Emile Derache (Botko): “Within a ‘Goods-to-Person’ setup you can evolve to ‘Goods-to-Robot’.”

02/05/2022 — minutes reading time
Emile Derach3

Botko is one of Log!Ville’s seven Start2Scale-up partners. The company from Lubbeek, near Leuven, was founded by Emile Derache around four years ago with a focus on customised automation. On display at Log!Ville it has a picking robot that recognises objects through artificial intelligence and can pick them up and move them, but as an integrator its scope is much broader than that.

Derache, a qualified civil engineer specialising in mechanical engineering, has two great passions: robotisation and vision technology. He combines these two technologies to optimise industrial and logistical processes. “In some cases,” he says, “We’re dealing with existing, efficient processes that can nevertheless be improved through the use of cobots and 3D cameras. In others, when the technology being used is due for replacement, we step in and optimise the processes through the use of robots.”

“Botko is an integrator: we act as a one-stop shop and select, configure and implement robots and cobots that exist on the market, then we write customised software for them based on the processes involved. Our speciality is picking cobots with a fixed arm, which can use vision technology to pick up items, move them and put them down. They might be used to stack boxes on pallets or collect smaller objects in containers. What’s really hot right now is robotic depalleting, where boxes are taken off a pallet, sorted, and stacked on new pallets.”

Interaction with G2P

The market for mobile robots is growing fast at the moment, partly due to the increasing success of Goods-to-Person (G2P) systems. Botko specialises in fixed robotic arms. Derache doesn’t see that as a problem – quite the opposite. “Within a G2P setup you can evolve to a G2R setup. Goods-to-Robot, so to speak. In an AutoStore, for example, you can have a combination of humans and robots picking orders. Humans could pick for 8 hours, then robots could pick for the remaining 16 hours. Or people could take out the most difficult items from the tote (container), and cobots could pick the more common items. In the ‘tote-to-person’ trend that’s taking off in the G2P sector, I can definitely see a future for fixed picking arms.”

Huge potential in logistics

Botko started out focusing on the manufacturing industry, but due to increasing demand it has expanded its activities to include logistics. “The logistics sector has always lagged behind the production sector in the field of robotisation,” says Derache. “It’s starting to catch up, but slowly. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, until a couple of years ago the market was closed, because it was dominated by three or four big players that mainly focused on large companies. It’s really only now that the market is starting to open up. Secondly, the manufacturing industry, more than the logistics sector, has had access to technical personnel with the right background. Robotisation was given an opportunity much sooner. In the logistics sector, the technological distance has always been a bit bigger.”

This means there’s huge potential for robotisation in logistics. “If you want to accelerate innovation in the sector, an initiative like Log!Ville is particularly welcome,” says Derache. “It helps business leaders and managers in the sector become more aware of available technologies and how they can boost efficiency. It’s also a forum where you can talk to colleagues and exchange points of view.” He believes the government also has a role to play. “They can remove barriers by supporting projects that could lead to an initial proof of concept. Compare this with the SME portfolio for training programmes. Why is there no equivalent portfolio for encouraging innovation?”

The facts are clear: the logistics sector is catching up in automation, and Botko wants to play an active role. “Where will we be in three years’ time? Our ambition is to grow into one of the key players in Benelux in the sector of robotic camera-supported picking operations. We currently employ five robotics engineers. Three years from now, we’ll need at least fifteen. In the next few years, automation and robotisation are going to take off in the logistics sector, particularly given the increasing shortage of staff. We want to play a leading role.”