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Digital retail giant Amazon has over 200,000 robots helping deliver more than 350 million different products in an unceasing flood of billions of deliveries. Its fulfillment machine with both free and fast shipping has become a key competitive moat against other retailers: free shipping and 1-day or 2-day shipping is why Amazon customers chose Amazon.
So how can other retailers, whether giants like Walmart or smaller brands, compete? One way is by stealing a march on the e-commerce behemoth and automating themselves.
This surge in automation, driven by our on-demand economy, is boosting growth of the warehouse robotics space more than 15% every year and and causing the ecosystem to more than double in size by 2027, hitting over $23 billion in value. Plus, according to industry experts, it’s also boosting productivity 200-300%.
Sometimes in simpler ways than you might think.
Locus Robotics is a seven-year-old logistics automation startup with $300 million in funding that’s on track to pick a billion items this year. And boosting productivity isn’t always about the biggest, smartest, most capable robot that can go anywhere, find anything, take it off the warehouse rack, and bring it where it needs to go. Sometimes it’s just about lending a helping hand, and letting humans do what they do better.
I recently talked to Locus Robotics CMO Karen Leavitt on the TechFirst podcast.
“Our robots know what the item is, nobody has to look at a list. The robots go to the location where the item is being stored, and then a worker meets the robot there,” Leavitt says. “By doing it that way, we are doubling or even tripling the productivity of the humans in that warehouse, and we’re cutting down on the amount of walking that they do by probably 75 or 80%. These are people who, without the robots, would be walking 10 to 15 miles a day. And now they’re down to just a few miles a day because they’re interacting with the robots.”
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In other words, warehouse robots don’t necessarily need to do all of the job. Getting variably-shaped objects of variable weight off shelves of variable height and depth is a challenging robotic endeavor. Humans do it much better — at least right now. Robots, however, are much better at wheeling around a multi-hundred-thousand square foot warehouse and saving humans all that walking.
The problem? Almost all warehouses today do this entirely manually, Leavitt says.
“95% of all of those warehouses do this process entirely manually, where it’s a person pushing a glorified shopping cart through the aisles walking … a dozen or more miles a day.”
Locus ships robots via what we might call robots-as-a-service model, adding extras during busy times like holidays. “Training” time for a new robot is essentially zero: connect then to the robotic network and they’ll be assigned tasks and integrated into the flow of work immediately.
The robots also reduce training time for workers. Instead of two or three weeks to learn all the tricks of the logistics trade, they can essentially hang out in a specified area of the warehouse. As a robot comes up and flashes some information to them, they can grab the right item and give it to the robot.
That makes the humans more productive, Leavitt says.
It reduces injuries, too. Leavitt says one customer reported an 80% reduction in injuries, plus better job satisfaction due to less fatigue.
Of course, two things are happening there. The humans are essentially becoming part of a command-and-control network run by a warehouse or logistics operating system — which I suppose has always happened in some form or another, even pre-digital days — and are basically being told what to pick, when and where, by the robot who comes up for the next item. And secondly, as robots get better, smarter, more capable, and cheaper, eventually the robots will be able to add the picking part of the job as well.
Or, Locus and other robotics manufactures will create a class of robots that doesn’t just move product but essentially replaces the picking people in the warehouse racks, so that one robot moves the product while another robot gets it.
That may be a ways off, but it seems inevitable. It doesn’t seem to be something that any robotics company wants to admit, however.
“Three, four years ago, I worried about that tension, but we haven’t seen it,” Leavitt says. “And the reason we haven’t seen it is because the growth rate in the fulfillment warehouse area has just been so strong that the ability to find, hire, and retain labor is still the biggest challenge warehouse operators face.”
That makes sense, but as we see Amazon start to use robots like the Fanuc 6-axis robot that can lift 1,200 kilogram pallets high into the air, and other smaller robots with dextrous “fingers,” for lighter and more delicate items, you have to think the days are approaching when all the jobs in shipping and fulfillment can be done by robots.
And, of course, managed by complex software to optimize timing and productivity.
“We’re really turning these warehouses into digital command centers,” Leavitt told me. “We put up monitors everywhere that that create dashboards. And we see not just the supervisors and the executives looking at these dashboards, but the workers looking at them: they can see how their actions are contributing to the output in the warehouse. And they can take action as a result of that.”
With Amazon and Walmart nearly tied in their percentage of US retail sales and hundreds if not thousands of other retailers struggling to compete, that kind of automation is not just critical for Walmart to achieve in order to compete, but any other retailer as well.
Locus Robotics just added two new robots to its fleet last month which will handle heavier loads as well as pick products at the case and pallet level — but not yet individual items. Both are available with its robots-as-a-service model.
Global logistics giant DHL says they’re working:
“Locus’s innovative multi-bot solution has helped DHL to consistently double our worker’s productivity all around the world,” Adrian Kumar, and executive with DHL, said in a statement. “This new robot lineup – with the different form factors all working together as a coordinated fleet – means we always assign the right robot, even as our needs change dynamically throughout the work day.”
Competitors include Fanuc, with a long list of robots for warehouses as well as production and industrial use, OTTO, Grabit, Fetch Robotics (acquired by Zebra), and more.