Exotec considers the whole warehouse in its automation design strategy

Exotec is making its European bins gray as it makes them from recycled materials.
Exotec is making its bins gray as it makes them from recycled materials. Source: Exotec

Warehouse automation is increasingly being pitched as “all-in-one” and “end-to-end” packages, with robots, software, and data integrated into unified offerings. Since 2015, Exotec SAS has developed and deployed its automated storage and retrieval systems, or ASRS. It is moving in the direction of unified offerings.

The Lille, France-based company achieved a $2 billion valuation in 2022 and has produced more than 7,000 Skypod mobile robots at over 100 customer sites. It has expanded worldwide, with an office in Atlanta and an 80% increase in headcount over the past year to more than 850 employees.

In February, Exotec appointed Louis Esquerre-Pourtere as director of research and development. He previously was a systems team manager and helped bring together teams to design standardized, robust products tailored to customers’ logistical needs.

Esquerre-Pourtere is a graduate of the Ecole Centrale de Lille, a French university specializing in engineering for more than 160 years. He worked in the railway industry and spent 10 years at Bombadier, where he contributed to the design of the latest Parisian Transiliens and double-decker TER trains.

Esquerre-Pourtere joined Exotec in 2020. In his new role, Esquerre-Pourtere works with 170 engineers, as well as project managers across Europe. Mobile Robot Guide spoke with Esquerre-Pourtere about his experience, R&D at Exotec, and plans for the ASRS provider.

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From trains to robots

You’re used to large, complex projects from the railway industry, but how does that translate to robotics?

Esquerre-Pourtere: I spent part of my career as a technical engineer, doing software validation and training. Then I switched to CCTV, passenger information, and signal lights for trains. I worked on different projects around Northern Europe.

As Bombadier’s train-refurbishment business grew, I became manager of small teams including both developers and systems engineers. We worked on the 800 m [2,624.6 ft.] long train in the Chunnel.

I looked for where I could go next to apply what I’d learned and met Renaud [Heitz], chief technology officer at Exotec, who showed me Skypod. When I saw the little robots working together, it was so efficient and so impressive that he convinced me to join as a systems engineering manager.

Louis Esquerre, Exotec
Louis Esquerre-Pourtere, Exotec

What have you worked on at Exotec?

Esquerre-Pourtere: I got to work on new products and improving the Skypods for more density and more features, as well as the first generation of a plug-and-play combination system.

And then the Deepsky warehouse-optimization software changed how we looked at products. We stopped working on different products to be put together but rather worked on warehouse solutions.

Why take that holistic approach?

Esquerre-Pourtere: One of our first missions was to expand the product instead of working on systems. We want to think of what the customers need and then aggregate to find the products that meet all of their needs.

It’s one product to maintain, and every customer benefits from each new feature. It’s the same amount of work, but we’re thinking bigger. Exotec’s target is to be the No. 1 warehouse robotics company. That won’t happen just by managing the ASRS front; we want to be able to manage everything from the arrival of goods to the departure of trucks.

Exotec expects global growth

With big projects such as its deployment at Lane Automotive Inc., how does Exotec scale support for robotics as a service (RaaS)?

Esquerre-Pourtere: The key challenge is to manage the change. As we get more customers, they expect more and more of our products. It’s not the same company as in 2015, when Exotec had three people selling Skypod systems.

Now, customers expect from us complete products, ready to be installed, used, maintained, and adapted. This requires more people to understand the data-driven management mindset.

First, our engineers in different areas of expertise — mechanical, electrical, and software design — now work on everything from inside the robot to Deepsky. It’s a way to manage growth by having people working together in the most efficient ways and not spending too much time siloed.

Second is to have standardized products. That’s where Deepsky comes in.

Third is to hire. We have new offices in the south of France, and we already had 119 people in the north of France. Lyon has a lot of engineering schools and companies that are hiring or training people, and we’ll grow really fast.

Finally, we expect to grow this year in the U.S. and Southern or Eastern Europe.

What’s your take on the state of warehouse automation? How does Exotec differentiate itself?

Esquerre-Pourtere: For customers at trade shows, it’s difficult to choose whom to work with. There are so many different companies and products.

The first way for us to be known is to have our actual customers promote our way of working with them. We want refer prospects to them.

We’re not selling an AGV [automated guided vehicle] or an AMR [autonomous mobile robot] but an entire solution. We’re not providing the speed of the robots or picks per hour. We sign commitments to our customers.

There’s also variability and conversion time. Our customers can keep on working while it happens. Exotec adapts to their metrics; we’re not trying to calculate the number of robots. We just ask, “How many rack locations do you have, what throughput do you need?” and are done in five minutes.

This makes it easier to sell, and there’s another part that happens before a sale. We have our customer base and install cycles for different use cases — grocery, e-commerce, bigger or smaller cartons to transport, and different processes such as replenishment.

The aim of our systems engineers is to combine these needs and make a product. We ensure that the final customer will have the right features, and through the API [application programming interface], they can understand how the system will work.

Users can add to their usual workflows, such as if they need more throughput for peak season. They just need to send the right message for the API, which is already working. They don’t have to wait one or two years.

Esquerre-Pourtere looks ahead

What are some R&D initiatives at Exotec?

Esquerre-Pourtere: Exotec started with automated storage and then added conveyors and Skypicker to automated picking processes. Then we added Deepsky.

Right now, we’re focused on two things. The first is adding more features to Deepsky to adapt to every warehouse, to transform it to a single entry point with Skypod for the entire warehouse.

We already understand how the entire warehouse works, so we’re looking at hardware features that already talk to the Exotec interface, and maybe third parties. What’s changing this year from our customers’ perspective it that Deepsky is being integrated with all our products as a single interface for KPIs [key performance indicators].

The other thing we’re working on is improving Skypicker. More and more companies are working with different versions of AI to provide the ultimate picking arm for different use cases. We want to be able to sell Skypicker as a product for them for their needs.

We want to be able to commit to a level of performance without having to analyze the entire set of orders or articles. They’re not usually complete, and if you need a 3D model of each existing or new article, that’s not plug and play.

In grocery, we want to be able to say that we can handle 90% of goods at 1,000 picks per hour, and that requires a lot of engineering and machining time.

What are some of your goals for this year?

Esquerre-Pourtere: Not to be too technical, but we want to switch from a model where Exotec was both the manufacturer and the integrator to Exotec is the automation provider and other parties work on helping customers be successful.

For that, we need to provide new features and interfaces. It’s a lot of small modifications to our product, but in the long run, they’ll make it faster to install and more efficient within the first week of commissioning. Now, we get Skypod onsite and installed, but it often takes a little time to ramp up to the right level of performance.

Another priority for me is to develop Skypicker to solve more sortation problems for customers. Automated picking can make warehouse jobs less difficult or painful.

Can you give us a sneak pick at some of the products your company is working on?

Esquerre-Pourtere: In Europe, what matters for our customers and collaborators is the footprint of the conveyors. We’ll have more announcements on that evolution.

Exotec is also adding cybersecurity. It’s becoming a real differentiator among products for both small and big customers. This industry, is used to integrating PLCs [programmable logic controllers] and supervising isolated networks.

Now, everything is connected to the Internet, as companies need data, updates, and remote interventions. This requires real investments in cybersecurity during product development.

This is an advantage of Exotec, which is not PLC-based but a PC-based company, as our CEO Romain Moulin puts it. We’re following best practices and building systems that are secure by design.

Are you looking at working with other, non-Exotec robots in the warehouse?

Esquerre-Pourtere: There are Deepsky blocks for integrators to develop and implement algorithms for third-party systems. They could be AGVs or robot arms. 

We’re adding new interfaces for industry-standard protocols for UPC and Modbus for functions like palletizing to get the entire automated warehouse operational Engineers may look at an individual robot, but businesses don’t care; they want a system that’s working and robust.

Written by

Eugene Demaitre

Eugene Demaitre is editorial director of the robotics group at WTWH Media. He was senior editor of The Robot Report from 2019 to 2020 and editorial director of Robotics 24/7 from 2020 to 2023. Prior to working at WTWH Media, Demaitre was an editor at BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, TechTarget, and Robotics Business Review.

Demaitre has participated in robotics webcasts, podcasts, and conferences worldwide. He has a master's from the George Washington University and lives in the Boston area.