Two leaders within industrial environments are joining forces as Zebra Technologies announced its intention to acquire Fetch Robotics.
Fetch has made a name for itself building autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) used for optimized picking in fulfillment centers and distribution centers, just-in-time material delivery in manufacturing facilities and automating manual material movement in any facility. Fetch AMRs offer seamless integration with warehouse and manufacturing systems without the need for changes to facilities or infrastructure by leveraging the firm's drag and drop workflow development studio for true out-of-the-box automation in hours rather than months.
Fetch’s cloud-based enterprise software, FetchCore serves as the foundational platform for deploying and fully integrating a broad range of automated workflows into manufacturing and warehouse operations and providing unique insights into facilities through machine learning on AMR sensor data.
The planned acquisition furthers Zebra’s vision to bring advanced robotics solutions to customers who have labor-intensive operations.
"At Zebra, our vision has really been around what we call enterprise asset intelligence, and the real focus is to have every asset, every worker on the edge visible, connected and fully optimized," Jim Lawton, vice president and general manager of robotics and automation for Zebra tells IndustryWeek. "A lot of the solutions we bring to market today are about equipping the frontline worker. Whether they're in retail, manufacturing or transportation, the goal is to have them fully connected and integrated."
The opportunity Zebra sees within warehousing and manufacturing environments is to introduce the notion of automation, by strategically introducing robots into the equation. "It is a natural extension from the devices in hands to provide real time guidance and direction needed to best optimize workflow," says Lawton.
"We've been working very closely over the last couple of years, looking for ways to make one plus one equal three, while reducing the burden on the user. After all, most of the people trying to leverage automation and robots aren't robot people. They are simply trying to drive some business outcome," says Lawton. "If they can leverage technology to accomplish their goals, and it happens to be a robot, they are all in. This is why the focus has been how to make more automation, capability and technology accessible to those who aren't roboticist, computer science people."
Considering its extensive utilization within warehousing environments, Zebra understands the challenges companies are facing in today’s rapidly changing world, explains Lawton. "How we envision warehouses will operate in the future looks profoundly different than they do today," says Lawton. "The complexity of finding efficient ways to address the changing environment is something our customers are focused on, and unfortunately many of them are struggling with the processes they have in place."
This is where Fetch can serve as a meaningful addition. Over the last seven years, Fetch has built a platform to provide on-demand automation. "The ecosystem Zebra offers, through its mobile computing, broadens the capabilities we can offer on top of our platform as an end-to-end solution," says Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise. "A couple of years ago when we started working with Zebra, we partnered to make their hand scanners work out of the box with our cloud robotics platform enabling users to scan a barcode in order to quickly call a robot."
Wise tells IndustryWeek Fetch has always focused on making it easy for associates in industrial environments to do their jobs through automation. "Sometimes automation can feel like a big burden in terms of both access and use it," she says. "With the connected devices and capabilities Zebra offers a handheld to trigger automation in real time for immediate needs. We see this is as a great joining of two technology companies and products to offer a much larger solution capability together."
Zebra’s focus on robotics automation combines workflow solutions for human workers, including current Zebra offerings such as FulfillmentEdge and SmartSight with Fetch Robotics’ solutions. The result will provide an innovative offering that drives greater efficiencies and higher ROI through better orchestration of technology and people.
Going forward, Lawton and Wise continue to see ways to extend more capability and value through tighter integration, without increasing the engineering load on the user. "From an automation perspective, robots have traditionally been intensive customized projects. However, every robot shipping today is the same robot with the same software that companies can configure as needed," says Lawton. "Our continued integration will make automation available to many more people in the market."
Zebra has been building an expertise in automatic identification and data capture, which will also be a big part of where the capabilities will merge, explains Wise. “Today, Fetch offers the direct ROI in moving material from point A to point B. As we bring these devices onto the platform, we can give a richer data experience to the customer – helping optimize every aspect of their operations through data and insights to crack open the warehouse black box and get an understanding of everything happening inside in real-time. Instead of just knowing what's coming in and out, actually knowing what the process looks like at the minute or hour level instead of day-to-day level.”
Of course, a lot of the opportunity rests with delivering further accessibility – making robotics available to people who haven't utilized it before. “Plus helping people think about the kinds of strategies available to manage some of complexity they are facing,” says Lawton. “Enabling businesses to explore how to drive business outcomes without getting locked into a particular way of doing things and still retain the agility needed to be responsive to an increasing dynamic environment.”
Zebra expects to fund the $290 million purchase price – for the 95% of the business it does not already own – with cash on hand. The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory approval, and is expected to close in the third quarter of 2021.