Fleets of autonomous mobile robots have been growing in warehouses and the service industry. Singapore-based Techmetics has entered the U.S. market with ambitions to supply multiple markets, which it already does overseas.
The company last month launched two new lines of autonomous mobile robots. The Techi Butler is designed to serve hotel guests or hospital patients by interacting with them via a touchscreen or smartphone. It can deliver packages, room-service orders, and linens and towels.
The Techi Cart is intended to serve back-of-house services such as laundry rooms, kitchens, and housekeeping departments.
“Techmetics serves 10 different applications, including manufacturing, casinos, and small and midsize businesses,” said Mathan Muthupillai, founder and CEO of Techmetics. “We’re starting with just two in the U.S. — hospitality and healthcare.”
Building a base
Muthupillai founded Techmetics in Singapore in 2012. “We spent the first three years on research and development,” he told The Robot Report. “By the end of 2014, we started sending out solutions.”
“The R&D team didn’t just start with product development,” recalled Muthupillai. “We started with finding clients first, identified their pain points and expectations, and got feedback on what they needed.”
“A lot of other companies make a robotic base, but then they have to build a payload solution,” he said. “We started with a good robot base that we found and added our body, software layer, and interfaces. We didn’t want to build autonomous navigation from scratch.”
“Now, we’re just getting components — lasers, sensors, motors — and building everything ourselves,” he explained. “The navigation and flow-management software are created in-house. We’ve created our own proprietary software.”
“We have a range of products, all of which use 2-D SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping], autonomous navigation, and many safety sensors,” Muthupillai added. “They come with three lasers — two vertical and one horizontal for path planning. We’re working on a 3-D-based navigation solution.”
“Our robots are based on ROS [the Robot Operating System],” said Muthupillai. “We’ve created a unique solution that comes with third-party interfaces.”
Techmetics payloads vary
The payload capacity of Techmetics’ robots depends on the application and accessories and ranges from 250 to 550 lb. (120 to 250 kg).
“The payload and software are based on the behavior patterns in an industry,” said Muthupillai. “In manufacturing or warehousing, people are used to working around robots, but in the service sector, there are new people all the time. The robot must respond to them — they may stay in its path or try to stop it.”
“When we started this company, there were few mobile robots for the manufacturing industry. They looked industrial and had relatively few safety features because they weren’t near people,” he said. “We changed the form factor for hospitality to be good-looking and safer.”
“When we talk with hotels about the Butler robots, they needed something that could go to multiple rooms,” Muthupillai explained. “Usually, staffers take two to three items in a single trip, so if a robot went to only one room and then returned, that would be a waste of time. Our robots have three compartment levels based on this feedback.”
Elevators posed a challenge for the Techi Butler and Techi Cart — not just for interoperability, but also for human-machine interaction, he said.
“Again, people working with robots didn’t share elevators with robots, but in hospitals and hotels, the robot needs to complete its job alongside people,” Muthupillai said. “After three years, we’re still modifying or adding functionalities, and the robots can take an elevator or go across to different buildings.”
“We’re not currently focusing on the supply chain industry, but we will license and launch the base into the market so that third parties can create their own solutions,” he said.
Techi Cart transports linens and towels in a hotel or hospital. Source: Techmetics
Differentiators for Techi Butler and Cart
“We provide 10 robot models for four industries — no single company is a competitor for all our markets,” said Muthupillai. “We have three key differentiators.”
“First, customers can engage one vendor for multiple needs, and all of our robots can interact with one another,” he said. “Second, we talk with our clients and are always open to customization — for example, about compartment size — that other’s can’t do.”
“Third, we work across industries and can share our advantages across them,” Muthupillai claimed. “Since we already work with the healthcare industry, we already comply with safety and other regulations.”
“In hospitals or hotels, it’s not just about delivering a product from one point to another,” he said. “We’re adding camera and voice-recognition capabilities. If a robot sees a person who’s lost, it can help them.”
Distribution and expansion
Techmetics’ mobile robots are manufactured in Thailand. According to Muthupillai, 80% of its robots are deployed in hotels and hospitals, and 20% are in manufacturing. The company already has distributors in Australia, Taiwan, and Thailand, and it is leveraging existing international clients for its expansion.
“We have many corporate clients in Singapore,” Muthupillai said. “The Las Vegas Sands Singapore has deployed 10 robots, and their headquarters in Las Vegas is considering deploying our products.”
“Also, U.K.-based Yotel has two hotels in Singapore, and its London branch is also interested,” he added. “The Miami Yotel is already using our robots, and soon they will be in San Francisco.”
Techmetics has three models for customers to choose from. The first is outright purchase, and the second is a two- or three-year lease. “The third model is innovative — they can try the robots from three to six months or one year and then buy,” Muthupillai said.
Muthupillai said he has moved to Techmetics’ branch office in the U.S. to manage its expansion. “We’ll be doing direct marketing in California, and we’re in the process of identifying partners, especially on the East Coast.”
“Only the theme, colors, or logos changed. No special modifications were necessary for the U.S. market,” he said. “We followed safety regulations overseas, but they were tied to U.S. regulations.”
“We will target the retail industry with a robot concierge, probably by the end of this year,” said Muthupillai. “We will eventually offer all 10 models in the U.S.”