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Written by Ralph Crewe, PRN Community Outreach and Engagement Manager

The Pittsburgh Robotics Network hosted Seegrid CEO Jim Rock for an hour-long chat about the tremendous success of Seegrid, managing growth, and overcoming challenges. BEA’s Tim Chiappetta led the conversation with an atmosphere of genuine curiosity and thoughtful questions. PRN Executive Director Joel Reed opened and closed the session with warm remarks and the vibrant enthusiasm that one expects from the leading global robotics hub that is Pittsburgh.

If you aren’t familiar with Seegrid’s work, Rock describes what they’re all about early in the interview: “So let’s start with what we do, [there are] lots of different ways to describe that. But the layman’s version is we’re automating forklifts. And not just forklifts, but industrial vehicles, you can see one if you’re watching this (Jim is referring to his Zoom background) you can see one over my shoulder. This is really a tugger vehicle or tow tractor. So the whole class of large industrial vehicles that are moving materials and factories and warehouses.” 

Rock is well aware of the importance of focusing on the customer and understanding their needs. “We decided to put an extreme amount of focus on what’s the right word, customer-centric behavior, getting really close to the customer spending a lot of time and money and effort on making sure that we have the right roles in the company, pre and post-sales to deeply understand the customer, but also keep them up and running.”

Of course, as the webinar was hosted by the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, we had to ask Jim about the advantages of Seegrid being based in the steel city:

“So the Pittsburgh advantage, what’s that all about? I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I’m a townie and I moved away to Silicon Valley for a while and learned a thing or two and came hightailing back, for many reasons. One is quality of life. So in addition to having a nice, nice place to live for you and your partner, or family or friends, we also have some powerhouse educational institutions. Carnegie Mellon University being the one that we’re associated with, but the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, Robert Morris University, etc, etc. There’s an incredible pipeline of talent of hard-working men and women that are well trained, well educated, motivated, right here in Pittsburgh.” 

The utility, implementation, and scale of Seegrid’s technologies and operations have grown significantly since its inception at Carnegie Mellon University back in 2003. Today the company has well over 350 employees and is growing rapidly. And while the company may be most known for, as Jim puts it, “taking $15,000 forklifts and turning them into $150-200,000 robots”, there’s much more to their operations. Here’s how Rock breaks it down: “All of the pre-sales, business case development, application scoping, the selling, the implementation. With the ongoing customer support and customer success, we have field service technicians that are out and about making sure that our equipment is up and running. And then, of course, the complement of administrative surfaces, IT, finance, accounting, etc. So we do it all. We’re a full-spectrum company, which is great. It really lets us, you know, put our hands on the steering wheel here and drive our destiny.”

So why is automation so important for industrial machinery like forklifts? There is a myriad of answers, but perhaps the most compelling is safety. As Jim puts it: “The reality in our industry is that forklifts are can be very dangerous… and so we’re doing our best to bring this innovation to market that includes safety in safer operation and a safer alternative to humans driving forklifts, which are involved in just an unacceptable level of injury and death.”

How have Seegrid’s robots fared in terms of safety? Rock continues: “Running in production moving equipment in the real world. We’ve got in the neighborhood of 5 million miles with no personnel safety incidents.” That’s a pretty stellar record.

Perhaps the most striking element of Rock’s comments were on the importance of the humans behind the robotics company. As he puts it, “…culture is the engine of it. And so we’ve distilled our behaviors down to three simple words; it’s actually not that simple. But, you know, we try to communicate it in a simple manner. And that is kind, curious, and driven. And those are words that really define the ideal version of ourselves, at least at work. It’s the grid, and how we, how we interact with each other.”  

Watch the YouTube video below to access the full insightful session.