Upwards and onwards

Jul 30, 2019

Inspired by the humble ant, Calgary’s Attabotics is poised to change the manufacturing sector with its robotic warehouse management system 

 A few years ago, Attabotics co-founder and CEO Scott Gravelle was consulting for a company that needed help with manufacturing automation. A machine in its warehouse, operated by workers, was producing products faster than a robotic arm could shelve them. Gravelle figured a robot could do the work of taking shelves away and returning empty ones to the workers.

“Almost everything on the market for warehouse automation systems is based on a human-centric model,” explains Brad Simpson, Director of Growth at Attabotics. Traditionally, it has been human employees, not machines, that rapidly move product through a warehouse, putting pallets of products on racks for storage and then moving them out for shipment.

Gravelle did some research and found a company that offered a warehouse solution using robots, but when called to inquire, he was told the company had been acquired and would no longer sell its technology. Later, he learned it had been bought by Amazon, which was ceasing external sales and keeping the technology — and its benefits — to itself. 

“To Scott, this validated the idea of robots bringing products to people in a warehouse,” says Simpson. It also occurred to him that there was an opportunity to fill the gap in the marketplace, so Gravelle set out to do just that, but with a superior technology: he proposed a thought experiment: “how does nature do it?”

From his research, he considered natural structures like beehives, in which bees store their ‘product’ — pollen and honey — in cells within honeycombs. Through more research, Gravelle became particularly fascinated by the leaf-cutter ant, which organizes its food supply both horizontally and vertically, easily accessed by a network of storage tunnels. “That was the ‘a-ha!’ moment,” says Simpson. 

Gravelle imagined a warehousing solution that used robots to move product from the work floor to a 3D storage matrix accessed through vertical shafts. “It sounds like a simple change, but it’s truly transformative,” says Simpson. In 2015, Gravelle took the plunge and began Attabotics, growing quickly from an innovative concept to a high-revenue company that not only reduces carbon emissions, but also creates jobs in mid-size and large cities. 

The company has accomplished a great deal in just a few years -starting a robotics company outside of Silicon Valley is no easy feat. Attabotics was fortunate to have angel investment but needed a great deal more funding to create a proof of concept that would attract traditional investors and customers. Alberta Innovates helped fill the gap between angel and venture investing, says Simpson. 

“We’ve gone through a massive scale-up over the last 18 months as we’ve been commercializing the technology,” he says. At the company’s Calgary location, nearly 200 employees — many highly skilled professionals from the oil and gas sector — are helping build both Attabotics and a burgeoning robotics industry in Alberta.

As much as funding has been key to the company’s creation — and its ability to remain in Alberta — it couldn’t have gotten off the ground without good information, says Simpson. From the beginning, Alberta Innovates has offered an abundance of experience and perspective, as well as connections to sources of funding.

Simpson notes that Attabotics has also received coaching from one of AI’s Technology Development Advisors (TDA), who play the role of coach, connector, and confidant to early-stage companies. Attabotics’ TDA, Michael Kerr, says the confidential nature of the service allows companies to receive help while keeping their cards to their chests — something that’s critical as they develop proprietary technologies and strategize their entrance to the marketplace.

Attabotics no longer needs coaching, which is the goal of the program. “That’s the intent of the program,” says Kerr. “They don’t need us anymore because they have all of the skills and business acumen that they need.” Now that Attabotics has been able to scale up its technology (thanks, in part, to funds from AI), it is well on its way; he adds, “They hired their first employee in July 2016 and now employ 200 people. They’re poised to change distribution completely — not just in Alberta, but I would say across North America.”

Post publication update: