Robotics companies are positioning themselves as a solution for supply chains dealing with pandemic challenges, including increased e-commerce volume and social-distancing requirements.
"We've always had a labor issue in staffing the warehouse," Locus Robotics Chief Marketing Officer Karen Leavitt said during a webinar Thursday. "But now that there is greater demand ... even more labor is needed."
Logistics companies have already come out with their pre-peak hiring announcements. UPS and Amazon plan to bring on 100,000 seasonal employees, and FedEx wants to hire an additional 70,000 workers to help with the holiday rush.
But Leavitt said warehouse hiring could be a struggle, even with the current high unemployment rate, considering the geographic location of warehouses relative to labor pools and some people's unwillingness to work in warehouse facilities during a pandemic.
Locus said productivity improvements that occur when facilities adopt their robotics can help alleviate the hiring pains by, in some cases, doubling or tripling the productivity of pickers. In a promotional video shown by Leavitt during the webinar, a DHL employee said their facility saw its average pick units per hour increase from 78 before the use of robotics to 150 after implementing a Locus solution.
Mark Messina, the chief operating officer at Geek+, said the company's technology played an important role in Nike rolling out same-day delivery in Japan.
"We increased order pick rate for Nike Japan from about 100 picks per hour to well over 300," Messina said speaking during the same event.
The robots help increase pick productivity by changing the role of the picker and cutting down on the distance they have to walk, said Kary Zate, the director of marketing communications at Locus.
Traditionally, "there's a lot of time spent pushing a cart through the warehouse or following that cart to the warehouse, and you're passing products that aren't being picked until you get to the destination where you want to be," Zate said. "What we've done is kind of eliminate that by having the robot do the traveling [while] the worker is staying ... in a zone."
In this system, a robot travels to a picker located in a specific zone and shows the human worker what needs to be picked. The employee then pulls the pick, gives it to the robot and moves onto the next robot waiting for a pick. In the post-pandemic world, it also allows for built-in social distancing.
This picking model isn't necessarily new. Locus used a similar model in its early days, more than a decade ago when it was still using Kiva drive units for its robotics solution.
Much of the research in recent years on how companies can improve picking times focuses on warehouse layout and clustering. (Locus' system also uses clustering to pair like orders, Zate said.) But a paper from two researchers at Auburn University, released in 2018, studied robotics in the picking process concluded that robotics show increased productivity over human-only operations. The layout of the facility and the size of pick lists have an impact on realizing those improvements.
"From a warehouse layout perspective, robot order-pickers offer the greatest improvements over traditional human-picker operations when the ratio of [average distance between picking locations] to [average distance from the depot to each picking location] is higher," the paper's conclusion reads. "This occurs when there are more picking aisles or fewer horizontal cross aisles."
But the benefits begin to dissipate for large facilities with small pick lists, adding that the benefits of speed grow as the pick list size increases.
"We typically look at high volume high-density operations," Zate said, adding industries such as automotive and medical have also shown interest, due to accuracy and speed requirements.
The Auburn experiment also found that if a robot's "capacity is sufficient to hold all of the items on the pick list, there is no benefit associated with having more transporters than pickers." It also said that increasing the capacity of the robot (adding a larger tote is the example given) can help to increase speed more than adding additional robots.
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