Mobile robots in the fulfillment processes is something that many organizations are looking at as a way to drive up productivity and efficiency while at the same time helping to manage cost and mitigate labor related risks. Such robots are taking on a variety of shapes, sizes, and capabilities, as different vendors build out their vision of the best robot for warehouse operations in the hopes capturing position in a rapidly growing market. The thing in this market is, not all fulfillment operations have the same set of requirements and therefore it is important that there be a wide variety of options for companies considering robots in the fulfillment process to choose from.
There are over two dozen vendors that make and sell autonomous mobile robots capable of enabling the fulfillment process. The form and function of each device, however, does vary a bit from vendor to vendor. For example, companies like: Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva), Geek+, GreyOrange, and Bluem are designed as a goods to person shuttling system that brings entire racks to picking station and then brings the rack back and places it on the floor before picking up another rack. Another style, such as those robots from: Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems, Fetch Robotics, and a part of Vecna’s portfolio are built to work collaboratively with humans in the picking process by autonomously navigating to pick locations where a human will pull product off the shelf and the robot will move on to the next pick location. A third style has emerged as well that combines the movement and physical picking of material off the shelf, such as: IAM Robotics, Magazino, and inVia Robotics.
In looking into each of the various vendors and their approach to enabling fulfillment with robotics, it becomes apparent that no single approach or vendor is right for every scenario. Indeed, when thinking about the complexities of the fulfillment process in the modern warehouse, multiple approaches to fulfilment often exist even within a single facility. It may make sense to have to have a section of warehouse set up for fast moving consistent products and use a product like Geek+ or GreyOrange, while in a separate part of the same facility have a section of seasonal or other more volatile products being enabled by collaborative robots like those from 6 River, Locus, Vecna or Fetch. This is just one scenario, but the point is that there are multiple approaches to deploying robotics in the fulfillment process, and there are robots that are designed for many of these different approaches.
In researching this market, IDC recently had a visit to the 6 River Systems facility in Waltham, MA, to talk about their approach to autonomous mobile robots in the fulfillment process. 6 River Systems manufacturers autonomous mobile robots specifically for the fulfillment process. Additionally, many of the people at 6 River Systems have spent time at Kiva (now Amazon Robotics) and have been able to take their market and technology knowledge and built it into the current state of their fulfillment robots.
During the course of the visit we did two things, we talked for a bit with 6 River Systems Co-Founder, Jerome Dubois, about the market, the technology, and what buyers might want to consider when looking at autonomous mobile robots for fulfillment. Then we spent some interacting with their robots in a mock warehouse.
3 Questions with Jerome Dubois, Co-Founder at 6 River Systems
IDC: “Robots in the fulfillment process is a very hot topic lately, why do you think this is”?
Jerome Dubois (JD): “There are a number of reasons why:
First, fulfillment demand is growing because of the growth of ecommerce, which we read about all the time. But also changes in Retail are forcing evolution of the retail fulfillment process. As the store footprint is shrinking there is less backroom storage space which means companies are shipping out less cases and pallets, and instead shipping out totes to their stores. Those totes need to be filled in the exact same way as ecommerce orders with associates picking product and putting it into totes.
The second, and perhaps more troublesome reason is that there is a labor shortage. With robots you can make people more productive and you can attract more people into these jobs, as the robot helps reduce the amount of walking and pushing heavy carts around.
Finally, old, heavy, bolted down solutions, don’t solve the fulfillment problems for most of the world’s companies. The traditional providers are mainly interested in selling multi-million dollar projects to companies who can afford it like Amazon, UPS and Walmart. The traditional providers don’t seem to be interested in selling to smaller companies who are growing fast and want automation so they can compete against the big players. Fast, flexible and affordable, fulfillment robots can quickly give smaller and medium sized companies access to the automation they need to better serve their customers.”
IDC: “Are robots appropriate for all fulfillment environments?”
JD: “While there are many places where robots do make sense, there are clearly environments where robots are not a good fit. Moving across different temperatures such as going from freezer to pick frozen fish, to chill to get milk, and then to ambient to pick a head of lettuce, causes condensation issues which will eventually lead to electronic failures. Areas where you are handling dangerous chemicals might not be a good fit for robots. And finally, perishables are also a challenge for robots, as there are requirements to hose down a robot after handling perishables.”
IDC: “What advice would you offer to companies considering robots for their fulfillment operation?”
JD: “There are a lot of robot flavors, so companies have a lot of choices. My main advice is for companies to think about the types of products and scenarios they are looking to automate, the capacity they require for both on-peak and off-peak, and then choose solutions that solve 100% of the problem with an ROI that makes sense for their business.
For example, an autonomous guided vehicle (AGV), which can move things from A to B has some value but does it solve a big enough problem to make the investment worthwhile, especially considering the current state of the market for autonomous mobile robots? In some cases, the answer will be yes, but buyers must really do their due diligence.
Consider the disruption and amount of infrastructure required to deploy a Kiva-like solution or an AS/RS with robots on rails. Operators should have a plan for how they will continue to run their warehouse while this massive work (to implement) is taking place. The point is that the variety of options out there today make it imperative for buyers to really identify the best fit robotics for their own unique circumstances”
IDC’s Impression of CHUCK
After the discussion, we spent some time getting familiar with the 6 River Systems robots, called CHUCK, and picked an order in the mock warehouse. As mentioned previously, each vendor in this space has built their robot a bit differently, and with a different set of features. The first thing we noticed about the CHUCK was that it is a bit larger than some of the others in the space. However, the purpose became apparent when we started to prepare CHUCK for duty. The larger footprint of the CHUCK allows it to handle multiple full-size totes (although smaller totes can be used as well).
During the demonstration, we followed CHUCK around to various pick locations and at each stop, the item description, picture, and location of the current pick would be displayed on the small screen that is attached to the robot. Additionally, the lights on the side of the robot facing the side of the aisle where the item is located would light up. This feature is designed to help human pickers more quickly identify where to look for the item they are picking. Once the item was located and pulled off the shelf, we would scan it (the scanner is under the screen) and then the lights on the robot would illuminate alongside of the appropriate tote to drop the item into. If the wrong item happened to be pulled and scanned, the robot would let you know that you had the wrong item. We did this several times throughout the process of picking the order and found the process to be very easy to pick up with very little training. Because the robot itself indicates where products are located it took no time at all to get familiar with the picking process and get on our way fulfilling orders.
Of note, about the 6 River Systems approach to robot enabled fulfillment is that there is no requirement to integrate the robot into the WMS. As long as the system is set up to receive pick orders it can be operational, without integration, quite quickly. However, IDC believes a best practice relative to using robots in the picking process is to have the systems integrated so as to create a multi-directional flow of data about the operation of the warehouse, availability of inventory, workflows, etc. This is not to say that 6 River Systems does not integrate, they too believe that is a best practice, rather they believe that there will be scenarios where it is important to deploy the robots to showcase the value and approach integration as a next step so as to reduce the disruption of an ongoing operation and create a solution that can be operational in hours instead of days or weeks.
Overall, IDC came away impressed with the features and function of the 6 Rivers Systems approach to autonomous mobile robots for fulfillment. The market for autonomous mobile robots in the fulfillment process is growing quite rapidly. Buyers of this technology must keep aware of the various players in the space in order to make the best decision based on the unique needs of their own operation, and 6 River Systems is indeed a vendor to consider, among others, when looking to add autonomous mobile robots into your fulfillment process.