Akash Gupta is co-founder and chief technology officer at GreyOrange, a robotics firm founded in 2011 along with his friend and partner Samay Kohli, who is the chief executive officer. In an interview, Gupta talks about the journey of GreyOrange and its future plans. Edited excerpts:

Tell us something about your background and how you got interested in robotics.

Samay and I met at BITS Pilani. He is two years my senior and we met during a human robotics project where we were trying to build robots, got interested in human robotics, built the AcYut and took part in a lot of competitions all around the world, represented India in the human robotics competitions. The ROBOlympics (now RoboGames) happens in San Francisco every year so the first time we came sixth, then got the bronze and then finally got the gold. We took part in the midsize humanoid category, which is basically where a human-looking robot, about a metre in height, is involved in a kung fu competition with another robot. These robots are remote-controlled. Then, we gradually started building autonomous humanoid robots to take part in a soccer competition for robots. So we added vision, so that the robots could kick the ball, and take their own autonomous decisions while playing.

After this, we got requests for giving workshops/tutorials on humanoid robotics. Humanoid as a project is very expensive as it costs Rs40-45 lakh a year on three robots, so there was no option but to raise funds for the same. For this purpose, we formed a company and called it GreyOrange. We did about 35-40 workshops in 2011 and were enjoying ourselves but soon figured out this was not something we wanted to do in the long-term. So we shifted from doing workshops to doing product development for different companies like C&C Technologies in the US and some South Korean companies.

But we were not getting good at anything because the products were from different domains. We realized that we were not building any core competency, so both Samay and I thought that we should try to focus on one particular industry. So we did some research, had some industries in mind for automation like the railways, which is highly non-automated, oil and gas maintenance, and e-commerce and warehousing. The problem with the first two industries was that they were very slow at that time while e-commerce was developing, so we chose that industry to start building products.

At that point of time we also met Wolfgang Hoeltgen in Germany in one of the science and technology fairs at Hanover, and he really liked our idea and provided us with angel funding. In January 2012, we took our first office in Gurgaon and spent about Rs55 lakh on hardware prototyping and that was a really good decision because it helped our product development capability more than what anything else would have done. We started with two products: the butler system and sortation system, and fast forward to today where we have more than 500 people, three product lines (the butler system, linear sortation and cross-belt sortation), 50-plus installations.

Describe your products and how they help automate warehouses?

Linear sortation systems are used to sort shipments. One of the major use case is once your shipments are picked and packed, they need to be sorted according to destinations or locations, because then they need to catch corresponding trucks or flights, so our sortation systems helps you sort that and also capture the volumetric and weight of the packet—this is required for billing for the courier company.

Linear sortation system is like a conveyor machine that has arms that help in sorting packages and have different throughput which means the number of packets that can be sorted and weighed in an hour. So the machine can sort from 1,500 packets an hour to about 14,000 an hour. You can also use this system to combine different items in orders.

What the butler system does is when an order is placed, then somebody takes a pick-list and picks the ordered objects from different parts of the warehouse, comes back, sorts them, packs them and sends them. The butler makes the picking, putting combining very, very easy. What it does is it completely transforms the paradigm from man going to the goods to goods coming to the man. In the butler system, the people stand at the periphery of the warehouse—we call these pick-put stations—and the bots basically bring the racks to them for whatever they need to pick. Bots will then go and store the racks back to their location. So let’s say in an apparel industry 120-180 items per day can be picked manually, the butler system can pick 300-600 items in an hour—that’s the kind of jump we are talking about in the throughput of the warehouse. The whole process is really dynamic and the order goes directly to our server and the server directs the robots. This has reduced pilferage too, as we have limited the interaction of people to the periphery.

What are your future plans and strategy?

There is a lot of innovation you can drive through these products, every six months we are driving new features, improving speed, giving more customization to our clients. There is room for a lot of optimization, efficiency and accuracy, so we are constantly working on that.

We have one major R&D (research and development) office in Gurgaon, but we have service centres across India. We are expanding to South-East Asia. We have an office in Singapore—there is a 14-people team that looks at solutions, marketing, sales. South-East Asia is a big market and since the past 12 months we are going aggressively into it. We have also invested in a company in Japan that is our exclusive partner for distributing our butler systems in there. So we are in process of installing butler systems in Japan. The Middle East is a growing market with Saudi Arabia, so we have set up an office there and we are starting operations there. We also have a small office in Hong Kong and are now looking to expand to Germany. So now our major impetus is expanding overseas and getting a few anchor clients overseas. As regards the products, we are building newer versions every 6-12 months. We invest heavily in R&D as that’s the core of our company. We would like to disrupt our products every three years. We also have people working on R&D from outside India, so they can start contributing to the product since we expect to serve a global market so it’s important to get perspective from different geographies. We are hiring engineers from Germany and the US, so our R& D team is cross-geography.

How do you envision your company 10 years down the line?

We are definitely looking to get public and an IPO (initial public offering) is one of the most viable options to take this forward. But not immediately. One thing we are trying to build at the core is a very strong product engine at the back-end, have a team of people who can produce very complex, good quality hardware plus software products, which is the core of the company. If you build a good product engine, then you can pick any industry and disrupt it by building these products. So we are giving thought to things like product life cycle, processes, how we train our engineers and build products that are reliable, have a high life cycle of 7-10 years, are of international quality and are globally acceptable. That is one of the challenges, so we really don’t want only to build a butler or sorter but to build a strong product engine so that every three years we take an industry and disrupt it. That’s where we want to reach before we do any IPO.

So the next 12-18 months are going to be all about global expansion and reducing our warehousing cost to the lowest possible and adding more products to our portfolio, so that we have a range of products. On the software side, we are building a platform that can run a warehouse end-to-end.