Warehouses are ripe for automation, especially as the holiday shopping rush approaches. Logistics leader Port Logistics Group announced today that it is deploying a fleet of robots from Locus Robotics to work alongside staffers at its e-commerce order-fulfillment facility in Chino, Calif.
Wilmington, Mass.-based Locus Robotics is a 2018 RBR50 company and provides autonomous mobile robots for warehouses. Its LocusBots help retailers and third-party logistics providers (3PLs) improve efficiency over traditional picking systems.
The logistics leader started out in retail wholesale and has moved into omni-channel sales and then to serving pure-play e-commerce companies, said Jim Stephens, CIO at PLG. The items to be picked include toys, garments, and a mix of e-commerce retail orders.
“This parallels the evolution of robots and the market,” he told Robotics Business Review. “It’s no secret that we’ve seen the struggles of the retail industry, and they’re adapting and getting better at direct-to-consumer and e-comm area. On the other side, many startups started out as pure e-comm plays, but they’ve started to work their way into the retail/wholesale world.”
PLG operates facilities in the four corners of the U.S. — Long Beach, Calif.; New Jersey; Savannah, Ga.; and Seattle. The logistics leader has nearly 6 million square feet of warehouse space, providing a link between international shipping and the last-mile supply chain.
“Securing labor has become a challenge on the West Coast in particular, not to mention the wage increases and labor shortages,” Stephens observed. “We’re looking at becoming better able to handle peaks in demand.”
“We have recognized that leveraging human skills is still essential to maintaining picking accuracies,” he stated. “The LocusBots will navigate to the location of the item and then notify the picker to retrieve it. The bots then autonomously route the item to the pack station, freeing our warehouse associates to walk less and pick more.”
How the logistics leader chose a mobile platform
PLG was aware of the growing number of robotics suppliers in the supply chain space, but the logistics leader’s chief commercial officer and IT department “zeroed in on Locus,” said Stephens.
“The flexibility of the LocusBots stood out,” he said. “You can change the bin arrangement from a single bin to a multi-bin configuration or a stack. That was a big selling point.”
“Another feature that stood out was that they saved a ton of travel time for the pickers from the pick to pack station,” Stephens added. “Their ability to move safely around people in the warehouse was another.”
The LocusBots are self-charging and integrate with PLG’s proprietary Event Tracker warehouse management system (WMS). PLG is also integrating Locus’ systems with the Whiplash WMS from Whiplash Merchandising Inc., a partner of the logistics leader.
“The Locus solution will help Port Logistics Group realize immediate productivity and throughput gains, while easily scaling on demand to meet seasonal spikes and their growth needs,” said Rick Faulk, CEO of Locus Robotics. “By removing many of the physically demanding aspects of the picking role, we significantly enhance worker productivity, improve workplace quality, and enhance worker job satisfaction.”
While it’s too soon to know how warehouse staffers will react to the robots designed to assist picking, a contest to name the robots is popular, Stephens said.
From trials to rollout
For the past four to six months, PLG has worked with Locus and run a pilot project with 10 robots in Chino. The logistics leader’s initial 90-day project has led to plans to implement and expand the technology.
“I’m happy to say that this week, we’re in full QA [quality assurance] tests on the floor,” Stephens said. “Everything is configured and set up and ready to roll.”
“One nice thing is that we can run it concurrently with existing pick-to-cart processes,” he said. “We’re looking at a full production rollout in the first week of December.”
“We’ve been heads-down in implementation mode, and I’ve found that to be pretty straightforward,” said Stephens. “We had to build out some infrastructure. You’ve got to have a place to charge the robots, and you’ve got to have networking APs [wireless access points] put into the ceiling for navigation. That’s actually a light footprint compared with other solution sets, which require you to go into the concrete and lay channels down. … We were pleasantly surprised at the ease of the setup.”
“The file-interface structures to move data back and forth between us and the Locus platforms have been quite easy as well,” he said. “Those were the two pleasant surprises with the implementation.”
“LocusBots’ assisted pick provides a nice efficiency gain,” he said. “We will evaluate the efficiencies gained with Locus after implementation and expect to more aggressively roll out additional robots at other facilities next year.”