Exotec, robots made in France are invading warehouses around the world

Behind the doors of the Exotec factory, in Croix (Noord), we discover a funny sight. In astonishing calm, the tiny robots move according to a delicate choreography. En liberté au milieu d’un entrepôt bien rangé, ces Skypod, des plateformes rectangulaires mobiles, glissent d’une allée à l’autre, s’envolent de plusieurs mètres vers le sommet d’une étagères lavers, unpart la vers production chain. their mission? Providing technicians with the parts needed to manufacture… the congeners of the future. “This is where we produce all the robots that our European, American or Asian customers have requested,” says Renaud Heitz, co-founder of the company. At least for now. Because, to cope with success, he will soon move to a position four times larger. Oh, not in some distant Chinese land, do not worry. A few kilometers away, in the neighboring town of Waskehal.

This is proof that a small startup in France can quickly turn into a large SME. Founded in 2015, Exotec has 380 employees, and its order book is a blast. Specializing in warehouse automation, it takes full advantage of the boom in e-commerce: its 3,000 robots already supply logistics platforms to the largest distributors, Cdiscount or Carrefour in France, but also Uniqlo in Japan, and Gap and Decathlon in North America. “We do 80% of our business overseas thanks to our offices in Atlanta, Tokyo and Munich,” explains Roman Mullen, another co-founder. Profitable since last year, the solid block doubles its turnover every financial year and is expected to record €200 million in revenue in 2022.

“Their results are better than the expectations included in the original business plan, it is very rare!”, confirms Alexander Mardak, partner at 360 Capital Fund, one of the first investors to believe in this cause. Since then, others have followed suit: the small shot has just collected 292 1 million euros in January and is now one of 26 French unicorns, valued at more than 1 billion euros. The performance is exceptional for an industrial company. If French Tech now has a large number of very beautiful “boxes”, they are above all the champions of software or financial technology, In short, service professionals.

“Innovative companies with a true vocation to develop production tools represent only 12% of our start-ups,” recalls Caroline Granier, of think tank La Fabrique de l’industrie. Investors, who are less familiar with these issues, are more reluctant when it comes to financing them. Because, in terms of manufacturing Everything takes longer: prototyping, finding suppliers, first deliveries…

But it needed more to scare the founders of Exotec. Since the beginning of 2010, these two engineers, colleagues at the medical robotics giant GE Healthcare, had a hunch: With the popularization of e-commerce, logistics automation will become a strategic topic for world leaders. fully. Patiently, they examine existing solutions and determine a way to distinguish themselves: their discovery should fly, or rather climb the shelves.

The idea is good. Its implementation is not really clear! “We started humbly,” Renault Hitz smiles. The partners initially developed a simplified prototype, a machine capable of moving bottles from one point to another, yet remaining grounded. If the device is not revolutionary, it allows them to impress the first customer (Cdiscount) and raise 3 million euros. Enough to bolster their R&D team: For months, 20 people—engineers, AI experts, and designers—will work together to deliver a first operational model in 2017. “Since then, we haven’t stopped improving it,” the president defines. .

Today, no less than 15 patents jealously protect this little gem of technology. A machine may be less impressive than a human, but it makes no mistake: in the warehouse, the Skypod knows how to evolve into a network, connected to a central program capable of calculating the optimal movements that each unit should make in real time and preparing orders as quickly as possible. Its physical and technical characteristics allow it to move at a speed of 4 meters per second, carry up to 30 kilograms of payload and climb to a height of 12 meters.

Every detail of its design has been thought out. Black, considered too intense, may give way to white for example, which is better accepted by healers. Even better, the robot can adapt to the specific needs of customers. For Gap, engineers have added some features so that the machine easily replaces parts in stock and makes it easier to manage returns. Elsewhere, they have improved the grip of wheels on slippery ground or developed divided bins to separate dry and fresh food. consequences ? “This robot has an asset that is unmatched on the market,” says Jean-Marc Sollier, author of the book. Supply Chain Revolution (Editor of Maxima). A nugget that the company can sell for a small fortune: count several million euros for a fleet of about twenty machines and mountains of associated chests.

If Decathlon or Uniqlo really orders thousands, it’s because the acquisition can be profitable quickly, in as little as four years. “We have reduced our logistics management costs by 20 to 25%,” says Jerome Saylor, who is responsible for the topic at the sports equipment manufacturer. First, these flying machines make it possible to integrate cargo storage at an altitude: on average, a dispenser can fit five times the volume of each square meter. An undeniable advantage of warehouses near urban areas, where the cost of land is higher. Then, thanks to optimized tracks, automation speeds up the preparation of orders. “They collect 400 boxes an hour for 80 for a worker,” Romain Mullin advances. The benefit is obvious among e-commerce merchants but also in the industry. Look at Lacroix, the manufacturer of electronic cards.

At its new factory in Maine-et-Loire, Skypods retrieves components from stock to bring them to production lines. “This allowed us to significantly increase the rate and set up an automated inventory for each reference,” says Benjamin Guschinot, Vice President. A job threat? Exotec prefers to call the best working conditions provided by its technology: the arrival of goods at the feet of the operators, 13 kilometers of daily travel will be provided on average for the latter.

More than just a robot, the startup sells a complete logistics system, optimized and scalable. Romain Mullen explains: “Each warehouse is thought of in a global way: the arrival of the goods, the conditions for packing or the ways of packing the trucks …” If tomorrow the customer has to deal with the height of activity, all you have to do is add shelves and robots. “Due to market developments, it was important to be able to expand rapidly. This is already happening at the Plessis-Pâté (91), which delivers south of Ile-de-France. This space, like All other platforms, are constantly monitored by Exotec.

At the Croix factory, from a control room open 24 hours a day, the quality team monitors the Skypods in operation, tracking their movements on multiple screens and tracking the slightest failure. “In the event of an error, we can often work remotely, confirms Renault Hitz, even if technicians are also assigned to the most important warehouses. At any given time, 98% of the robots should operate normally; that is our goal.”

Soon, two more observation rooms will open in Atlanta and Tokyo, a must as contracts fall in the US and Asia. To attack these markets, the startup has shown pragmatism paying off. Instead of attracting e-merchants directly, it has partnered with several local integrators for logistics solutions. “Each country has its own standards in warehouse management, it would have been better to rely on the experts in their markets,” explains Gil Pollard, former sales manager now responsible for the Asia region. This experienced seller, now 60 years old, was able to conclude a huge contract directly with the Fast Retailing Group, which owns Uniqlo.

After the first contact made at the LogiMat fair in Stuttgart and numerous visits by the Japanese to Croix, Exotec handed them two turnkey sites for them during the pandemic. “They appreciated the time allotted to dissect their needs without necessarily relying on what they initially asked us for,” says the manager. Now that the company is making a name for itself, it is moving very quickly, especially in the United States. “The potential is huge in this country as urban logistics mini-pallets will multiply,” says Jean-Marc Sollier.

To maintain a competitive advantage, Exotec is strengthening research and development and intends to hire an additional 500 engineers within three years. While young photography devotes 15% of its sales to research, the projects really don’t exist. After the Skypod, you want to deploy the Skypicker: This robotic pickup arm is equipped with a camera and suction cup device to pick up and move objects. Sales started slowly, but a company like Logilec, a logistics subsidiary of Leclerc, had already purchased two of them to manage the small pharmacy items in the Gellainville (Eure-et-Loire) warehouse. Soon, other autonomous robots can empty trucks or remove crates from pallets.

Innovation Secrets Designed and Made in France

Near Lille, in a workshop next to the R&D lab, the startup manufactures the Skypod. This domestic production allows him to control the quality of the robot (it undergoes 400 checks in total) and adapt it. “We test ideas and validate software developments,” says Renaud Heitz.

  • the frame. This patented part incorporates the original stabilization system, and keeps the Skypod balanced despite a 30kg load.
  • laser. Paired with a camera, it allows the device to locate itself, as well as move at high speed without hitting anything.
  • the battery. Capable of recharging in a few seconds, with each brake and descent, it provides the device with almost complete autonomy.
  • elevation system. Thanks to the small retractable arms, the robot adheres to vertical rods that are installed along the storage shelves.

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