more long-term, in terms of doing what the right thing is, without having the pressure of investors. That was one of the benefits. We are delivering lots of longer-term software bets.