Creating Safer and More Efficient Warehouses with Robotics and Shared Autonomy
Announcing our investment in Third Wave Automation
As the world ground to a halt in the early spring, supply chains kicked into unprecedented high gear — struggling to meet a meteoric rise in delivery and e-commerce demand. School buses and planes were decommissioned, but tractor trailers and delivery vans were on the road and moving goods in record numbers.
In warehouse and distribution centers, moving goods is practically synonymous with forklifts. A typical building has tens or hundreds of the stalwart trucks, staffed 16 or 24 hours per day to power the vast majority of activity in a facility. Here, scaling up throughput to meet demand is easier said than done. Warehouses often see yearly forklift operator turnover well over 100%, and around the country they struggle to find skilled drivers, who must receive extensive safety training. For good reason: operating a forklift is not just a strenuous job, but a dangerous one too. There are about 85 forklift-related fatalities yearly, and over 7,000 serious injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. OSHA and forklift safety groups peg the numbers even higher, with nearly 35,000 serious injuries and 62,000 minor ones yearly — meaning that more than 10% of the ~900,000 forklifts in the United States will be involved in an accident each year!
Innovation Endeavors has long invested in deeply technical teams tackling the hardest problems in supply chains and logistics across both software (ClearMetal, Afresh Technologies) and hardware (Fabric, Gatik), so we immediately became excited when we met Arshan, James, and Mac from Third Wave Automation and heard their ambitious vision to transform forklift operations for the better.
Over the past decade, numerous companies have built autonomous or semi-autonomous robots for logistics applications and seen some early successes. To date, many of these platforms have struggled with reliability: their wire, laser, or simple vision-guided systems cannot easily cope with shifting floor layouts or errant boxes. And while all navigate from point A to B and back, few can go to points C or D, and hardly any even attempt to do the much more difficult — and dangerous — task of identifying, picking up and manipulating heavy pallets at height.
To solve this challenge, the Third Wave Automation team has built on their deep expertise in robotics — the founders worked together at Google and Toyota Research Institute — to develop a platform built from the ground up for shared autonomy. Forklifts operate fully autonomously a majority of the time, requesting remote support from an experienced forklift operator located on-site if they encounter a corner case they cannot handle. This approach enables safe deployment of high levels of autonomy while also accelerating the vehicles’ capabilities: each time a remote operator tells a forklift what to do next, the entire Third Wave fleet learns from the encounter to better handle similar situations in the future.
With Third Wave Automation and shared autonomy, we can build supply chains that are simultaneously safer, more efficient, more resilient, and cheaper — attributes that are almost always in direct conflict with each other. As we enter an uncertain new phase in the world economy, we need stronger supply chains now more than ever. Innovation Endeavors is excited to lead Third Wave’s series A alongside our friends at Eclipse, Toyota AI Ventures, and Heartland Ventures and to support Arshan, James, and Mac who are doing their part to help. If you are or want to be solving the hardest problems in supply chains or logistics, we’d love to hear from you!