Many industries have been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another. Food delivery apps have boomed, while ride-sharing services dropped by 70% in the past months. We have been wondering what has changed for the mobile robots and logistics sector. How did the increase in online shopping orders influence the logistics sector? Will mobile robots be used more because of the restrictive measures?
To find the answers to these and other questions, we spoke with Willem-Jan Lamers, founder of Accerion. Accerion (2015) is a Dutch company which produces localisation technology to enable mobile robots to become truly autonomous. We discussed with Willem-Jan the future of autonomous mobile robot sector, the effect of the pandemic on logistics and what makes Accerion localisation technology so unique.
First up, let’s start with the basics. How did you start Accerion and what is your mission with the mobile robot’s localisation technology?
It all started with an invention in my first company called Venamics in 2012. After 3 years of market research and development, we found the perfect fit for our technology in the mobile robotics market. It was then, in 2015 that Accerion was founded. In early 2016, my business partner Vincent Burg and our first employee Talha Ali Arslan joined me. We received our first investment which helped us to expand the team, develop the first products and attract customers. Last year we landed our Series A investment round and we grew the team to 20 people and 40 corporate customers all over the world.
The mission of Accerion is to make autonomous mobile robots 100% independent from infrastructure and give them the ability to operate in a flexible and dynamic environment, specifically in warehouse logistics and production automation. To make it happen, we developed a novel localization technology. It works with the use of cameras that look at the ground surface beneath the robots, using it as their reference. The floor is a static reference that does not change quickly, and by analysing the scans of the ground surface, the robots can localise themselves in the environment. This is what makes our approach so powerful and unique.
What are the principle markets you work with, and how have they been affected by the COVID crisis?
Our customers are autonomous robot manufacturers who, in turn, sell robots to the end user, mainly in logistics and production automation, but also in entertainment, agriculture and other adjacent markets. The principal market is indoor logistics and production automation. With regard to business activity, we are now almost back to the situation before the pandemic. We have clients from all over the world, including Europe (the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Denmark), the US, China and India, who keep placing orders. Actually, the logistics sector has been booming at the moment and according to the analysts, the autonomous mobile robot market will grow faster that had been expected before the pandemic.
You work in the Netherlands where the restrictive measures were rather moderate compared to other European countries. How has the new business set up worked for Accerion?
Overall, the new business setup working remotely, was good for the company. To provide some context, our HQ is in Venlo, in the south of the Netherlands and when the Dutch government introduced the recommendations to work remotely in the middle of March, our team immediately took action and within one weekend, we adapted all the processes (including IT-related processes) to the new work-from-home environment. Regarding the general net effect on the business, I also noticed that the team became more efficient and focused working from home spending less time on travelling. However, the biggest drawback for us is the difficulty in meeting the customers face-to-face.
What are your predictions about the usage of mobile robots in the future, especially considering the ‘new normal’ setup?
I see a lot of opportunities in the current crisis for the growth of mobile robotics market. For instance, disinfection robots, cleaning robots, robots for logistics processes optimization, e-commerce delivery robots. I see a lot of opportunities in the area of disinfection robots linked to the current changes and shift to so-called ‘a high-mixed’ environment where robots and people work together with the goal to reduce tactile exposure of goods and robots with people. The e-commerce market has grown a lot – more goods are shipped door-to-door and most likely, this trend will continue.
What are the main challenges in the autonomous mobile robot sector?
Operations are becoming more flexible, dynamic, fast-paced. The currents trends include space optimization, products customization and goods diversification. All of that pose certain challenges to the logistics processes and requires a high degree of flexibility and adaptability. For the autonomous mobility sector, it means the increasing importance of an easy identification of the robot’s location and its complete independence from the environment.
What is your opinion on a common belief that robots are taking over the world and soon humans will be out of jobs?
It is funny how often this question pops up. In my view, this concern is absolute nonsense. It comes from the media and is based on the fear of new technologies. A century ago, people were afraid to switch from horses to cars and it seem to have worked quite well. So, there is nothing to be scared about. I believe that robots will take over the heavy, repetitive, ‘boring’ work which humans are not eager to do, such that they can focus on the interesting and more challenging work. For example, in many logistics applications it already becomes a requirement for robots to accomplish certain tasks because of the lack of the employees.
What advice would you give to early stage, European, tech startups right now?
Here are my 2 main recommendations:
- Validate your hypothesis about your product and its fit to the market. Build the smallest prototype to show it to your customers and validate it with them. Talk as much as you can with your potential customers, preferably doing it face-to-face. Tune your product in to the market. Listen to them. Be as lean as possible.
- Focus. Focus on the market you want to address and the product you are developing. There will always be tremendous opportunities popping up around you. The biggest mistake most entrepreneurs make is diving into every opportunity that arises. I recommend not to be distracted by new opportunities which make you deviate from your path. Focus on one task and keep working on it.