From Spark to Innovation at Exotec: “We’re not doing some copycat.”
In the spring of 2015, in a family home near Normandy, France, Romain Moulin and Renaud Heitz were tinkering with a prototype of a robot. Though Moulin and Heitz, who are now respectively CEO and CTO of the warehouse logistics robotics company Exotec, have made “seeking simplicity” a core value of their company, this first robot design for bringing goods to persons on the warehouse floor was extreme: a wooden plank with wheels and an affixed camera wired to a Raspberry Pi CPU. Moulin and Heitz hoped the “robot” would read a QR code they’d stuck to the floor.
“We needed to check the vision to make sure it could do what we would eventually promise,” Moulin says with a laugh now. Yet there were no motors or spatial recognition systems to orient the prototype through the house: “We pulled it by a string.”
If the co-founders had any inkling that the company they were building was poised to raise $477 million in investments, including from DTC, the hint came from an unlikely source: Amazon. In 2012, the e-commerce giant, which today operates nearly two hundred fulfillment centers around the world, bought Kiva Systems, then a leader in warehouse robotics, and in 2015 stashed the company away, deploying the technology for their own operations and ending all external sales. Soon after the news spread, Moulin pulled Heitz aside while riding a bus to GE Healthcare and asked, “Do you want to try to build something better?”
Over the following weeks, after countless post-work beers and mockups on their computers, “the engineer fire,” as Moulin puts it, was set ablaze Heitz said: “Okay, let’s do it. But it must be better than Amazon’s. We’re not doing some copycat.”
“Okay, let’s do it. But it must be better than Amazon’s. We’re not doing some copycat.”
Understand your customer.
In the eight years since founding Exotec, Moulin and Heitz have scaled the company into one of the leading brands in warehouse robotics. Today, their Skypod robots zip through fulfillment centers all over the globe, climbing up and down 39-foot storage racks, to retrieve and manage orders and returns for some of the world’s largest brands. In May, the company was named one of the top 50 disruptive companies in the world by CNBC for the second year in a row. The industry recognition goes hand in hand with their marquee customer list that includes the likes of Gap, sporting goods giant, Decathlon, and universally beloved Japanese apparel company Uniqlo.
“When I first looked at the [Skypod] system, I thought “this is really surprising”, I’ve been in the logistics industry for 25 years and I’ve never seen a solution like this,” said Wouter De Vliegher, supply chain and IT director at electrical wholesale supplier Eltra, in a recent case study.
Before launching Exotec, the bulk of Moulin and Heitz’s experience had been designing robots for vascular surgery and mammographic imagery. To understand the market they were plunging into, the two started visiting fulfillment centers. Moulin developed a technique he today recommends to any entrepreneur honing a product: rather than reaching out to prospective customers saying he had something to sell, he reframed the conversation as needing feedback on an idea. Prospective customers eagerly shared feedback, and the co-founders took the insight and iterated on the prototype.
“People rarely want to be sold something,” he says. “But they are more than happy to share what they think about something. This opened a lot of doors.”
After almost a year of research, the pair had two potential models: one was designed to move goods between workers as they went about their jobs on the warehouse floor; a second, more complex robot, was designed to move up and down facility racks, picking goods off the shelves and bringing them to a fixed picking station. While the two ideas had their pros and cons, Cdiscount, a leading French e-commerce site, signed the company’s first contract requesting the second model—and the “Skypod” line was born.
“It was a lesson for me,” says Moulin. “Your customer can easily clear up the decisions that might have been quite hard to resolve.”
Simplicity is king.
Since then, Exotec has taken a novel, and at the time controversial, approach to designing the Skypod robot: they built a standard product. This means that at any given time, there is only one version of the Skypod robot across all customer sites. Each unit comes with the same software and hardware, no exceptions.
“For people in the software world, or even some automation companies outside of our industry, this may seem like an obvious move, but in the world of logistics automation, where bespoke solutions are the status quo, we definitely stand out. “Moulin says.
The decision wasn’t easy because at times it meant passing on some big-name customers after refusing to develop very specialized features for their discreet needs. But it’s a choice that was worth making as the intentional simplicity allowed for the obsessive focus on delivering the best version of the product to as many customers worldwide as possible. “We do fewer features, but they are the features that everyone benefits from,” Moulin says.
This engineering philosophy becomes evident once you set eyes on the Skypod robot, which looks like a sleek white box, with subtle runners, and plastic bins sitting on top of it. That design stands in contrast to the myriad of companies designing their robots to mimic complex human locomotion with over-engineered arms, joints, and sometimes even faces.
“Designing a robot with legs instead of wheels is not only more complicated but also counterproductive, especially when you consider that warehouse floors are flat.
“Nature has plenty of forms that don’t make sense in the context of high-performance automation,” Moulin points out. “Designing a robot with legs instead of wheels is not only more complicated but also counterproductive, especially when you consider that warehouse floors are flat. At the end of the day, we don’t ride mechanical horses to work, we drive cars.
It’s all about people.
But while Exotec has built its own innovative software and hardware, the most critical integration for their robots has been with humans. Warehouse workers are still the backbone of any operation and Moulin dismisses the idea they might soon disappear.
The sentiment reflects more than words: Exotec has designed their robots to be “in service” to the worker or, as they are referred to in the logistics industry, “the picker.” Everything about the Skypod system, from the height of the robots to ergonomic picking stations with adjustable screens and comfortable resting pads, was built with humans in mind.
“This gives a worker the sense they have a fleet of robots helping them… Offloading manual tasks like walking and lifting heavy items is quickly becoming the industry standard.”
“This gives a worker the sense they have a fleet of robots helping them,” Moulin says. “In this line of work, people are doing so much manual labor that it can have negative impacts on their health. Offloading manual tasks like walking and lifting heavy items is quickly becoming the industry standard.”
This is exactly what the Skypod system has done, saving warehouse workers from walking almost eighteen million miles since 2017. For context, this adds up to about 37 return trips to the moon.