November 15, 2018

Port Logistics Group to launch robotics pilot in e-commerce DCs

Port Logistics Group to launch robotics pilot in e-commerce DCs

3PL to test 10 Locus Robotics units in effort to boost efficiency, cut labor costs.

By Ben Ames

Warehouse automation vendor Locus Robotics Inc. said today that its mobile material handling bots are being deployed in a pilot project by omnichannel logistics service provider Port Logistics Group (PLG), which says the mobile bots could help it ensure growth and efficiency for its growing e-commerce fulfillment business.

Wilmington, Mass.-based Locus Robotics says its rolling LocusBots are designed to interact with humans and can enable warehouse operators to reduce labor costs amidst worker shortages, and to better manage seasonally fluctuating order volumes.

PLG plans to deploy a fleet of 10 robots for the test project beginning Dec. 5, using them in two facilities in California and one in New Jersey, PLG Chief Information OfficerJames Stephens said in an interview. The test will initially cover apparel and accessories inventory, but could expand to include goods like home goods and toys, he said.

Private-equity-backed, Los Angeles-based PLG has traditionally acted as a third party logistics provider (3PL) for retailers and wholesalers, but has recently sharpened its focus on providing full omnichannel services for direct-to-consumer clients as well, PLG President and Chief Commercial Officer Greg Morello said on the call. The company offers omnichannel logistics services including value-added warehousing and distribution, transloading and crossdocking, e-commerce fulfillment, and national transportation.

"The driver [for the pilot] is better efficiency in a market where it's difficult to find labor and staffing," Stephens said. "Labor costs, especially on the west coast, are going up every year, so you need to operate your warehouses in a more cost effective manner. The Locus bots eliminate travel time to pack stations and keep the pickers out in the pick area. The robots go back to the pack stations on their own, then go back for another round."

If the pilot program meets expectations, PLG plans to expand the implementation, rolling it out in 2019 to all the facilities in its network that provide e-commerce operations, he said.

In the pilot, PLG will integrate Locus' self-charging mobile robots with the company's proprietary warehouse management system (WMS), EventTracker, and with its e-commerce WMS, Whiplash, the company said. "We have recognized that leveraging human skills is still essential to maintaining picking accuracies. 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," Stephens said in a statement.

PLG plans to operate the robots alongside its current picking strategy, which provides employees with pick carts and iPad tablet computers. Adding robots to that approach will help warehouse employees cope with the pressures of holiday season fulfillment in the age of e-commerce, Stephens said.

That season has traditionally peaked in early November, finishing after the bulk of inventory has been delivered to store shelves before throngs of shoppers arrive, but it now includes a second peak when Black Friday and Cyber Monday trigger a flurry of online orders shortly after Thanksgiving, he said.

PLG says Locus also helps handle that challenge by offering monthly financing through its subscription-based Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) terms, allowing customers to apply a more affordable strategy than other automation options such as multi-level pick towers, tilt tray sorters, and pick to light stands, according to Morello.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
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.

More articles by Ben Ames

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