Rockwell Automation’s latest acquisition, Clearpath Robotics and its Otto Motors division, made its debut at last week’s Automation Fair 2023 in Boston. Clearpath’s Matt Rendall, chief executive officer, and Ryan Gariepy, chief technology officer, who were also founders of the autonomous-mobile-robot (AMR) manufacturer, spoke about how the company started and where it’s headed with Rockwell Automation.
Designed to create safer and more productive workplaces, AMRs are fast becoming part and parcel of warehousing/distribution center operations. However, Clearpath Robotics has focused on manufacturing operations, which was one of the reasons Rockwell Automation found it to be an attractive addition.
“Ryan and I and two other co-founders met at University of Waterloo, studying mechatronics,” explained Rendall. “We joined the robotics club, and we spent evenings building autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to compete against other teams around the country and around the world. That’s where we got the robot bug.”
From minefields to manufacturing
When Rendall and Gariepy graduated in 2008, there was no AMR market yet. “How do you pursue your passion when the job doesn’t exist?” Rendall reminisced. “We continued doing what we were doing as new graduates. In the very, very early days our business plan was to use AMRs to detect and clear mine fields. Land mines are a big global problem. We saw an opportunity to deploy a swarm of AMRs to detect and clear mine fields. That’s where the name Clearpath came from.”
The young company quickly changed its focus from land mines to manufacturing. “Mine detection is complicated, and so is the business model,” explained Gariepy. Despite the new market direction, they never changed the company name. “In 2008, if you weren’t developing an iPhone app, investors weren’t interested,” recalled Rendall. “We were in the R&D environment, so we started talking with research professors to see what they were working on next. That became our first market—helping innovators to innovate faster at a lower development cost and with mitigated risk. We became the market leader in AMR development, mostly with universities and then into government and then industrial R&D. We had a front-row seat of every industry looking into this technology.”
One of the formative experiences of Gariepy’s career was during his time interning at Kiva Systems, one of the early AMR manufacturers. On his first day at Kiva, Gariepy was one of just three people in the building because the majority of the company’s workers were attending a packaging-machinery exhibition. “There was a huge amount of industry interest,” he said. “The technology we’ve built is very extensible into different operational domains, but we’re focused on doubling down in the manufacturing space.”
Because of its ability to view the AMR future, Clearpath saw autonomous material handling and autonomous logistics beginning to gain a foothold 10 years ago. “We saw this coming way before any others,” said Rendall. “That led to the creation of our Otto Motors business. We focus on manufacturing environments to help the world’s manufacturers solve material-handling challenges.”
From warehousing application to production platform
“In the manufacturing world, every delivery route is different,” explained Rendall. “It’s difficult to find the route. The way that Toyota moves tires in one plant is different from the way it moves tires in another plant. We are a platform AMR company, not an application AMR company. We work with lots of system integrators that specialize in certain industries. The rigors of manufacturing make for a high barrier to entry.”
On the manufacturing side, there are a small number of AMR companies, compared to the highly populated warehousing AMR market. “We focus on the largest manufacturing plants,” explained Rendall. “That leads to the largest fleets of vehicles with the deepest integration. We operate in the highest cost-of-failure environments.”
Clearpath Robotics’ first vehicle was the Otto 1500. “We knew it was a deep domain with a steep learning curve,” explained Rendall, who decided to focus on moving pallets because it was the closest thing to a universal standard in a manufacturing environment. Clearpath has become strong in the heavy-class AMR category because of high demand. The Otto 100, which is designed for more human-type loads, and Otto Lifter, an autonomous fork truck, are also part of its offerings.
“If you look at where Rockwell Automation is strongest and where we’ve been developing, there’s natural overlap,” explained Rendall. “The next frontier of automation is in material handling. They’re hunting for AMR solutions. We’re seeing lots of traction in that space. We have strength in automotive and tire. Rockwell does, too.”
In automotive, you’ve got 10,000 parts per automobile and an automobile being produced every minute, explained Rendall. “There is so much material handling, it’s our biggest application by a large margin. And our customers are seeing return-on-investment (ROI) cases under 12 months.”