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Why Attabotics Looked to Ants to Solve Some of the Supply Chain’s Toughest Problems

An autodidact who studied nursing modeled his warehousing robotics company’s service offering on the leaf-cutter ant, with some promising results.

Scott Gravelle’s Calgary-based Attabotics has raised more than $125 million to date and nabbed the attention of retailers such as Nordstrom. But the founder and CEO’s ambitions are much bigger as he looks to be part of the next great wave of innovation that upends and transforms a supply chain being led down a new path by the demands of e-commerce.

“I just like to be a problem solver,” Gravelle said of what drew him to logistics.

His career path may be unique to many within the supply chain technology space having joined the army to be a medic before studying nursing at the University of Calgary. Budget cuts in Canada meant fewer nursing jobs to go around, so he went into kitchen and cabinet making, followed by residential architecture and then started a longboard and skateboard maker, all the while learning about computer-controlled manufacturing. The experience pushed him into digital manufacturing consulting.

“That was the work I was doing when I got this crazy idea [for Attabotics],” he said. “So, my resume is not typical for a tech entrepreneur.”

Attabotics, at its simplest, makes warehouse storage systems and robots that use the horizontal and vertical square footage within fulfillment centers. That’s where the inspiration from the leaf-cutter ants comes into play, with the ants able to build nest systems underground so complex they can be comprised of thousands of chambers for storage. In the case of Attabotics’ pitch to companies, the end result of using is technology is a less obtrusive, or smaller real estate footprint, that can be located closer to the end user for faster delivery.

“Attabotics is a lot more than just cool robots,” Gravelle will tell you, although he tacks onto that sentiment that they do make cool robots.

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Instead, he’s approaching the company from the main industry pain points facing modern day commerce. That’s everything from the labor market and consumer expectations around delivery, to environmental and sustainable considerations. That the ants are able to create such complex systems no one can see, offers hope something similar can be achieved for humans’ last mile systems, but the solutions won’t come from a single technology, Gravelle will tell you.

“The one thing that I’ve learned is a lot of people have tried to solve the problem of atoms just with bits,” Gravelle said. “It’s time now to focus on how combining the data and the goods, the bits and the atoms, together is where the real value propositions come in. There’s only so many software optimizations you can do in the supply chain. You’ve got to create a platform that integrates with intelligence to drive real value and real transformation. And, that’s really our focus is we’re tackling the atoms and the bits, but we’re tackling them together and that’s where the real advantage we believe will be delivered.”

Supply chain technology start-ups have cropped up in more recent years, snapping up billions of dollars in venture capital being pumped into the industry. Global supply chain and logistics technology investments totaled $9.4 billion in the first quarter, according to CB Insights.

One of the challenges once users get past the “gee-whiz” excitement of any new technology is the use case and the old saying that just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. In the case of the supply chain, that rings even more true given the complexity. With so many new technologies, there can be the headache of integration and chief technology officers grappling with determining what tech plays nice with others.

An Attabotics structure inside an Accelerate360 warehouse facility. Courtesy

It’s why, Gravelle said, shippers need a platform that brings different technologies together.

“There are way more problems that need to be solved and opportunities out there than there are companies there to solve them, so the demand is really high, but there’s no IBM,” Gravelle said.

The reference is to the old saying that no CTO ever got fired from buying IBM, or no one ever got the boot for playing it safe.

“There’s a lot of technologies that will incrementally improve the network you currently have. Incremental improvement does not solve this problem,” Gravelle said. “There are very few companies that are thinking about the whole problem, the entire holistic problem and doing something about that.”

The roadmap for Attabotics isn’t focused on bringing about incremental change. Rather, it’s on transformational change as the CEO put it.

For example, Attabotics is talking to a number of retailers and other stakeholders about repurposing underutilized real estate and will be opening its West Coast pilot of fulfillment centers this year, looking to link with companies that want to make their real estate assets relevant in the digital age.

“The interest in retail real estate isn’t what to do with the old Sears stores,” Gravelle clarified.

The point is to take brick-and-mortar and pair it with automation to create what Gravelle described as hybrid ecosystems. In other words, a new generation mall that has a role in modern commerce.

It also answers the questions around labor. As expectations continue to only increase around faster delivery models, pressures mount on human workers that cannot possibly perform to the same level of productivity as a machine.

“Human beings are not pick and pack animals,” Gravelle said of the two main activities that occur within a fulfillment center. “The idea of having a person walking up and down aisles, pushing and pulling stuff is not a very human job, but we are spatial problem solvers.”

Robots have the ability to create better ergonomics in the working conditions of humans in warehouses. It’s not so much a question around will robots replace humans, but how robots help make the jobs within warehouses more, well, human. In other words, as Gravelle put it, “let the robots do the grunt work.”

Robotics that allows for smaller footprint facilities can bring fulfillment to more dense markets, opening up more jobs to people.

Gravelle’s vision also speaks to sustainability.

“Parcel post was designed for sending stuff like shortbread cookies to Grandma at Christmas. It wasn’t designed to be the backbone of modern commerce,” he said. “It’s not efficient that way. So that’s where the big rethink is.”

The logistics industry over the years has seen what efficiencies have come from transformational innovations such as the shipping container, the pallet, the forklift and the bar code.

“It’s time for another one,” Gravelle said, “but that one has to be focused on single items for modern consumer expectations.”