How robotic technology is reshaping e-commerce fulfilment

The rise of e-commerce and an increase in B2C deliveries are putting a strain on the retail supply chain...

By Domenico Pereira, E-commerce Development and Communication Expert at Asendia

Consumer expectations for fast, accurate deliveries are high, the market is intensely competitive, and many countries are facing labour shortages, particularly during the busy seasonal peaks.

More and more retailers are turning to automation for picking and packing operations. In fact, with the rise of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) one vision of the future is that e-commerce fulfilment centres and warehouses will eventually operate with very few human workers required on site.

Similarly, some futurists predict drones and logistics robots will become commonplace for last mile delivery in the next 20 years, relieving pressure on the fleets of vans and drivers we see dropping off online shopping orders around neighbourhoods today.

Future-proofing fulfilment

My belief is that the AI and robotic revolution won’t be quite so all-consuming, because human thought processing and physical capabilities remain essential for so many parcel logistics activities. We will, however, see a wave of tech innovations in the next decade, sorting the winners from the losers when it comes to future-proofed fulfilment facilities. The winners will have maximised productivity and accuracy, while meeting individual client demands, using the perfect blend of human and robotic capability.

US online powerhouse Amazon, and China’s Alibaba are certainly embracing AI and robotics, by taking the collaborative human-robot path. A recent Amazon blog detailed how the latest robotic solutions are being deployed to help on-site employees hit health and safety targets, as well as speed up service to end customers. Since Amazon began using robotics in its facilities in 2012, the company says it has added more than 1 million jobs worldwide while simultaneously deploying 350,000 mobile drive unit Kiva robots2. Meanwhile owner, Alibaba, last year launched autonomous logistics robots for last mile deliveries. Alibaba claims the technology will be essential to keep pace with the explosive growth of online shopping in China. Incredibly, 200 million packages are delivered daily across the country, and forecasts suggest volumes will rise to 1 billion packages per day in the coming years. With this rate of growth, an army of robots is perhaps inevitable.

Autonomous mobile robots streamline e-commerce

Few European companies have made such vocal commitments to intelligent AMRs, but this is changing as we emerge from the pandemic, with e-commerce now so central to the way people shop.

Automation and AI are on the corporate agenda for any large retailer or brand hoping to achieve growth and future prosperity in the coming years. From Next and in the UK, to Zara in Spain and Decathlon in France, robotics solutions are being deployed in distribution centres, to reduce costs and increase picking efficiency and speed.

Retailers have been using basic automation for years, but today robotic mechanisms are becoming increasingly intricate and sophisticated in what can be achieved, with more logic and mobility built into the robots. Over time costs for the hardware and software will fall, allowing this smart tech to be deployed industry-wide.

The turning point will be robotic technology capable of picking multiple items and putting them into a single box without human intervention. A reality is that without more automation, e-commerce companies and their shipping and parcel partners will simply struggle to keep pace with demand, and stay in the race with likes of Amazon and Alibaba.

Investment in European robotics start-ups is recovering

Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012 so owns the production of its mobile drive unit robots, through the Amazon Robotics division. Technology companies like Locus Robotics Corp, Fetch Robotics and 6 River Systems are growing in the US, with ambitious plans to bring their systems to the mass market.

In Europe, robot technology development was temporarily held up by the pandemic, but today investment in this tech is back on the agenda, according to the most recent Goods to Person Solutions 2021 report, published by STIQ. The report mentions Grenzebach (Germany), Caja Robotics (Israel) and Scallog (France) and Makhina Robotics (Belgium, Turkey) as just a few of the European companies securing investment and developing intelligent AMR systems suited to the e-commerce market.

The benefits of adopting this technology are multiple, reaching beyond the picking and goods movement functionality, the report found. Flexibility is a big win, meaning pressure to hire seasonal staff or cope with sudden spikes in product demand is eased with AMRs up and running. Returns can be managed swiftly with this tech, and even cleaning and staff training are referenced as add-on gains following investment in the systems.

Here at Asendia UK we are introducing 6-axis robotics arms for rapid over-labelling of parcels in our UK operation in Hounslow, London, speeding up an essential pre-shipping process on behalf of our global retail clients. And last year we invested in Asia-Pacific e-commerce technology leader Anchanto, which will allow us to bring their intelligent SaaS platforms to Europe, helping our e-commerce clients streamline back-office processes, and pave the way for more future-ready ways of running their businesses.

AI can support AMRs

Robotic picking and labelling systems are ground-breaking, but they’re not ideal for all warehouses, or for all products and customer types. For example, autonomous robots are generally not feasible for traditional grocery DCs supporting retail stores, or for B2B distributors serving a mix of retailers, wholesalers, and direct-to-consumer customers.

In these instances, AI-based software should be considered, both as a complement to optimise robotic processes or as an alternative to robots for non-automated picking. With AI optimised picking routes, and smart algorithms for ‘intelligent batching’, significant time and cost savings to operations can be achieved.

It’s also dangerous to over-automated fulfilment operations where specialist services might be required by retailers – branded packaging, unusual box sizes and trims, for instance. Yes, advances in automation should be welcomed, but utilisation needs careful consideration. Leave wiggle room for creative choices, flexibility and scalability in your fulfilment operations.

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