Business Inspection: Ground-breaking robotics
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
GroundWow’s innovative world-first ground-printing technology proves a hit
Launching a technology start-up, in the fourth quarter of 2019, whose success hinged on the scalability
of an entirely new product might have been a disaster, taking into consideration the economic shit-storm of the past few years.
But with a genuine world-first in automated ground printing, the team behind GroundWow truly has something new to offer and are starting to reap the rewards of their hard work.
“Historically, when you see advertising on football pitches or any venue ground space, it has been done with very labour-intensive methods and using single-use plastic stencils on the ground that very often end up in landfill,” explains GroundWow marketing manager Mike Owen.
“What tends to happen is that a team of up to eight people will have to spray the ground – it’s really back-breaking work. The problem is that aside from being time-consuming and resource-draining, with this method the ground often gets over-sprayed, which doesn’t allow the grass to grow properly,” he says.
Owen continues: “What the team behind GroundWow has developed allows stadium and venue owners to not only save time, but make more revenue. This is ground space that was never even considered to be an advertising opportunity before, but if they use one of our robots, they can set it going while carrying out jobs and it is making money for them.”
GroundWow and its ground-breaking autonomous ground-printing robots is the fruit of nearly a decade of preparation and labour by a team of technical specialists headed by founder and chief executive Tony Rhoades.
Through his experience in a wide range of technology and business arenas – from
lecturing at Sheffield Hallam and Liverpool universities to leading strategic technology innovation and supporting the growth of entrepreneurial tech firms – Rhoades, himself a chartered engineer, identified a gap in the ground-printing market. He wanted to make it as easy as printing on paper.
In around 2013, he began building a team of specialist technical engineers headed by robotics and aerospace engineer Sam Cornish-Evans, now GroundWow’s chief technical officer, and senior robotics engineer Lewis Cassidy.
Based in Cheadle and Altrincham, Manchester, the team undertook an extensive R&D programme from 2015 and delivered initial proof of concept in 2017, with continual refining through prototype testing in 2018 and 2019 when it was launched.
Together they have developed the world’s first full-colour, modular robot ground printer with a software subscription service: an autonomous vehicle platform with remote navigation capability, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) capacity, data analytics and end-to-end cloud print management software that aims to end the physically demanding work of applying advertising graphics to venue floors and allow venue owners to reap the benefits of their under-utilised ground real-estate.
The entirely UK-developed and manufactured design uses standard ground paint, the same as that used for white line markings, which is loaded into six on-board 12-litre ‘ink’ cartridges and jets through six printheads.
The non-permanent, non-toxic paints are UK-made, formulated by GroundWow and mixed in a blending house for the company. Standard colours are red, blue, green, white, black and yellow, but as Owen explains, once the user uploads their imagery into the system, the software will analyse the colours and recommends the custom colour-mix to match the branding.
The on-board paint management software only applies paint to the tip of the blades of grass rather than coating the entirety of the blade, deploying 95% less paint than traditional methods at 0.2-litres/sqm.
The operator dashboard offers different surface options too and the machine will adapt its printhead height and spray pressure to suit the surface. If printing on grass, the system will automatically adjust according to the blade height.
“It really only applies the correct amount and colour of paint required for the particular surface and branding – there are no stencils at all, so zero waste. You just upload your imagery and requirements into the cloud dashboard and the printer does the rest,” says Owen.
Customers effectively rent the device for a monthly subscription which varies according to individual needs.
Since taking the product to market, launching it at major grounds management exhibition Saltex in November 2019, it has continued to evolve and is now available in four models: the SFX Pro; SFX Max; SFX Apex and SFX Ultra.
Owen explains: “The Pro is suitable for printing along touchlines and the Max is suited to the same purpose, but has an attachment for a wider print area, which is useful if a client has a 7m run-off area rather than a 4m run-off area.” The Pro and Max are 1m- and 3m-wide respectively and print up to 0.7km/h.
The faster Apex and Ultra, meanwhile, are variations on the first two, but designed for larger graphic installations and so incorporate a more complex on-board navigation technology that allows them to tile, while modular attachments expand their print area. The Apex has 9m tile-width area, while the company says the Ultra’s is unlimited.
Of course, funding such an ambitious project has in itself been a major undertaking, with Rhoades and his team working on projects over the past decade to help self-fund his GroundWow vision. Several funding rounds to date have generated up to seven figures each, through a mix of self-funding, investments from ultra-high-net-worth-individuals and ongoing input from some of the world’s largest financial advisory bodies, according to chief commercial officer David Pritchard.
He says development of complex technology such as the GroundWow printers doesn’t happen without overcoming challenges.
“Technically, there is the deep technology that runs the whole system, as well as the product development itself. Tech-wise, it is a mind-bending work of engineering, navigation, AI, ML, cloud-computing to name but a few that generates the print,” Pritchard explains.
“Then the product has to work for the intended use case – and so for us that means elite level sports environments. Here is where you are having to consider things like size, weight and speed such that you are able to operate in available (regularly short) operational windows. You also have to look at a product like this from a user perspective – it has to be intuitive and simple to understand if you are going to drive longer-term adoption. When you have ticked all of these boxes, you have something you can legitimately claim to be a prototype.”
He continues: “Commercially, it has to either speak to a need that somebody already knows they have or awaken a sense of need that a potential customer thinks they can gain from. In GroundWow’s case, we were able to achieve both of these elements by talking about time and cost efficiency to entities who were already active in pitch marking and also talk to a different set of prospects about the possibilities of turning land they already own into advertising real estate and new revenue.”
Pritchard says that having a ‘world-first’ status meant that, by definition, it requires a high level of “missionary work” to get conversations started.
“All of this takes time, but interestingly, with almost zero outbound marketing, word filtered out very quickly that we had done something previously believed to be impossible – and inbound enquiries began to flow.”
Another commercial challenge, he states, is the need to gauge the timing of jumping-off point versus the known speed of development.
“You have to set your product baby free at some point and you have to marry this with how well protected you feel from an IP perspective. We invested heavily in IP without any revenue stream coming back to us, taking the view that protecting our journey over five years in R&D would pay itself back in the longer term.”
And they may just be right. Since shipping its first model at the end of last year – owing to the pandemic hiatus – GroundWow has already produced devices in the double digits, with deals in Dubai, South Africa, the UK and the US, and equipment on the ground in two “top priority markets” in the latter two regions.
One such contract, a major deal signed in December 2021, is with Stockport County Football Club where it has used its SFX Max to print logos for sponsors Puma and Vita at the Edgeley Park ground.
“The response has been brilliant across the board – we’ve had people from all over the world come and see us,” Owen says.
He says they are currently working to an eight-week lead time, with all units in operation so far proving to be a great success.
Meanwhile, the company is taking enquiries about use of the technology in government facilities management, construction, road markings, aviation, education, healthcare and agritech.
It has also recently won an innovation award for presenting a robotic solution for the NHS to help conduct disease monitoring and detection, which could save billions of pounds. To date, the business has won 10 technology Innovation Awards, the latest in 2021 being the Stadium Business Innovation Award.
GroundWow now operates a UK Smart Factory, Innovation Hub and Indoor Arena in Manchester, with 30 staff on its books. Along with chief executive Rhoades, they include 13 in tech, four in operations, six in sales and marketing, four in finance and government, and two new salespeople based in North Carolina, US.
“The American market is huge for us,” says Owen. “We intend to make a base there and potentially replicate what we have here.”
Owen attributes the company’s ongoing success to “a fantastic mix of cultures and skills under one roof, which gives us the ability to have all sorts of people with different specialisms, different focuses”.
He adds: “We found a great team that want to be here and be involved. And we make sure everyone is involved in every level of the business.”
Inspection focus Developing a new tech product
Business location Cheadle, UK; US
Inspection host Mike Owen, marketing design manager, David Pritchard, Chief technical officer
Established date 2015
Products and services Ground printing robots
Kit GroundWow SFX Pro, SFX Max, SFX Apex and SFX Ultra
- Owen says that using a trade show as a launch event for a new product, especially a ‘world-first’, was absolutely key in getting GroundWow off the ground
- Continually ask for external advice, be it from market connections, friends or family, according to Owen, and don’t take for granted that the company messaging is being understood clearly
- With such complex technology, it’s vital to look at it from a user perspective to ensure it is intuitive and will drive long-term adoption, according to Pritchard
- He adds that the amount of time needed to get conversations off the ground with the right people, when launching a world-first, shouldn’t be underestimated