- The pandemic and e-commerce demand are driving adoption of autonomous warehouse solutions
- “The ability to flex up and flex down depending on what is really happening in the real world is going to be the wave of the future.”
The pandemic and seemingly unstoppable e-commerce surge is accelerating robotic takeover of the warehouse space, as brands seize on flexible automated solutions to address a variety of marketplace challenges.
“You can’t meet the demands of modern commerce with systems that were built for a previous era,” said Terrie O’Hanlon, chief marketing officer for GreyOrange, a software and mobile robotics company that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to make warehouse operations more efficient.
Adaptability in particular has become an essential tool as operators must respond quickly to customer demand that is at once surging and fluctuating wildly, O’Hanlon said.
GreyOrange provides fleets of autonomous modular sorting robots (available in six “form factors”) that move parcels from receiving through dispatch. The company’s key differentiator, according to O’Hanlon, is an AI-driven fulfillment operating system that allows the devices to communicate with one another and adapt to changes in real time, as order patterns and fulfillment expectations change.
“It’s pricey to be able to deliver on that desire for immediacy for the consumer,” said O’Hanlon. Compared to traditional fixed automation systems, mobile robots allow companies to have a high degree of automation that is also cost effective, she said.
The COVID-19 factor
Warehouse robotics investment surged 57% in 2020, according to a recent Pitchbook report, as brands jump on solutions designed to reduce labor costs and improve e-commerce delivery times.
The pandemic is only accelerating development of new robotics technologies, with maintenance and cleaning emerging as a prime target area for mobile automation.
One month after it debuted the Breezy One, a COVID- fighting robot equipped with a disinfecting chemical, cloud robotics company Fetch Robotics announced on Thursday the launch of another disinfecting autonomous mobile robot, the SmartGuardUV, which leverages mapping technology and 3D camera vision to autonomously direct broad spectrum UV light from a pulsed xenon lamp.
Breezy One is designed for large spaces like warehouses, airports and other large locations that benefit from a single deep cleaning overnight, said Barry Phillips, Fetch’s chief marketing officer, while SmartGuardUV is designed for disinfection of high-touch surfaces that can be reoccupied as soon as the disinfecting is complete.
“This combination of disinfecting robots, both of which have unique disinfection ‘engines,’ opens up smart, automated cleaning solutions to businesses with a diversity of needs, Phillips told FreightWaves in an email.
Outside the coronavirus space, Fetch continues to innovate in the warehouse arena, recently adding a new workflow tool enabling flexible automation in existing facilities. Used in tandem with Fetch autonomous mobile robots, the Workflow Builder tool allows companies to scale easily, changing processes as the fleet size changes, Stefan Nusser, vice president of product at Fetch, told FreightWaves in an interview earlier this year.
From a logistics perspective, the pandemic and macroeconomic climate are accelerating interest in flexible warehouse assets, said Karl Siebrecht, CEO of aptly named Flexe, a Seattle-based on-demand warehousing company. “What we’re seeing is a two-front war that retailers are trying to keep up with,” he explained. E-commerce is surging, so retailers worry they don’t have enough warehouses. But if they have brick-and-mortar operations, total business may be down.
“In a recession, the last thing you may want to do is make capital investments,” Siebrecht said. Flexe’s business model and value proposition is about winning the two-front war: adding new warehouse locations and capacity very quickly with no fixed costs.
That framework informs the GreyOrange business model. Companies today are putting smaller amounts of inventory in smaller warehouses closer to consumers, O’Hanlon noted, while also looking to make all inventory, e-commerce and brick and mortar, visible and accessible to the system. As these micro-fulfillment and omni-channel practices reshape e-commerce, expensive, fixed automation investments become less attractive.
Instead, scalable mobile robots can help companies adapt to changing fulfillment dynamics without breaking the bank.
“With COVID, everything changed overnight,” O’Hanlon said. “The ability to flex up and flex down depending on what is really happening in the real world is going to be the wave of the future.”
Mobile robotic solutions come with other advantages — namely, they help smaller e-commerce operators compete with the Amazon juggernaut, O’Hanlon observed. “People want to do business with local providers if they can get the same level of convenience and service,” she said.
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