Like every segment of supply chains, warehousing faces intense pressure to enhance process efficiency. Witness the automation that has slowly crept into its operations: Workers are increasingly being replaced on repetitive tasks as businesses perceive higher efficiency with machines than humans. E-commerce majors like Alibaba and JD.com have built automated warehouses in China that are run completely by robots, doing away with the human workforce variable.
Against that backdrop, robots-as-a-service is a concept that is gaining traction, and for the right reasons. Automation, albeit highly productive, has traditionally been heavy on the pockets as small and mid-tier warehousing businesses struggle to muster the initial investment. Robots-as-a-service circumvents this problem by requiring minimal investment from warehousing businesses to bring automation to their floor.
“Robots-as-a-service is becoming very popular right now. This is a service where a monthly fee covers everything — software, hardware, maintenance and support. When a warehouse pays for a fleet of robots, it gets guaranteed uptime of working robots at the facility,” said Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, a startup providing autonomous robots for warehouses.
Warehouses today do not have the bandwidth to wait six months to a year for planning and deployment, Wise explained. They want results much quicker.
“This is because there is a risk — both budget-wise and delivery-wise — when it takes many months to get a system up and running,” she said. “Customers are looking at a day to two weeks for planning and deployment.”
In response, robotics companies have innovated quick automation solutions that provide tools that empower their customers to take ownership of systems and to customize, deploy and operate them in quick succession.
Reducing the deployment time cycle speeds return on investment (ROI). Wise pointed out that businesses often find a balance between increasing productivity and the incremental costs of the robots they have to deploy to make that happen. That said, Fetch Robotics’ customers see their ROI in a couple of weeks to a few months — an impossibility for systems that take a year to deploy.
She said most of the warehouses look to leverage automation and robotics to increase their throughput for product picking, although that is not the only challenge they must overcome. “One of the things that we look at in addition to throughput for picking is also the returns process after the holiday season, which is even bigger and more painful for companies,” Wise said.
Though it is understood that the holiday season means shipping high volumes of products, the underbelly of that reality is that the season involves similarly excessive returns. Traditionally, returns are managed by a warehouse management system (WMS), which entails several manual processes before the goods are scrapped or revert to the inventory restock.
Wise suggested a hybrid system that is partially human-driven and partially WMS-driven, wherein a part of redundant human-centric operations can be taken up by robots. That can give warehouses a lot more flexibility with handling not just the picking part, but also the returns and general triaging that happen throughout the holiday season and even long after, when some people finally decide to return gifts they don’t like.
Safety is a key concern in a setting where robots work alongside humans. For instance, Fetch Robotics’ robots operate forklifts. A vital component of ensuring safety in that environment is reducing human-robot interaction to the maximum extent possible. That said, Wise noted that the robots are “friendly co-workers” and valuable associates.
Having robots that communicate only with sounds rather than voice-based characteristics can be surprisingly helpful, as it reduces workers’ possible stress at the thought of being replaced by intelligent machines. Wise has heard glowing tributes from older workers on the warehousing floor who remarked that the assistance they get from the robots helps reduce fatigue, thereby increasing employees’ work life span by a decade.
“I think that’s a big win,” Wise said, “especially since the demographic that we see within the warehousing labor market is getting older by the day.”