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AI/Automation

Warehouse automation company Symbotic starts deploying 5G

Symbotic has a massive agreement with Walmart that involves outfitting 25 of the retailer's distribution centers with robot-powered, automated distribution systems. And that's just one of Symbotic's customers; the company counts agreements fully covering 1,400 stores in 16 US states and eight Canadian provinces.

And Symbotic is beginning to embrace 5G.

"We are starting to deploy systems in 5G now," the company confirmed in a recent email to Light Reading. However, company officials declined to provide any further details about Symbotic's operations, including its use of wireless networking technologies and the 5G vendors it might be working with.

Nonetheless, Symbotic's interest in 5G is noteworthy considering a wide range of companies in the global wireless industry are hoping that 5G becomes a necessity in the warehouse of the future, helping to connect robots and other autonomous operations to a central management system.

Already a variety of players have been testing such setups. For example, the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany is now home to a 5G-enabled smart warehouse that will use logistics to increase the efficiency of vehicular storage and maintenance. Specifically, the logistics system will identify, record, organize, store and retrieve inventory. Separately, Honeywell Intelligrated designs and builds the warehouses that store products for retailers, delivery companies and others, and is now likely looking at whether to integrate 5G technologies into its offerings.

Symbotic's interest in 5G comes at an important time in the company's evolution. The company recently announced plans to go public sometime early this year via an agreement with the Japanese investment giant SoftBank. The transaction promises to raise $725 million for Symbotic and values the company at $5.5 billion. Walmart, an early investor in Symbotic, will kick in $150 million in order to own 9% of Symbotic.

Symbotic expects to post $211 million in revenues in 2021, up from $92 million the year prior.

Symbotic touts warehouse automation technologies including autonomous robots that can efficiently move and store goods.  (Source: Symbotic)
Symbotic touts warehouse automation technologies including autonomous robots that can efficiently move and store goods.
(Source: Symbotic)

According to a detailed article on Symbotic from Forbes, the company started as a side hustle from Rick Cohen, the owner and chairman of C&S Wholesale Grocers, the nation's largest grocery wholesaler with $25 billion in revenue. He started Symbotic roughly 15 years ago as a way to improve the warehouse operations of C&S.

Wireless technology has always been a part of those efforts. According to the Forbes article, one of Cohen's first warehouse innovations was a wireless warehouse management system in 1989 that allowed workers to communicate with each other in the warehouse. "The work force became much more productive. It was a huge disruption," he told the publication.

That focus appears to remain. A recent job posting by Symbotic for a "senior wireless engineer" looks for experience in Wi-Fi technologies as well as experience with 4G networks running in CBRS spectrum.

Symbotic isn't alone, of course. For example, Amazon's automated warehouse system is based in part on its $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems. Other companies in the automated warehouse space include 6 River Systems, Locus Robotics, Vecna Robotics and Berkshire Grey.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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