GreyOrange’s robots have taken over the shop floor
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If you bought products online in India, chances are that your order has been picked up and sorted by a robot manufactured by GreyOrange.
Flipkart, Myntra, DTDC, GoJavas and Jabong are among the e-commerce and logistics firms that use these robots to automate distribution at their large warehouses across India. The start-up, which commands a near monopoly 90% market share of India’s warehouse automation market, is all of five years old.
In the complex world of e-commerce, these robots help companies and humans overcome operational challenges such as increasing costs, high order volumes, manpower issues, and short order-processing windows in addition to reducing errors.
GreyOrange, luckily, has been in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the e-commerce boom in India. Its offices across Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai are testimony to its spectacular success in India.
Since being founded in 2011 by Samay Kohli and Akash Gupta, GreyOrange has grown to more than 550 employees today with over 33% of them working at its research and development (R&D) centre in Gurgaon. The robotics company is also present in Singapore, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Japan.
GreyOrange designs, manufactures and deploys advanced robotics systems for automation at warehouses, distribution and fulfilment centres and has an installed sortation capacity of around 12 million packets a day.
The company is growing at about 300% year-on-year and while a major chunk of its revenue is still generated from India, GreyOrange aims to generate 70% of its sales from markets outside the country.
Both Kohli and Gupta are the quintessential boys next door, hailing from middle-class families. Gupta is from Kanpur having studied at Puranchandra Vidyaniketan while Kohli did his schooling at St Columba’s school in Delhi.
The two of them met as engineering students at BITS Pilani where a common love for robotics bound them.
As part of the humanoid programme at the Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems at BITS, they developed the AcYut in 2007, one of the first indigenously created humanoid robots in India. The duo also represented India in humanoid robotics competitions across 13 countries, winning the gold medal at the RoboGames (formerly ROBOlympics) in San Francisco in 2009.
While Gupta worked on several projects such as the design and implementation of an active underwater sonar stabilization system at the University of Louisiana to increase operating hours of the system under rough coastal weather conditions, Kohli was involved in organizing robotics workshops at more than 25 educational institutions globally—including Stanford University, Louisiana University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Indian Institutes of Technology. The duo also worked on a parallel project to create a technology-enabled haunted house, similar to a park in Disneyland that is completely automated, while they were doing their internship with C&C Technologies Inc. (now part of Oceaneering International Inc.) in the US. One thing led to another and from robotic competitions and workshops, the duo started doing product development for firms.
But it was only a chance meeting with German electronics engineer and entrepreneur Wolfgang Hoeltgen that the idea of GreyOrange took shape. Hoeltgen, 69, became the third co-founder of the company. The difference in both age and nationality is glaringly obvious but so far the trio has worked well. Hoeltgen had earlier worked at IBM Germany and the US in research, manufacturing, engineering and software development. In 1997, he started his own IT firm and conducted international projects in SAP consulting, guided mergers and acquisitions and founded the German-Indian Business Center at Hannover. Since the last four years, he has been involved with GreyOrange as co-founder, investor and mentor.
“As co-organizer of the world’s biggest science and technology show for young people I invited the AcYut team from BITS Pilani to Hannover to demonstrate their project in 2009. Somehow Akash and Samay selected me as their mentor that time and contacted me occasionally sharing their ideas,” says Hoeltgen. “I told them they would be wasting their talents, until they presented the idea of warehouse automation, which was exactly in-line with what I believed to be a perfect match of their capabilities and real worldwide demand. We met in India, put together a business plan, I liquidated my life insurance, one month later we rented office space, bought a CNC (computer numeric control) machine and hired the first engineers.”
And the rest as they say is history.
What began as a start-up with a team of seven on the ground floor of Kohli’s home, is now spread across 250,000 square feet of prime real estate in Gurgaon. Situated on National Highway 8, the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway, the GreyOrange office is in Orient Bestech Business Tower and occupies two-and-a-half floors. Not surprisingly, the office space is designed like a sprawling warehouse. It has long corridors with meeting rooms and open workspaces on either side where the team sits, brainstorms, crunches data and complex code. The culture is one of freedom, collaboration and openness. When the employees need a break, they have several options. They can either head to the cafeteria or the gym, play Xbox in the gaming arena, listen to some music in the music room, get pampered at the in-house beauty parlour or even take a nap in the sleeping room.
Says Naveen Boppana, lead engineer (mechanical): “GreyOrange’s culture is very different from the other companies I worked at in the past. I find that GreyOrange consciously maps your work against the impact that it creates. Therefore, there is always a high sense of accomplishment while working for GreyOrange. Needless to say, our cool new office is an added incentive to be a part of GreyOrange. Working in a vibrant and creative environment adds to your productivity. Facilities like a gym, cafeteria, gaming zone, etc. go a long way in establishing a work-life balance.”
GreyOrange employees are mostly engineers since robotics requires multidisciplinary skills such as electronics, electrical, mechanics, software, and firmware. It is, therefore, important that different engineering specializations coexist to create disruptive products and solutions.
Kohli adds: “We have often seen that many companies hire senior executives and leaders from the Silicon Valley and other global geographies for business roles. However, as GreyOrange is a hardcore hardware and R&D company, we focus on the experienced engineers out there. For example, we are getting on board a 62-year-old highly experienced Erlang expert, a global design senior expat from Hong Kong, and a mechanical design architect from Germany, which is the hub for world-class mechanical engineers.”
No wonder the company has acquired a cosmopolitan character that places a high emphasis on innovation and cutting-edge technology. “The fact that 33% of our workforce is dedicated to R&D is a testimony to our emphasis on innovation,” says Kohli. “We believe that it is very important to maintain a healthy workplace culture to ensure mutual learning and growth. Extensive training sessions help our employees to stay abreast with the latest skill requirements in the market and enhance their effectiveness.”
The company also gives employees the option to design and equip their workspace. A budget of Rs1 lakh is earmarked for this and employees can choose from a catalogue that includes chairs, workstations, upgraded laptops, high-capacity storage, laptop accessories, additional screens, even plants and decorative items for their workstations. It has been found that the engineers prefer latest desktops while the sales managers go for Macs. Another interesting activity the company does is what it calls the “GreyOrange Marathon”. Just like an athlete who runs 42km to complete the marathon, employees go through a period of 42 days where they take up targets/tasks that are above and beyond their core jobs.
“GreyOrange provides the opportunity to work with some of the smartest engineers. The focus is on solving the problems effectively and efficiently. Townhalls, biannual events like the GreyOrange Marathon, team activities, and excursions are the fun part of our culture. All this adds to the excitement of working at GreyOrange,” adds Paul John, a technical architect.
Gupta and Kohli’s zeal, passion for technology and energy belie their age—while Gupta turns 27 in a couple of months, Kohli is 30. Beyond their passion for robotics, they spend time learning about technology disruptions across the world.
As co-founders, the duo work in close collaboration. Gupta is the chief technology officer and his key focus is to drive the R&D engine for the company while as CEO, Kohli focuses on strategic planning for business growth across geographies and industries. “Since our products are a very important part of our business, Akash and I work very closely on the areas intersecting technology and business,” says Kohli.
GreyOrange has also worked to build a repertoire of international clients.
Among his its Indian clients, Abhishek Chakraborty, executive director of DTDC Express Ltd, is a happy customer. The firm has been using GreyOrange’s sortation system since early 2014 at four facilities in Hyderabad, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata, and Chakraborty says because of the automated sortation system, DTDC has been able to handle 20-25% more volume per day in one hub—both in terms of count and tonnage, so there has been an improvement in throughput without adding any extra space. Automation has made the whole process smoother. The speed at which the company is able to process the shipment has seen a dramatic improvement. Chakraborty says a 6-7-hour turnaround of shipment now takes only 1-2 hours. Additionally, the machine helps the company accurately capture the volumetric weight, which is a key cost component, to help price each packet correctly. Workplace productivity has increased by 10-15% even though the volume has gone up, since the same manpower is engaged in more qualitative tasks.
Gupta and Kohli are responsive, innovative and collaborate to create great solutions, says Chakraborty. “DTDC found the right solution at the right price. You can find better technology but at a disproportionately higher cost and that is a discouragement,” he adds.
From the installation of the first machine to the fourth, there has been a marked improvement in scale and quality, adds Chakraborty.
Gurgaon-based GreyOrange has gone through two rounds of funding, a seed round where it raised $500,000 from Hoeltgen, angel investors and venture capital firm Blume Ventures. In the next round, it raised funds from investors including US-based Tiger Global Management, one of the world’s largest hedge funds and an active venture capital fund in India, having invested in companies like Flipkart. Gupta did not specify the exact break-up of the funding, except saying that the total amount raised so far was $35 million. The funds are primarily pumped in R&D, scaling up operations and international expansion. The company has two state-of-the art customer experience zones in Gurgaon and Singapore that simulates the environment in a warehouse, to provide first-hand experience of its solutions.
GreyOrange has three product lines: the butler system, the cross-belt sortation and the linear sortation systems across 50 installations.
Kohli is tight-lipped about how much the butler and the sorter cost, saying that costs vary from client to client, depending on the solution:
“Our products are designed to solve problems very specific to each business,” says Kohli. “For example, a business may want to reduce the rate of returns of their orders, whereas another business would want systems that help them reduce the time taken to process orders. We would be providing very different solutions to both these business problems after taking into consideration all the factors affecting the operations. Solutions will vary from business to business, industry to industry and geography to geography. Our costs are dependent on the solutions we offer, since solutions vary drastically, so do the costs associated with them.”
Buoyed by the success in the domestic market, Gupta and Kohli are now expanding overseas. In Hong Kong and Singapore the company has a 14-member team. Gupta also mentions that GreyOrange invested in a firm in Japan that will help it instal the butler system in that region and it is now planning to set up an office in the Middle East. The company will cater to the fast-growing retail, consumer and packaged goods and e-commerce sectors with its state-of-the-art warehouse automation solutions for inventory management, order profiling and sorting. According to Kohli, GreyOrange’s entry into the Middle East will be a milestone in its overseas journey that began last year with the company entering Hong Kong, followed by Japan earlier this year and, most recently, China.
According to global e-commerce reports, the Middle Eastern market is seeing a rapid emergence of e-commerce, retail and consumer goods brands from all over the world. However, this immense growth opportunity comes with several operational challenges such as increasing complexity, scale and cost of supply-chain logistics, growing customer expectations, and emergence of newer business models, all leading to the need for data-driven processes. The Middle East also faces a major manpower challenge in terms of availability of the right skills, as well as the growing costs of manpower. GreyOrange’s robotic automation solutions, says Kohli, will address these challenges by helping organizations seamlessly transform and optimize their supply chains to minimize operational inefficiencies, reduce order fulfilment cycles and operational errors, optimize real estate, and help companies improve the overall experience for their end customers.
“The Middle East is an important market and has enormous potential for us particularly due to the emerging e-commerce sector,” says Kohli. “The industry is set to grow at a staggering 300% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the next five years. With the tremendous success GreyOrange has already seen in e-commerce in Asia and India, we are confident that we will be able to replicate it here and play a crucial role in helping the e-commerce firms across the market grow.”