We already know that robots can harvest our crops, cook us a medium-rare cheeseburger, bring us our takeout, and even make us a cappuccino (extra foam). In fact, it seems that every time we turn around there’s another story about some company making robots to perform some task within the food system (or a podcast!). And now they’re coming for your groceries—and then they’re going to deliver them to you.
Tel Aviv-based startup CommonSense Robotics is betting that they can change the future of grocery by developing AI-powered robots to help online grocery retailers speed up their fulfillment and delivery. By constructing on-demand supply chains, they promise online grocer clients profitable, 1-hour delivery. This comes at a time when grocery giants seem to be dominating the market, squeezing out smaller retailers with their speedy delivery times and low prices, CommonSense Robotics hopes to even the playing field.
They just got a lot closer to their goal. The Israeli startup just raised $20 million in Series A funding in a round led by Playground Global and supported by Aleph VC and Innovation Endeavors (who also contributed to CommonSense’s $6 million seed funding). This round brings CommonSense’s total funding to $26 million.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen robots involved in the grocery and delivery sphere. Wal-mart is planning to deploy shelf-scanning robots to manage inventory, and San Francisco recently instituted laws restricting delivery robots.
Interestingly enough, CommonSense’s business model doesn’t cut homo sapiens out of the supply chain—not totally. Instead, their robots will work in tandem with human employees. The robots will store products until an order is placed, at which point they’ll bring the correct goods to a human “coworker” who will pack it. The robot will then transport the order to a delivery vehicle for dispatch.
This system may, at first glance, might seem more complicated than just having a human execute all the tasks themselves, but CommonSense claims that it will lead to more efficiency in the grocery fulfillment sphere. This is at least in part because robots are, well, inhuman: they can lift and transport heavy boxes much more quickly and effectively than people. They also don’t need breaks, sick days, or a certain standard of working conditions. In short: they’re more efficient.
CommonSense Robotics CEO Elram Goren told TechCrunch that their robotics and AI were designed to “maximise space efficiencies (how small we can have the warehouse), labor efficiencies (how little we can have human labor in the process), how fast we can deal with an average grocery order (usually less than 3 minutes, where a completely human process takes about 10x that), and how close we can have the centers to the customers.”
This language would imply that CommonSense is working towards a grocery delivery system staffed entirely by robots. If smaller retailers want to compete with the low prices and quick delivery turnaround of grocery giants like Amazon and Walmart, that might be necessary. (Yes, there’s the whole “robots are taking our jobs” issue—but that’s a whole other post.)
What I found most interesting about CommonSense’s business model is not the robots themselves (though robots are always cool), but how the company will use robots to maximize grocery storage efficiency. Capitalizing off of robot’s ability to work within smaller and taller spaces, the startup is setting up a framework of high-capacity micro-fulfillment centers in underutilized urban spaces, such as underground car parks. By moving the warehouse into city centers, CommonSense hopes to be able to supply fresher groceries with a tight turnaround and low cost. They’re even open to the possibility of building facilities within grocery company’s buildings, optimizing packing efficiency even further.
CommonSense’s newest round of funding will help them as they work to deploy the first generation of their robots and open a micro-fulfillment center. If all goes well, the startup has plans to establish more facilities in the U.S., U.K. and their home country of Israel by the end of 2018. Start making your grocery lists now.