Intro : Grey Orange Robotics founded by BITS Pilani alumni Samay Kohli and Akash Gupta is a revolution in retail warehouse management in Bharat with the intelligent machine.
Why on earth are you spending your twenties at Grey Orange Robotics (GOR)? It is a question each of the 100-odd youngsters who work at GOR must have been asked by their well-wishers. Founded in 2009 by Samay Kohli and Akash Gupta, GOR is a one-of-its-kind venture in the Bharatiya logistics industry that builds worker robots and assisting systems for warehouse automation. The company reframed this awkward question as the topic of an entertaining PowerPoint presentation that they put up online for everyone to see. And what shines out in the answers of the GOR team is their love for robotics and a vision to create robots that help companies improve the efficiency of doing business.
GOR is a rare case of a college passion translating into a successful business. Kohli and Gupta started this journey during their student days at Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani when they put together AcYut, Bharat’s first indigenously developed series of humanoids-robots that resemble the human body. The robot could wait at tables in the college cafeteria and they eventually programmed it to act as a tour guide to guests during seminars and conferences in the college. AcYut would go on to win numerous competitions around the world including Kung-fu and football competitions at 2010 edition of RoboGames in USA—the Olympics for robots.
The founding team eventually caught the attention of Wolfgang Hoeltgen, founder of an IT consulting firm in Germany who became one of GOR’s earliest angels and also a strategic mentor. Hoeltgen says, “When they approached me for funding…I realised that the Butler concept was the need of the hour. I have always been impressed by their vision, technical competency and ability to execute.” Meanwhile, Akash and Samay turned down high profile job offers in USA to set up their company in 2009 with help from BITS Spark (a global network of BITS Pilani alumni that invests in Bharatiya-based startups founded by BITSian alumni) and other angel investors.
The Way of the Future
“I don’t think people have it in their mental model”, said Bill Gates at the American Enterprise Institute last year, talking about the possibility that a lot of jobs in the next two decades will be taken over by robots.
There is a new wave of automation that is quietly revolutionising the world economy. Historically, advances in technology have been net creators of jobs because they simply automated manual jobs allowing human labour to move from manufacturing to the services industry but experts are no longer sure. The coming generation of robots and AI machines are increasingly capable of replicating even white collar jobs in the services sector. Gartner, a technology research firm, has predicted a third of all jobs will be lost to smart machines within a decade. We live in a brave new world where algorithms are appointed on the board of directors of companies and writing software are beginning to churn out articles instead of human journalists.
Robotics has the potential to radically disrupt the business model of the entire retail sector in Bharat, especially e-commerce which is slated to grow from $17 billion currently to more than $ 100 billion in the next five years. And GOR is uniquely placed to ride this next wave of automation by enabling online retailers and logistics companies to automate their
With global trends like automation and digitalisation impacting the entire value chain of logistics, advanced and hi-tech warehouses are crucial to maintaining competitive advantage for companies. However unlike Europe and North America where warehouses are almost 100 per cent automated, Bharat still has a long way to go before it embraces smart warehouses. Supply chain efficiencies is a big, bad unsexy problem for the Bharatiya retail industry and GOR is helping companies like Flipkart, Yebhi, and Jabong solve for it through its two major offerings: Butler System and Sortation System.
The economies of scale offered by GOR is irresistible: A worker on average picks 40 items per hour in a warehouse. However, a majority of the workers’ time gets wasted in searching and fetching goods, which decreases overall efficiency and is also error-prone. Increasing inventory, labour thefts and wrong shipments eventually start affecting a retail company’s balance sheet. So instead of wasting time in searching and fetching, GOR’s Butler system offers a much faster solution. Workers stand still and items are brought to them by ‘Butlers’ much like a real-life butler would bring food you asked for in a tray. This improves the number of item picks from 40 per hour to around 450-600 per hour, reducing operational costs by ten times while also improving accuracy and flexibility of the delivery. As a result, the shipping time for products is reduced from 2 days to 1 hour!
Their second product, the Sortation System, is an automated sorting, scanning and weighing system, which sorts and diverts ready-to-be-shipped packages to the designated delivery vendors. Already used by customers like Flipkart, the package sortation system can sort around 4,000 packages per hour providing a productivity efficiency gain of 200-250 per cent according to the company.
What Next for the Company?
Venture capital funds were quick to recognise the potential of GOR. In April 2014, soon after it broke even, the company raised around Rs. 50 crore of Series A funding from Tiger Global and Blume Ventures. This investment from reputed venture capital players like Tiger and Blume was a strong validation of GOR’s disruptive technology, and providedit to scale and break into the global marketplace.
The company does not have any serious competition in Bharat today. However, as the young venture moves to international markets, it will finally face competition from better funded and more experienced companies like Swisslog and Kiva Systems, bought by retail giant Amazon last year. However, Kohli and Gupta are undeterred and believe that the pricing and the hardiness of GOR robots will be their USP.
No one can predict whether the company will be around a decade later or a more agile competitor will occupy this space—already companies like Robots Alive and Grid bots Technologies are learning to make better, faster robots in Bharat—but the vision and courage of GOR has given us a peek into the future that awaits us in which robots and human work together (hopefully) to make our lives better.
Apurv Kumar Mishra (The writer is Young India Fellow
2013-14 at Ashoka University)