December 04, 2012      
Online retail upends the traditional retail model by necessitating
that someone ? or something ? act as a customer?s stand-in.

WIRED ONLINE: Swisslog robots zip across the aluminum grid looking less like Star Wars droids and more like little red wagons.

They slide frontward and backward, left and right, politely making way for one another in an intricate dance, stacking crates like toddlers building towers of toy blocks. Little kids who saw Swisslog?s Click&Pick system in action would clap their hands with glee. But their cute exteriors belie these robots? cutthroat purpose. In the pitiless arena of e-commerce, online retailers need every edge they can find to outdo the competition.

Racing to make deliveries faster

As the contest rages, consumers? sense of entitlement has risen. In a one-click world, online shoppers expect their stuff to ship quickly (now) and inexpensively (free). Two-day shipping is becoming standard, and free returns are a given. But online retailers like Amazon are racing to make deliveries even faster and cheaper to undermine one of the last major advantages of offline shopping, namely the immediacy of walking out of the store with what you bought.

To meet that need for speed, robots are swarming in warehouses to eliminate the most inefficient variable in the e-commerce equation: us

Human networks don?t scale all that well

At the moment, most of the massive distribution centers housing the goods you order online are still staffed by humans. And on the surface, people might seem perfectly well-suited to one of online retail?s core tasks: order fulfillment.

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The human brain and body working together would seem to come perfectly equipped to find that tube of toothpaste you ordered from Amazon, pull it off the warehouse shelf, box it up, and load it onto the truck.

That process works fine for one order of one item. But in operations where thousands of orders can come in each hour, human networks don?t scale all that well. Essentially what large-scale e-commerce fulfillment operations create for their workers is the world?s most complicated trip to the grocery store.

In traditional offline retail, distribution centers serve as way stations between wholesalers and consumers. Goods stored by the pallet and case are shipped to stores, where clerks break them up and put the individual items on shelves for customers to grab what they need. Online retail upends that traditional model by necessitating that someone ? or something ? act as a customer?s stand-in.

?The process of shopping is pushed back into the distribution centers,? says Bill Leber, director of business development at Swisslog. ?Somebody has to go out there and basically go shopping for the consumer behind the scenes.?

With tens of thousands of items spread across tens of thousands of square feet at a typical distribution center, maintaining platoons of order fillers known as ?pickers? gets costly and complicated. Not that pickers just wander up and down the aisles until they spot what they need. Even so-called ?manual? systems rely on software as orders come in to point people along paths that, for instance, maximize the number of items they pick up along the way. Still, humans get tired. They move at different speeds. Some are stronger than others. We get distracted, cranky, lazy, and hurt. And you have to pay us.

Robots meet demanding promises

In that context, robots become increasingly attractive as the level of efficiency required to deliver on such logistically demanding promises as same-day delivery rises. Kris Bjorson, a supply chain consultant who heads the retail distribution group at Jones Lange LaSalle, says at that point only automated systems can ensure the necessary speed and accuracy. ?You can?t keep on throwing labor at it,? he says. ?It?s got to be right and it?s got to be on time. You don?t have that margin of (human) error.?

That?s where picking systems such as those made by Swisslog come in. But Swisslog?s robots don?t simply replace humans roaming up and down aisles pulling items off of standard shelves. Swisslog?s Click&Pick setup radically transforms the entire look and feel of a warehouse interior.

Rather than shelves, Click&Pick uses a three-dimensional grid system made of cubes stacked up-and-down and side-to-side. Each cube contains a bin of equal size that holds the stock of a specific item, or what the industry calls a SKU. The wheeled robot pickers roam the grid?s top level, which also serves as the set of tracks on which the robots run.

When an order comes in, a robot will slide to the specific column containing the bin that holds the item ordered and lower tethers that lift the bin to the top. If the bin holding the needed item is buried beneath several others, the robot will pull out the bins on top one by one and make a stack nearby until it reaches the container it needs.

Next, the robot will deliver its cargo to a chute that sends the bin to a picking station staffed by a person. When the bin arrives, the human worker opens the lid, pulls out the cellphone, pair of jeans, bottle of shampoo or whatever else was ordered, and sends the item on its way to be boxed up and shipped.

125,000 SKUs? No problem

Leber says Swisslog?s system can work four to five times as quickly as human-powered operations of similar size. Click&Pick can fill 1,000 orders in an hour and an individual order in as fast as 20 minutes. And the system scales tidily. Have more SKUs? Get more robots. As for the robots themselves, they don?t need to sleep ? at least not much. Each robot can run 22 out of 24 hours on a charge. When they need to recharge, Leber says the robots simply go and plug themselves in.

For now, most of Swisslog?s e-commerce systems are in use in Europe, where the company started. In the U.S., Leber says Swisslog recently secured its first major customer: Chicago-based medical supplier Medline and its 125,000 SKUs.