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European robot upheaval as French developer raises $90m

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty


Exotec supplies its 3D Skypod robotics system to retailers including Carrefour in France, and had previously raised $21m since starting in 2015 . The $90m backing from 83North and Dell Technologies will be used to boost production to 4,000 robots per year by 2021.

The company competes with the Tharsus Group in the UK and AutoStore in Norway. Autostore is suing Tharsus and its supermarket partner Ocado for patent infringement on the robot technology. AutoStore is asking the US International Trade Commission for an exclusion order preventing the importation of Ocado’s infringing products into the United States, and an injunction barring the manufacture, sale, and use of Ocado’s infringing products in the UK. The case also cites Printed Motor Works in Hampshire, UK as an Ocado supplier.

“Since 1996, AutoStore has developed and pioneered technology that has revolutionized retail storage and order fulfillment, and is driving the growth of online retail,” said Karl Johan Lier, CEO and President of AutoStore. “Our ownership of the technology at the heart of Ocado’s warehousing system is clear. We will not tolerate Ocado’s continued infringement of our intellectual property rights in its effort to boost its growth and attempt to transform itself into a global technology company.”

The market for warehouse robotics is predicted to grow 45 per cent  a year (CAGR) while the global automation market’s CAGR is also constantly growing by 10 to 15 per cent.

Exotec’s Skypod autonomous robot system quadruples warehouse productivity and increases the storage capacity by 5x by using a three-dimensional pattern at a speed of 4m/s.

“There is a global need for robotics solutions in warehouses, but logisticians are often concerned about investing in traditional fixed automation in this fast-changing world. This $50bn market should be supplied with flexible and efficient solutions to fulfill customers’ needs and new shopping timelines. We offer a new generation of warehouse robotics and have the largest deployed and operational systems across three continents,” said Romain Moulin, Co-founder and CEO of Exotec.

Exotec revenue doubled in 2020 as several new international clients, including Carrefour and Fast Retailing, part of the Uniqlo group in Japan, adopted their technology in key warehouses. In North America, Exotec has signed partnerships with highly experienced American integrators such as AHS, S&H Systems and Conveyco and is currently hiring staff.

“Brands and retailers are seeing tremendous surge in e-commerce, accelerated by the current pandemic. They must now transform their supply chain to gain competitive advantage. Exotec is addressing this challenge and is the leading player in scalable robotics systems,” said Rudi Lueg, Managing Director of North America at Exotec.

The deal with Fast Retailing sees over 1000 Skypods deployed in two warehouses in Japan.

“83North has invested in many teams and companies enabling the future of e-commerce. In our opinion, Exotec is one of those special companies, where the founders’ backgrounds, company culture, outstanding technology, delighted customers and a rapidly changing market make it a very unique investment,” said Laurel Bowden, Partner at 83North.

Scott Darling, President of Dell Technologies Capital, added: “Exotec is revolutionizing the adoption of robotics through its innovative and unique technology. Having relied heavily on world-class R&D skills aligned with solid industrial processes, Exotec is at the forefront of this burgeoning market and clearly the leader in the field.”

In the AutoStore system, storage bins are stacked vertically in a grid and stored in a cubic structure, with the bins retrieved by robots that travel on the top of the structure. AutoStore currently supports more than 500 installations and 18,000 robots across 30 countries, serving markets from grocery and healthcare to aviation for customers including distributor Avnet, Texas Instruments in Singapore, UK supermarket ASDA, Best Buy in the US and Lufthansa in Germany.

Ocado too was an AutoStore customer, having first purchased AutoStore technology in 2012, and it is this deal that AutoStore cites as the infringement of the intellectual property. A court in Norway has already found that AutoStore is entitled to ownership of its patents covering the robots’ central technology.

www.exotec.com; www.autostore.com

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