Robots carry the load for 3PLs
Once dismissed as too expensive for fulfillment work, robots are rolling into third-party warehouses and taking operations to the next level.
By Ben Ames
Robots have long suffered from a bad rap in the supply chain, often written off as expensive, high-maintenance specialty tools that could only generate a return on investment (ROI) under highly specific circumstances.
Their reputation has been largely rehabilitated in recent years, however, as labor shortages, rising wages, and an explosion in e-commerce orders have pushed many warehouses to their limits. Desperate for a solution, some companies are giving robotic systems another look, and they're finding that robot manufacturers have upped their game.
Robotic solutions are still a long way from being the perfect fit for small businesses or operations that handle specialty items like oversized goods. But a growing number of companies—particularly large third-party logistics service providers (3PLs)—are finding that the technology can pay off fast.
While that's partly a result of falling prices, it has more to do with recent technological advances. The latest generation of warehouse robots offer the flexibility to handle a variety of tasks—such as identifying, picking, and bringing goods to people; palletizing cases; and loading and emptying trailers—rather than a single specialized function. That newfound flexibility holds particular appeal for 3PLs, which typically serve a diverse array of clients with equally diverse handling needs.
For a recent example, you need look no farther than Greenwich, Conn.-based transportation and logistics provider XPO Logistics Inc. XPO has deployed robotic equipment made by French automated handling and storage systems maker Alstef Automation S.A. at a facility in France that XPO manages for the McLean, Va.-based snack-food giant Mars.
Alstef supplied the operation with a robot with an articulated arm that can handle 50,000 to 60,000 packages per day, using grippers and a pneumatic system to pick up as many as five stacks of packages at a time to assemble pallets, according to XPO. Encouraged by its initial success with the robotic equipment, XPO said in March it had launched a cloud-based warehouse management system (WMS) designed to support the quick launch of other robotics-based distribution centers.ROBOTS THAT DELIVER
Another industry player that has opted for the robotics route is French 3PL Geodis Group, which recently launched a pilot program using 30 autonomous mobile robots. The units, which were supplied by Wilmington, Mass.-based warehouse automation specialist Locus Robotics, have been deployed at a 139,000-square-foot warehouse in Indianapolis. Geodis said it launched the program in an effort to address a warehouse labor shortage in the region.
At the Indianapolis facility, the 3PL is using the robots to help fill orders for one of its clients, an online vendor of women's apparel that requires error-free manual picking from an inventory of more than 30,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs). The robots work in collaboration with human pickers, ferrying order bins around the facility to collect items selected by the workers.
The Locus robots go about their daily work with little to no human intervention. To initiate the fulfillment process, a robot automatically rolls up to the aisle and rack where the desired item is stored, then "communicates" with the worker at that station via tablet computer, displaying an image of the needed item along with instructions on its location and the quantity to be picked. After the worker selects the products and places them in the robot's bin, the bot drives itself over to the next location. Once the order is complete, it delivers the bin to the packing station, where other workers prepare the order for shipment.
The new system expedites picking because workers no longer have to roam the aisles in search of items or push carts full of inventory back to the packing station, Geodis says. To further accelerate the workflow, the system uses software to calculate the shortest route for each bot to follow.EVERYTHING'S BETTER WITH BOTS
In a market where good warehouse labor is hard to find, the robots foster a better work environment for employees, according to Eric Douglas, executive vice president of technology and engineering at Geodis. Picking units to the robots has reduced physical demands on workers by eliminating the need to trudge through the aisles pulling pick carts and by minimizing travel overall.
The robots have also proved to be a good fit with the site's multicultural work force. The messaging on their screens automatically displays in the worker's preferred language, eliminating some of the frustrations caused by language barriers. The Locus robots at Geodis' Indianapolis DC "talk" to workers in English, Burmese, Spanish, and Chin, a Southeast Asian language spoken in Burma, India, and Bangladesh.
In addition to creating a better work environment, the new process has allowed the facility to get more product out the door. "Our labor force is more productive with the robots than without. And every percentage point in a 10-percent-margin business is critical," Douglas said.
It helps that the economics of robotics have changed greatly over the years. Robots have become more affordable because the falling cost of components like circuit boards and chassis has made them cheaper to manufacture, according to Douglas.
Maintenance costs have also come down, since much of the complexity of robotics operations lies in their routing and control software. That means the bots themselves can be tuned and repaired by Geodis' in-house mechanics. "We have our own technicians in the field, and let me tell you, if they can fix a lift truck, they can fix a robot," Douglas said. "If you open up one of these Locus robots, they're not R2-D2; it's just caster wheels and a circuit board, and they can replace either of those."ROBOTS PULL THEIR WEIGHT
As for the outcome of the pilot, Geodis reports that the results have been "staggering." Since the program began in October 2017, the 3PL has shipped over 600,000 units in over 300,000 orders. Today, 80 percent of units are picked to the robots.
Deploying robots for goods-to-person work in the warehouse has also helped Geodis save on labor costs. On top of that, employee productivity has doubled and training time for new hires has been cut in half, the company says.
Douglas acknowledges that the 100-pound Locus bots might not be as effective if Geodis were handling heavy pallets or large automobile tires at the DC. But they've been a great fit for an operation that mainly handles small to medium-sized orders requiring a high percentage of each-picks, he said. "Although goods-to-person robotics is relatively new," he added, "it's showing up at the perfect time [to help users meet knotty industry challenges]."
With those kinds of eye-popping results, robots are definitely speaking a language that any 3PL can understand. Time will tell whether the technology catches on in markets beyond the large 3PLs. But this much is clear: Robots have the potential to transform fulfillment. And nobody's putting them in a corner now.
About the Author
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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