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More proof the revolution in self-driving vehicles is happening far away from roads

A record year for a leading maker of vision-guided vehicles says a lot about the role of robotics in e-commerce and manufacturing.

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Seegrid, which makes self-guided vehicles for materials handling, is the latest robotics company to announce record-setting results for 2017.

The company's revenue and profit milestones track broader trends for industrial robotics companies helping fill automation gaps in a number of growing industries. They also suggest that real growth in self-guided technology is already happening, though it has nothing to do with Waymo or Tesla.

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"Manufacturing and e-commerce companies are under pressure to modernize their operations and transform their facilities into the smart factories of the future," explains Jim Rock, CEO of Seegrid. "Our customers expect a partner who can not only deliver a quality product, but help shepherd the transition into a more automated, data-driven environment."

The trend of increasing productivity and turnaround in factories through bolt-on automation has led to a boom in robotics sales. For the first nine months of 2017, North America saw 27,294 orders of robots valued at approximately $1.5 billion. That's a new record, according to the Association for Advancing Automation, an industry trade group focusing on North America.

In Seegrid's case, the 2017 milestones came from additional orders of vision-guided vehicles (VGVs) from existing customers in the automotive, e-commerce, and distribution sectors, as well as new customers lured by Seegrid's growing product suite.

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Last year the company introduced a self-driving pallet truck that allows factories to introduce fully automated materials movement from pick-up to drop-off in unstructured environments.

Much of the technology underlying Seegrid's VGVs will sound familiar to those who track automotive trends. Previously, driverless industrial vehicles required the installation of permanent or semi-permanent infrastructure, such as magnetic tape. But thanks to advances in self-guided technology, solutions like Seegrid's allow flexible, extremely safe materials handling solutions that can be added to existing operations overnight.

Seegrid's vehicles closed out 2017 having driven 800,000 production miles in customer facilities without a single safety incident. Considering materials handling comprises some of the most dangerous tasks in industrial operations, that's exceptional.

The automation trends should continue in 2018, when automated solutions will once again be a priority capital investment for manufacturing and logistics.