Caterpillar Inc announced that it has acquired select assets and hired employees from Marble Robot Inc. According to Caterpillar, the acquisition of Marble is part of its roadmap to develop an internal team focused on the next generation of autonomous controls for their large equipment. Caterpillar intends to become the leader in autonomous equipment for the construction, quarry, industrial and waste industries.
“We’re excited to join the autonomy team at Caterpillar,” said Kevin Peterson, former Marble CEO, now Caterpillar technologist. “In many ways, this completes a full circle for me. I had the privilege of working with Caterpillar early in my career at Carnegie Mellon, where they sponsored the development of the first generation of self-driving vehicle software. Now, with the acquisition of the Marble team, together we will drive the next generation of autonomy solutions for Caterpillar customers in the construction, quarry, industrial and waste industries.”
So it would seem that Peterson had deep connections with Caterpillar and as a result, he was able to reach an exit for the Marble team that provides them with the opportunity to further their interest in developing autonomy solutions.
Albeit for much, much larger machines.
Marble previously was developing its intelligent, courier vehicles for use in "last mile" delivery applications. The company was founded in 2015 and pulled in $10M in investment during that time. However, this market has yet to emerge as a viable application due in part to state and local regulations covering the operation of autonomous vehicles on sidewalks and a general lack of adoption outside of urban and college campus use cases. There has been plenty of competition in this market.
Caterpillar Struggles in Recent Quarters
In recent financial news, sales of Caterpillar construction equipment were down 27% in the first quarter of 2020, contributing to a 41% drop in profits for the segment. (April 28, 2020)
This includes layoffs as recently as April 30, 2020. Company spokeswoman Kate Kenny was quoted as saying the move was part of a plan “to reduce costs due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and to improve our competitiveness during this period of economic uncertainty.”
According to KHL (which covers the construction market in depth):
"The decline was reportedly due to lower sales volume driven by lower end-user demand and the impact from changes in dealer inventories. Dealers increased machine and engine inventories about US$100 million during the first quarter of 2020, compared with about US$1.3 billion during the first quarter of 2019.
Total sales of construction equipment were reported to be US$4.306 billion in the first quarter of 2020, a decrease of US$1.567 billion, compared with US$5.873 billion in the first quarter of 2019."
What this Means for Marble and Caterpillar
It makes sense, given the current economic climate, that Caterpillar intends to leverage the Marble team and their mature autonomy technology, to advance and evolve their autonomy controls and emerge as a leader in this space. Especially for Caterpillar machines.
The result should be an autonomous option for Caterpillar equipment that makes it more productive and cost-effect for customers.
In the big picture, autonomous construction vehicles have seen both investment and growth with the emergence of Built Robotics, Dusty Robotics, Scaled Robotics, Rugged Robotics and market leader ASI (controls provider) to validate the market/opportunity.