Fetch is best known for its autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for warehouses and boasts “the largest portfolio of AMRs in the industry,” and we’re particular fans of its one-armed mobile manipulator for research. Zebra, meanwhile, does stuff with barcodes (get it?), and has been actively investing in robotics companies with a goal of increasing its footprint in the intelligent industrial automation space.
According to the press release, the acquisition “will provide an innovative offering that drives greater efficiencies and higher ROI through better orchestration of technology and people.” We have no idea what that means, but fortunately, we’ve been able to speak with both Fetch and Zebra for details about the deal.
Fetch Robotics’ $305 million purchase price includes $290 million in cash to snap up the 95% of Fetch that Zebra doesn’t already own—Zebra had already invested in Fetch through Zebra Ventures, which also has Locus Robotics and Plus One robotics in its portfolio. There are still some “customary closing conditions” and regulatory approvals that need to happen, so everything isn’t expected to get wrapped up for another month or so. And when it does, it will in some ways mark the end of a robotics story that we’ve been following for the better part of a decade.
Fetch Robotics was founded in early 2015 by the same team of robot experts who had founded Unbounded Robotics just two years before. The founders all worked at Willow Garage, and Unbounded was a mobile manipulation-focused spin-off of Willow that didn’t pan out for reasons that are still not super clear. But in any case, Fetch was a fresh start that allowed them to fully develop their concept for an intelligent, robust, and efficient autonomous mobile robotic system.
Most of what Fetch Robotics does is warehouse logistics—moving stuff from one place to another so that humans don’t have to. Their autonomous mobile robots work outside of warehouses as well, most recently by providing disinfection services for places like airports. There are plenty of other companies in the larger AMR space, but from what we understand, what Fetch has been doing for the last five years has been consistently state of the art.
This is why Fetch makes sense as an acquisition target, I think: they’ve got exceptional technology in an area (fulfillment, mostly) that has been undergoing a huge amount of growth and where robotics has an enormous opportunity. But what about Zebra Technologies? As far as I can make out, Zebra is one of those companies that you’ve probably never heard of but is actually enormous and everywhere. According to Fortune, as of 2020 they were the 581st biggest company in the world (just behind Levi Strauss) with a market value of $25 billion. While Zebra was founded in 1969, the Zebra-ness didn’t come into play until the early 1980s when they started making barcode printers and scanners. They got into RFID in the early 2000s, and then acquired Motorola’s enterprise unit in 2014, giving Zebra a huge mobile technology portfolio.
To find out where robots fit into all of this, and to learn more about what this means for Fetch, we spoke with Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch, and Jim Lawton, Vice President and General Manager of Robotics Automation at Zebra.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell us about Zebra’s background and interest in robotics?
Jim Lawton: Zebra is a combination of companies that have come together over time. Historically, we were a printing company that made barcode labels, and then we acquired a mobile computing business from Motorola, and today we have a variety of devices that do sensing, analyzing, and acting—we’ve been getting increasingly involved in automation in general.
A lot of our major customers are retailers, warehousing, transportation and logistics, or healthcare, and what we’ve heard a lot lately is that there is an increased pressure towards trying to figure out how to run a supply chain efficiently. Workflows have gotten much more complicated and many of our customers don't feel like they're particularly well equipped to sort through those challenges. They understand that there's an opportunity to do something significant with robots, but what does that look like? What are the right strategies? And they're asking us for help.
There are lots of AMR companies out there doing things that superficially seem similar, but what do you feel is special about Fetch?
Jim Lawton: I was at Universal Robots for a while, and at Rethink Robotics for a number of years, and designing and building robots and bringing them to market is really, really hard. The only way to pull it off is with an amazing team, and Melonee has done an extraordinarily outstanding job, pulling together a world class robotics team.
We had invested in Fetch Robotics a couple of years ago, so we've been working pretty closely together already. We invest in companies in part so that we can educate ourselves, but it's also an opportunity to see whether we’re a good fit with each other. Zebra is a technology and engineering oriented company, and Fetch is as well. With the best team, and the best robots, we just think there’s an outstanding opportunity that we haven’t necessarily found with other AMR companies.
What about for Fetch? Why is Zebra a good fit?
Melonee Wise: Over the last couple of years we have been slowly expanding the devices that we want to connect to, and the software ecosystems that we want to connect to, and Zebra has provided a lot of that synergy. We're constantly asked, can we get a robot to do something if we scan a barcode, or can we press a button on a tablet, and have a robot appear, things like that. Being able to deliver these kinds of end to end, fully encapsulated solutions that go beyond the robots and really solve the problems that customers are looking to solve—Zebra helps us do that.
And there's also an opportunity for us as a robotics startup to partner with a larger company to help us scale much more rapidly. That’s the other thing that’s really exciting for us—Zebra has a very strong business in warehousing and logistics. They’re an industry leader, and I think they can really help us get to the next level as a company.
Does that represent a transition for AMRs from just moving things from one place to another to integrating with all kinds of other warehouse systems?
Melonee Wise: For a decade or more, people have been talking about Industry 4.0 and how it's going to change the world and revolutionize manufacturing, but as a community we’ve struggled to execute on that goal for lots of reasons. We've had what people might call islands of automation: siloed pieces of automation that are doing their thing by themselves. But if they have to talk to each other, that's a bridge too far.
But in many ways automation technology is now getting mature enough through the things that we’ve seen in software for a long time, like APIs, interconnected services, and cloud platforms. Zebra has been working on that independently for a long time as part of their business, and so bringing our two businesses together to build these bridges between islands of automation is why it made sense for us to come together at this point in time.
If you go back far enough, Fetch has its origins in Willow Garage and ROS, and I know that Fetch still makes substantial software contributions back to the ROS community. Is that something you’ll be able to continue?
Melonee Wise: Our participation in the open source community is still very important, and I think it’s going to continue to be important. A lot of robotics is really about getting great talent, and open source is one way that we connect to that talent and participate in the larger ecosystem and draw value from it. There are also lots of great tools out there in the open source community that Fetch uses and contributes to. And I think those types of projects that are not core to our IP but give us value will definitely be things that we continue to participate in.
What will happen to the Fetch mobile manipulator that I know a lot of labs are currently using for research?
Melonee Wise: We're committed to continuing to support our existing customers and I think that there’s still a place for the research product going forward.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for AMRs right now?
Melonee Wise: One thing that I think is happening in the industry is that the safety standards are now coming into play. In December of last year the first official autonomous mobile robot safety standards were released, and not everyone was ready for that, but Fetch has been at the front of this for a long time. It took about four years to develop the AMR safety standard, and getting to an understanding of what safe actually means and how you implement those safety measures. It’s common for safety standards to lag behind technology, but customers have been asking more and more, “well how do I know that your robots are safe?” And so I think what we're going to see is that these safety standards are going to have differing effects on different companies, based on how thoughtful they've been about safety through the design and implementation of their technology,
What have you learned, or what has surprised you about your industry now that we’re a year and a half into the pandemic?
Melonee Wise: One of the more interesting things to me was that it was amazing how quickly the resistance to the cloud goes away when you have to deploy things remotely during a pandemic. Originally customers weren't that excited about the cloud and wanted to do everything on site, but once the pandemic hit they switched their point of view on the technology pretty quickly, which was nice to see.
Jim Lawton: The amount of interest that we've seen in robots and automation in general has skyrocketed over the last year. In particular we’re hearing from companies that are not well equipped to deal with their automation needs, and the pandemic has just made it so much more clear to them that they have to do something. I think we're going to see a renaissance within some of these spaces because of their investment in robotic technologies.