More robots in more warehouses, ASAP
PHINXT says it shouldn't just be the giants reaping the benefits of automation
Tech revolutions often happen slowly until they suddenly happen quickly. Just yesterday I read about funding for a startup automating part of a lawyer’s job, and Google working on tech that could end up coding some coders out of a job.
In the warehouse space, automation is huge opportunity for tech companies. But while most companies in the space are tackling large warehouse operators, London-based PHINXT is beginning with the smaller end of the market. That doesn’t mean they’ve got a small opportunity. Scroll down to read all about them. As usual, PreSeed Now members get the full story. You can upgrade right here👇
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PHINXT wants more robots in more warehouses, ASAP
Large warehouses are driving this growth. For example, Amazon’s fulfilment centres have introduced automation and robotics progressively since the company acquired Kiva Systems 10 years ago. And companies like Alibaba’s Cainiao have sprung up in recent years to help other large warehouse operators embrace a robot revolution.
But what about small and medium-sized warehouses? How can they compete with increasingly efficient, automated giants? That’s where PHINXT (pronounced fin-ext) wants to step in.
The London-based startup aims to allow 90% of small and medium-sized warehouses to adopt robotics, by providing the software to make a variety of robots work together. CTO Quirino Zagarese gives the example of a robot that moves a shelf to allow a member of staff to pick up an item being integrated with a sorting robot that is then automatically ready to send the item on to its next location in the warehouse.
But rather than have a centralised system managing all of the robots, PHINXT’s tech takes a distributed approach. This means the robots ‘talk’ to one another directly to avoid collisions. Zagarese says this decentralised approach is key to them being able to target a section of the market being largely ignored by bigger players.
“The kind of technology they use—a centralised approach—allows them and their customers to be profitable only at a large scale. It doesn't make sense to target small to medium warehouses, and that's why we focus on that. Our technology allows us to be profitable–both us and our customers–at a small scale.”
Ready for the floor
The startup is working towards a plug-and-play future where warehouse operators can add new robots to their PHINXT installation automatically, but for now it requires more work. When PHINXT starts working with a customer, they will generally have no existing automation.
The startup will order the robots on the customer’s behalf, map out and simulate the floorplan the robots will operate within, and prepare the area with QR codes for robot navigation and the right kinds of shelves.
Zagarese says the floor plan simulation is critically important. He says the startup has developed a tool that can turn data from a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet into a 3D simulation that can quickly optimise the efficiency of the layout, rather than having to gradually iterate on experimental layouts using the actual robots.
On the software side, PHINXT will spin up a cloud instance of its software for each customer. The software interfaces with APIs provided by each robot’s manufacturer. The time it takes to integrate with a new type of robot depends on the task it performs. If it’s a task PHINXT is already set up for, it can take less than a month including testing. For tasks new to the system, it’s a little more complicated.
The startup plans to charge customers a one-off activation fee per robot, and then a per-robot-per-month fee after that.
Rise of the robots
PHINXT’s CEO Yanwen Chen met Zagarese when they were both working at French research institution Inria. Chen has two PhDs obtained in China and France, and specialises in computer science and synchronisation communications for robotics.
Zagarese has a PhD in computer engineering and previously spent time working for, and co-founding, startups in the UK, including time as a member of an Entrepreneur First cohort.
PHINXT is the pair’s second shot at a robotics startup. They were both part of Seyo, which raised £1.53m last year but was ultimately unable to continue for reasons unrelated to the technology. Chen and Zagarese moved straight on to found their new company. As with Seyo, PHINXT’s tech is based on Chen’s PhD work.
Since PHINXT began earlier this year with almost complete technology, it’s been focused on product testing in preparation for their first customer trials. Chen says they plan to begin with the UK market before expanding into other parts of Europe, before entering the US and Asian markets over the next five years.
“We want to democratise access to robotic automation, which is not just a nice-to-have. It’s actually a burning need for warehouses… It's very difficult to find workers. And five years down the line, if a warehouse or if a new third-party logistics company needs to perform these kinds of tasks… we want to be what they Google for.,” says Zagarese.