Jerome Dubois has spent his entire career in supply chain. He is the co-CEO and co-founder of 6 River Systems (6RS), an automated solutions provider that specializes in collaborative robotic systems. He continues to lead and grow his company, which was acquired by the global e-commerce firm Shopify in 2019.
Before launching 6 River Systems, Dubois directed global sales at robotic warehouse pioneer Kiva Systems, which Amazon bought in 2012. He also spent nearly 10 years at Yantra Corp., a provider of distributed order management and supply chain fulfillment solutions that was acquired by Sterling Commerce in 2005. While at Yantra, Dubois directed application sales, managing a national team that was responsible for the retail and services industry verticals. He holds an MBA in supply chain management and finance from Northeastern University.
Q: How do you view the current state of the material handling market and robotics in particular?
A: It’s clear that the interest in robotic automation in the material handling space has grown exponentially. Companies that were once hesitant to implement robotics are now realizing the benefits and deploying solutions so they can meet the demands on their business brought on by the pandemic and the change in their customers’ expectations.
Q: You have been with companies at the forefront of robotic innovation in supply chains. What do you consider to be the most significant advances in the field?
A: As one of the early leaders in this space, we’ve helped bring significant and exciting advancements to robotic automation over the years. One of the most compelling trends we’ve witnessed is the democratization of fulfillment, which has become more evident during the pandemic. Small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) now have more access to flexible, affordable fulfillment automation solutions that empower them to more easily scale operations and meet customer expectations.
Q: What makes robots particularly suitable for distribution applications?
A: Robots help operators better manage their cost and building throughput, while also improving the speed and accuracy of all fulfillment. For associates in the warehouse, collaborative robots ease the physical strain of the job by replacing heavy pushcarts and reducing the walking.
A less physically demanding job is also more attractive to prospective employees, expanding the potential labor pool as many warehouses are experiencing labor shortages. They also require less training time due to the reduction of risks associated with the job.
Q: Has the pandemic’s demand for social distancing increased interest in robotic systems?
A: The natural social distancing capabilities that collaborative robots provide have become an attractive benefit for fulfillment centers throughout the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, we released recommendations to our customers to further protect their employees from pathogens during the picking process. Our customers responded to this very positively since having healthy associates available was crucial to meeting the increasingly high demand that fulfillment centers have seen over the past year.
Automating long walks between induct, active picking, and takeoff areas and reducing crowding on the warehouse floor creates a base level of social distancing. By deploying collaborative robots with enhanced zoning and order allocation, warehouses are able to optimize sites for social distancing measures. We’ve worked with customers to restrict aisle traffic and set zoning rules so operators can also ensure that associates remain within their own zones while Chuck [the company’s collaborative robot] crosses from one to the next.
Q: Are there particular markets or applications that you see emerging for robotics?
A: We’ve seen emerging growth in microfulfillment centers and dark stores. Many retailers are adding smaller warehouses in locations closer to their customers. This is perfect for flexible automation solutions that can be added or removed as needed. Collaborative robots can be moved from one warehouse to another seamlessly, which makes this solution even more agile.
As BOPIS (buy online/pick up in store) and BOPAC (buy online/pick up at curb) services continue to gain popularity, collaborative robots are frequently being used for fulfillment in dark stores as well. As we’re seeing customer expectations for these options heighten, more retailers are prioritizing automation to meet the growing demand.
Q: How did you come up with the name “Chuck” for your collaborative mobile robot?
A: Since 6 River Systems was founded in Waltham, Massachusetts, the name “Chuck” is a nod to our company’s Boston roots. “Chuck” was named after the Charles River, a prominent waterway in that city that flows into Boston Harbor.
Q: How will advances in artificial intelligence affect future robotic design and applications?
A: As artificial intelligence is becoming more advanced, there will be a greater focus on the software applications for robotic automation. Prioritizing our investment in software is a major focus for 6 River Systems and is the real power behind Chuck. We are constantly making software enhancements that will enable a new generation of fully informed warehouse operators. This will create greater visibility that will unlock actionable data on both the day-to-day and big-picture operations to help make informed business decisions.