The holiday season is a busy time for shoppers and, therefore, for the companies fulfilling their orders. Many businesses hire more workers to help them meet the demand, but the order volume can be so high that they still have trouble getting everything done on time. Mobile warehouse robots are increasingly viewed as a solution.
According to a recent IDC survey, 16.5% of companies in several industries now use commercial service robots.
Wonder what kinds of warehouse robots will be fulfilling your holiday orders this year? Here are some of the new and improved technologies that businesses are using.
1. The GreyOrange Butler
GreyOrange Pte. Ltd. is working with retailers and logistics companies and has expanded into the U.S. The Singapore-based company will be providing 5,000 devices to XPO Logistics Inc. It expects to deploy another 20,000 robots in the U.S. next year.
One of GreyOrange’s main products is the Butler, a mobile goods-to-person robot. The small gray and orange robot can connect to warehouse management software and then automate parts of the fulfillment process, including order picking, put-away, inventory storage, and replenishment.
The Butler warehouse robots can transport a rack weighing as much as 3,500 pounds to a warehouse worker.
XPO said the robots can help workers fulfill 48 orders at once and can cut the amount of time needed to fulfill an order in half. Butler can also help Greenwich, Conn.-based XPO keep track of inventory.
“E-commerce and omnichannel retailers are looking for ways to speed up order fulfillment, especially during holiday peaks,” noted Ashfaque Chowdhury, supply chain president, Americas and Asia Pacific, at XPO Logistics. “We’ve been able to reduce the average time for order fulfillment from several hours to less than 40 minutes by implementing robotics and automated processes to support our people.”
“Our warehouse management system is designed to integrate intelligent technology and flex our capabilities on demand,” he said. “This includes the 5,000 collaborative robots we’ve begun to deploy at our logistics sites. We’re pursuing every opportunity to help our customers become more efficient, and robotics is high on our radar.”
The GreyOrange system uses an algorithm to optimize device charging. During nonpeak times, the system sends the warehouse robots with the lowest battery levels to charging stations. A five-minute charge provides five hours of operations, while a full 30-minute charge provides eight hours.
2. 6 River Systems Chuck
6 River Systems Inc. (6RS) is another robotics company that’s looking to make its mark on holiday shopping this year. The Waltham, Mass.-based startup raised $25 million earlier this year to build its collaborative warehouse robots.
The robots, which 6RS named “Chuck,” guide workers through the warehouse, then stop and light up when they reach an item that needs to be picked. Chuck can tell the worker how many of the items are needed, and it can carry 160 pounds.
The robots calculate the most efficient routes as they go, helping workers fulfill orders more quickly. They run on Wi-Fi and use sensors to autonomously navigate around the warehouse. Companies can use the data the warehouse robots collect to improve their fulfillment processes.
6RS provides multiple setups to carry different types of merchandise, including totes, shoeboxes, and garments on hangers.
XPO also uses the 6RS bots, as does Barrett Distribution Centers. According to Barrett, the robots helped it reduce error rates by 50% and dramatically decreased the time needed to train new workers.
3. Kindred SORT
Kindred Inc. began testing its first commercial product last year with apparel company Gap. The Kindred SORT features mechanical arms that can grasp products, and it uses artificial intelligence to decide which items to pick up.
“Robotics will be an important part of the Gap Inc. holiday fulfillment strategy,” said Kevin Kuntz, senior vice president of global logistics fulfillment at Gap. “There are now more than a dozen Kindred SORTs at Gap Inc.’s Gallatin, Tenn., and Fresno, Calif., distribution centers.”
“To keep up with the company’s growing business, we are making significant investments in new automation and innovative speed capabilities — like the Kindred SORT — to transform our global supply chain network to an elevated omni-channel operation,” he said.
“With low unemployment rates surrounding many of our distribution center locations,” Kuntz said, “the Kindred SORTs allow us to be more efficient and effective with our workforce while responding to growing demands in our business for online orders which require more customization.”
“SORT performs at average speeds that match human operators and has peak speeds that outperform humans,” he said. “SORT’s autonomous pick started at 20% and increased to over 4X since we started our partnership.”
The SORT uses robot vision to identify objects and then applies AutoGrasp, Kindred’s AI grasping technology, to decide on the best path to the item, determine how best to pick it up, and then place it in the appropriate bin. If the robot can’t grasp an item, it notifies human workers who can control the arm remotely.
When San Francisco-based Kindred first started testing its smart robot, it could grasp objects successfully about 20% of the time. Now, that percentage has improved to around 80%.
Jim Liefer, the founder of Kindred, told The Globe and Mail that he believes the company can get that number up to 90% or 95%. That would mean human workers would have to do the picking only 5% to 10% of the time.
4. Fetch Robotics TagSurveyor
Robotics can help companies keep track of inventory, which is crucial during the busy holiday season. Fetch Robotics Inc. offers a line of autonomous mobile robots that can do just that.
The DataSurvey TagSurveyor can move autonomously around a warehouse or retail store, continuously checking RFID tags on products and bins. This enables companies to spot inventory problems before they cause more serious problems.
The robot can tag items that are up to 25 feet away and create a map of all tags to help workers find items. The TagSurveyor runs on the FetchCore Cloud Robotics Platform and employs sensors to move around even in crowded environments.
The devices can also use their RFID scanning technology to identify products that are approaching their expiration dates.
Let warehouse robots do the walking
Odds are, from Amazon Robotics’ Kiva to the systems above, robots could play a part in fulfilling your online orders this holiday season.
The global market for warehouse robots will grow from $2.4 billion in 2016 to $5.1 billion in 2023, experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 11.6%, predicts Allied Market Research.
Consumers are shopping more online for convenience, and they expect rapid delivery. The increased efficiency, decreased costs, and improved accuracy of recent mobile platforms are encouraging order-fulfillment facilities to get more robots to help humans.
About the author:
Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and robotics writer whose work has appeared on Vice, VentureBeat, RoboticsTomorrow, and Robotiq’s blog. To read more posts from Kayla, visit her blog Productivity Bytes.