OTTO Motors @GE Aerospace

Factory Logistics: Autonomous mobile robots are the next frontier of industrial automation and transformation

It is in the ROI that industrial customers will see the significant impact that AMRs can have on productivity and safety across their manufacturing operations. (The Italian version here)

Most suppliers of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) focus on solutions for the warehouse. OTTO Motors, the industrial branch of autonomous robotics leader Clearpath Robotics, focuses instead on production logistics. When a deep integration of the fleet of AMRs into the factory environment is required, that is when OTTO Motors’ AMRs show material increases in efficiency and safety of the plant floor. Both companies now report to Rockwell Automation’s Intelligent Devices segment. At Automation Fair, the major industrial automation event last November in Boston, Rockwell launched its new division, and gave the press the opportunity to meet OTTO Motors’ founders, CEO Matt Rendall and CTO Ryan Gariepy.

Based in Ontario, Canada, Clearpath Robotics earned its name from its early days, when both founders, as grads, started their company to detect and clear landmines, “an important humanitarian and military challenge, but 2008 was not the best time for a capital-intensive start-up, so we spent the next four years in the research and development environment,” Rendall said. Working intensively with universities and corporations virtually in every industry, Clearpath grew to become the market leader in the segment of innovation of novel autonomous small robots. “Robotics has this incredible potential to enable technology, so every industry investing in new technology is to benefit from robotics”, Rendall told. “This crystal ball led us to identify the segment of autonomous material handling already back in 2013, way before anybody else. We became very convinced that the segment would become very big, and that led us to the creation of an automotive business unit,” he said.

ARC Advisory Group’s Market Research Study shows the autonomous robotics segment as a fast-growing market, fueled also by the flexibility of the solution. EY Americas Strategy and Transactions in Advanced Manufacturing sees Rockwell as a leader in the segment of the key hardware, software and services that are needed to integrate AMRs into a manufacturing plant. The market for AMRs in manufacturing is expected to grow about 30% year over year over the next five years, to $6.2 billion by 2027, according to Interact Analysis. On the automation and digital transformation side, for its application Plex Platform, Rockwell Automation was just ranked Company of the Year 2024 for Smart Manufacturing. To overcome silos and enhance decision-making, Plex connects systems, machines, supply chains and people by automating, tracking data, providing visualization and analytics from the plant floor to the top floor. An end-to-end production logistics solution is now another key element of a smart manufacturing operation.

Materials handling is a difficult yet critical function in a manufacturing plant, but AMRs can connect the islands of automation. “Production logistics is key to optimizing operations across an entire facility and to bringing the Connected Enterprise to life,“ Blake Moret, Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation said in Boston. “This acquisition marks a turning point for our customers around the world.” Rockwell Automation has customers in over 100 nations.

“If there is an area where we are happy be in, this is it”, Gariepy told a group of journalists, adding that in the autonomous mobile robots’ market there is one first differentiation among the many players: factory environment vs warehouse.

“We very early on determined that the work that needed to be done in the former space was much more than just an app-in-a-box. In the manufacturing world, every task, like moving materials from point A to point B or from plant A to plant B, is very hard to time. We have a big customer who moves tires from one plant to another: here we needed to take a very different approach. The kind of company, the many system integrators in its network which are specialized in a specific industry, that is the first segmentation in our industry.”

The next clear segmentation is that Otto Motors focuses on large manufacturing plants with 100 or 200 autonomous vehicles operating in the network. That leads to the 3rd differentiator, which is that Otto Motors operates in the highest possible player environments. Toyota being a case in point: it produces a car every minute, which means that ten minutes of downtime equals to losing ten cars.

“We operate the largest fleets with the deepest integration in the highest possible player environment, that is, fleets requiring a deep integration into the factory environment. We target our solutions to this space, because it is here where we see the highest opportunity,” Gariepy said.

In a shopfloor there are pushcart routes, tugger/pump truck routes, heavy equipment routes and pallets transport workflows. So, what is the sophistication needed as to the factory IT when it comes to orchestrating the routes with the rules, and the connectivity required for the tools mounted on OTTO’s AMRs to function without glitches?

“There are a few layers when it comes to the system integration and customization. Think about the traditional industrial robots, like those with arms: their interfaces and system integrators can build those tools for whatever application might be needed. We have created a very similar tool interface for automotive which is our paths interface,” Rendall elaborated. “It is designed for tools to get materials onto and off an auto automatically. So, back to the market segment we were mentioning earlier, we focus on this very deeply integrated manufacturing environment.”

“Very, very typically we are interfacing with a piece of automated processing equipment that is spitting out the outcome of that process, which needs to be picked up: we need to be able to receive it, and then be able to deposit it somewhere else. If you look at the various ways by which you can get materials onto and off a vehicle, there is a couple of very common task rules, standard rules, like the decision to bring those materials within the shop floor onto a roller conveyor or a cart. In the case of our very specific applications, system integrators need to further add very specific degrees of integration with very specific machinery. That is the first interface.”

The next interface, Rendall explained, is fleet management, which Otto Motors integrates with the mission processing control system of the AMR fleet into the factory environment.

“There are hence two APIs living in our fleet manager—one being the OPC that integrates with the factory controller, the other being the supervisory interface, the most important interfacing. The other is the API that allows us to interface with the supervisory IT system which is overseeing the manufacturing operation and is a standard API. These are the three most important interfaces”.

In a busy factory, which is basically an indoor city, there are already existing rules, most commonly for AGVs, automated guided vehicles, which would fulfill the function of trains and subways, much like in a city requiring different kinds of transportation to function.

“You also need taxi cabs, however,” Gariepy said. “AMRs are not intended to displace AGVs if the latter bring and have been bringing efficiency to your operation for many years or many decades. Otto Motors focuses on traditional material handling automation which was never been accessed before for several reasons. Now, almost without fail is the case: what is my cost of doing this manually, even before considering safety?”

In one automobile you have approximately 10,000 parts per auto and 1 auto being produced every minute, the founders explained. With previous modes of transportation, the shopfloor strategy would contemplate a person going back and forth from one part of the facility to another.

In a leap forward in automation, AMRs complete a factory’s automation setup.

“The symphony of logistics that needs to execute in order for an auto part to be built with the amount of material handling from the warehouse to the assembly line, and the real complexity inside that operation up to the final assembly is so high and so manual that this is our strongest first application. It is our biggest application by margin by and large, and the really big exciting opportunity,” Rendall said.

Rockwell, which has been towering in industrial facilities for many decades, got from its customer base very strong signals that material handling automation was something that was needed. In the meantime, Otto Motors was seeing lots of traction in the space and a very strong demand inside the auto and tire vertical.

“Within the automotive vertical there is also a huge wave of EV batteries overhaul, and a strong opportunity to rewire this manufacturing segment,” Gariepy said. “So, there is a perfect storm happening in the automotive manufacturing ecosystem. Alike Rockwell, which has an entire segment in their market organization dedicated to automotive and tire, we organically continued to develop and grow this specialized vertical we have been serving using similar strategies to the ones Rockwell had already implemented.”

The overlap between the two companies was thus natural, an exciting intersection to be had for both in the new frontier of automation: materials handling automation. There is a customer base looking for new ways to enhance their efficiency and safety, the execs said and, importantly, transport by AMRs allows to recapture previous unusable or underused floor space, which is critical in the process and a value trade.


A note about Clearpath Robotics, Inc.: In 2009, the initial project of four engineering grads at the University of Waterloo, Canada, was a remote-controlled device for clearing landmines in war-torn countries—their goal: “Make a difference through robotics”. Humanitarian values are still at the heart of Clearpath Robotics’ mission. It designed a versatile range of UGVs, unmanned ground vehicles, for researchers who work in hazardous or difficult environments. The company’s robots are built to operate in rugged terrain, snow or polluted waters. Clearpath teams with academic, military and corporate organizations across the world, like NASA and MIT. Its mobile robots are open-source, and can be deeply customized and fitted. Among these, there is the go-to robot and platform for Mars robotics research around the world, Husky.