As the annual Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping extravaganza approaches, retailers are optimistic over increased online spending. However, the increase in order volume, along with customer expectations around speedy shipping and delivery, can turn a boon into a massive bust in the twinkling of an eye.
Online spending on Black Friday is expected to surpass $12 billion this year, according to the BlackFriday.com website. Cyber Monday, the day in which consumers do their online shopping via higher-speed work connections, is expected to hit $9.4 billion this year, up nearly 19% over 2018, according to Adobe Analytics.
The completion of many of these orders as a way to ensure speedy delivery will include autonomous mobile robots, which have been deployed to warehouses and supply-chain distribution centers around the world. Robotics Business Review spoke with officials from several robotics companies in this space, asking about their expectations for 2019 Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Enter the robots
“On Black Friday and Cyber Monday [our customers] see spikes of three to four times the regular volume,” said Lior Elazary, co-founder and CEO of inVia Robotics. “What they need from our automation system is simple – the ability to increase resources to fulfill those additional orders on time and accurately. They just can’t find enough people to hire as additional temporary workers during this busy period, and the people they do have are stretched to their limits.”
Robots help by adding the needed resources for picking, Elazary said. During peak times, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, inVia redirects robots that may be doing other tasks in customer warehouses, such as cycle counting, to concentrate all of their time on picking.
“Our customers expect to be able to scale up the system during peak,” he said. “With our robotics-as-a-service model, they can add order fulfillment capacity in the busy months and then dial it back during slower times. It’s a more efficient use of their resources.”
The inVia robots move up and down the aisles of cavernous warehouses to pull inventory to be shipped to consumers, eliminating time wasted by people walking down the aisles, according to Elazary.
“Our customers get the benefit of fulfilling four or five times the number of orders they could have managed with their previous manual processes, regardless of time of year,” he said. “It’s more critical during peak because the baseline order volume is so high. The level of consistency and accuracy maintained by our robots during peak delivers the biggest returns for our customers.”
Meeting customer demands
The robot hardware and software technology from 6 River Systems helps its customers meet the demands that are being put on their businesses, particularly during peak periods, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, said Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing, 6 River Systems.
The 6 River System includes collaborative mobile robots, all of which are named “Chuck,” after the Charles River in Massachusetts, along with cloud-based software. Chuck communicates with the software to coordinate all the work on the warehouse floors. A fleet of Chucks works collaboratively with human workers to increase productivity, in part, by minimizing walking and speeding up warehouse tasks, including put-away, picking, replenishment, and sorting.
Currently, 6 River Systems’ robots are deployed at 40 customer sites (with one site a week going live in the run-up to peak season), up from 25 sites last year, according to Glynn.
Last year, in the days after Black Friday, 6 River Systems fulfilled 1 million units, Glynn said. This year, he said he expects it to be much higher.
“One of our customers believes that on Cyber Monday there’s going to be seven times more volume that needs to get out of the building compared to an average day,” said Glynn. “We’re working very closely with that customer to make sure that the system that they’ve purchased can meet that spike in demand without having to add in seven times more people and seven times more than the 60 robots [deployed at the site].”
6 River Systems, which was acquired by Shopify earlier this year, is deploying new technology to allow that company to get more out of its building without having to keep incrementally adding the number of robots in the building, Glynn said.
Helping systems integrators help retailers
Osaro, an industrial-grade AI software company specializing in vision and control systems for robots, is working with systems integrators to help their customers get ready for the Black Friday and Cyber Monday rush, said Tracy Nguyen, marketing and communications, Osaro.
The company’s Osaro Pick software package automates picking and placing products, she said. The system includes a vision API to recognize difficult products, control software to move the robot, and a user interface for picking metrics and parameter setting.
“We know that retailers typically double the number of seasonal employees to fulfill the demands of e-commerce orders during the peak holiday season,” said Nguyen. “Our customers are upstream integrators that provide technology solutions and automated warehouses to retailers like Target. We are currently working toward internal deadlines with our partners to test and deploy our software in newly minted goods-to-person and goods-to-robot facilities.”
Robotic picking stations augment manual labor, especially in situations that are highly repetitive or stationary, Nguyen said. This can help fill a gap at especially busy times, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Enabling workers to do more, faster
Like other companies, Fetch Robotics’ customers are having a difficult time finding workers to help fill Black Friday and Cyber Monday orders. As such, they expect Fetch to help the workers they have do more in the same amount of time, said Stefan Nusser, vice president of product, Fetch Robotics.
The Fetch platform is designed to operate in human work environments. Currently, Fetch has robots deployed at customer locations in 19 countries, although the company doesn’t publish the exact number of customer locations.
“Our system is essentially a platform, and on top of the platform we offer different solutions,” said Stefan Nusser, vice president of product, Fetch Robotics. “Our customers tell us which one of their processes they want us to automate and optimize, and then we pick a solution, and one of them is order fulfillment.”
Combining mobile robotics with the power of the cloud, the Fetch Cloud Robotics Platform provides on-demand automation solutions for material handling and inventory management, with the ability to find, track, and move almost anything in any facility.
“We’re going to support our customers with seasonal activities through robotics as a service,” Nusser said. “We try and handle peaks at different times of the year so that we get the fleet utilized. What we’re seeing is that our retail customers do need more robots starting about [early November], or in the fall.”
Once the holiday shopping season is over, many products sold come back as returns. The retailers can then reprogram the robots and have them work with their associates on returns processing, Nusser said.
“Then as you get into spring and the volume goes down, we’ll take some of these robots that were provided as a service and deploy them to customers that may do an inventory process or other processes in the summer,” he said.
Handling the surge with surge robots
Another company providing robots-as-a-service for customers is Locus Robotics, which makes autonomous mobile robots called LocusBots for fulfillment warehouses. The company’s robots are deployed at some 40 customer sites, said Kary Zate, director of marketing communications at Locus.
“We have a number of our deployments that are taking significant amount of our surge robots for the holiday period [including Black Friday and Cyber Monday] because they’re realizing that in order to absorb this increased volume, all they have to do is add more robots,” he said. “About 50% of our customers are taking surge robots. We call them surge robots simply because it’s just an increase in volume because our system is a robots-as-a-service model.”
Last year, Locus’ robots picked roughly 4 million units during the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, according to Zate. On Cyber Monday alone, the robots picked nearly 2 million units.
“In terms of what we’re doing this year because of all the new deployments that we’ve had, we’re expecting [those numbers] to double and possibly triple,” he said.
Replacing unreliable temp labor
On Cyber Monday, IAM Robotics said it will see a massive increase – from two to 10 times – in daily order volume, said Rich Flati, head of customer success at IAM Robotics, which works with two of the top five retailers in the U.S., and three of the top 10 globally.
IAM Robotics’ Swift robot is an autonomous, material-picking robot that can navigate multiple aisles to move safely and accurately. Swift, which can pick and transport products at “human-level speeds,” enables its customers to scale operations more cost effectively, the company said. Swift can work alone or simultaneously as a fleet to help customers enhance their pack and ship operations.
“Most of that incremental order volume is from sort of one-off seasonal and promotional SKUs,” said Flati. “Some of these products are simply put into the system just for Cyber Monday. It might be an assortment, it might be a promotional kit, it might be special packaging, where that is the only time the retailers are going to have that item and it just doesn’t fit into traditional automation systems.”
Because the volume on Cyber Monday is mainly from small orders, the only other option retailers have is hiring temp labor, which is difficult to find and often unreliable during the holidays, particularly Cyber Monday, Flati said.
As a result, there are lots of customer service issues with the wrong products or in turn, very poor customer service at service levels, meaning the orders take longer to fill, he said.
“What our customers expect from us is what they expect throughout the course of the year, which is a way for them to get a large product variety to customers very quickly, without adding labor into their buildings,” Flati said.
Although IAM Robotics doesn’t offer robots for short periods of time, customers have definitely increased their fleet sizes, according to Flati.
“We were working with a bunch of customers last year and they’ve increased their fleet sizes this year,” he said. “Those fleets will stay with them throughout the remainder of the year, but they definitely have planned for promotions. This is very, very important for them to offer these products and be able to get them in the hands of the consumers quickly. Our customers are willing to spend money for a solution that will see different levels of utilization throughout the remainder of the year, so they’re able to meet the customer expectations during this specific five-week [holiday] period.”