Ecommerce order fulfillment and retail order fulfillment operations are facing increasing customer demands and expectations of accelerated delivery times, while simultaneously facing a challenging labor market. These market dynamics are forcing such operations to look at autonomous mobile robotic technology as a means to increase capacity, increase productivity and efficiency, reduce labor risk, and better manage the costs of operating a fulfilment center. The past several years has seen a rapid uptick in the number of vendors supplying such robots, each with some unique form, function, or other differentiating factor.
For one vendor in this space, Locus Robotics, the decision to enter the market for autonomous mobile robots was born out of necessity. Locus Robotics is a company that emerged out of the Ecommerce fulfillment company, Quiet Logistics. In its early days, Quite Logistics invested in Kiva Robotics (now Amazon Robotics), which would later be acquired by Amazon. The acquisition of Kiva by Amazon led Quiet Logistics founder Bruce Welty to question the future of availability of the Kiva system. Thus, the decision was made to take lessons learned from the deployment and use of Kiva and develop a robotic tool designed specifically for the needs of smaller ecommerce fulfillment operations.
The market for autonomous mobile robots (AMR'S) for order fulfillment is quite robust. There are multiple approaches to using robots in the order fulfillment process such as: swarm technology, directed picking, and goods to person. Indeed, with such a variety of approaches, and a wide variety of features and functionality built out across the AMR eco-system it must be noted that no single vendor or approach to robots for this purpose will be appropriate for all fulfillment environments. In fact, IDC expects the future of these operations to end up leveraging multiple different approaches, and vendors, within the same facility and build out a flexible automation approach built upon fitting the right technology for the right process across various areas of the fulfillment center.
To learn a bit more about how Locus Robotics views the market, IDC recently spent some time with Bruce Welty, Co-Founder and Chairman at Locus Robotics, talking about mobile robots, ecommerce fulfillment, and the Internet of Things. After the talk, we then got to visit the mock-warehouse in Wilmington MA where we saw the robots in action and even got to run a few mock picking scenarios to fully understand what a worker would experience in fulfillment center that is using Locus Robotics.
3 Questions with Bruce Welty, Co-Founder and Chairman at Locus Robotics
IDC: "Bruce, you have been through several iterations of the evolution of warehousing and fulfillment. First you founded AllPoints Systems (WMS) in 1987, you founded Quiet Logistics (Ecommerce Fulfillment) in 2009, and then founded Locus Robotics in 2014. What is it about warehousing and fulfillment that excites you and keeps you engaged?"
Bruce Welty (BW): '"Warehousing is a very challenging space that is constantly evolving, and needs to consider industry trends, technology, worker attitudes, growth rates, reliability, safety and so many other aspects. I’ve heard from more than one person in my life that you don’t really know how a business works until you work in the warehouse. I also found that the industry was not very sexy, and that it was viewed by much of the C-Suite executives as a not-very-interesting-mostly-tactical-yet-expensive-cost-center. Those things motivated me to bring this part of the business into the forefront, and make it a strategic part of the enterprise.
Who knew warehousing would ultimately become such an important part of today’s business? Three of the five richest men in the world made their money from warehousing and distribution (Jeff Bezos - Amazon, Sam Walton – Wal-Mart, and Amancio Ortega – Zara/Inditex). Right now, it is one of the most important technology markets, with the intersection of all the newest technologies coming together under one very large roof."
IDC: "When you started Locus robotics, the market was rather new for the type of robots Locus makes. Today, however, there is a lot of competition in the market from vendors with all different form and function of autonomous mobile robot competing in the order fulfillment space. What does it take to win in this space as it seems to get more and more competitive?"
BW: "The most successful non-industrial robot companies so far are Kiva and iRobot. What they both have in common is that they are purpose-built to solve a problem. I think robots should be purpose-built to solve a problem and, moreover, should be the best solution to that problem. I think that there will be a few winners in this space. Each of us competitors has a very different approach, and the debate is about who has the best approach.
Our premise at Locus is that the robot is the least important part of our solution. We are a team of warehouse industry experts that saw a problem and have built an effective solution to that problem. There are competitors that came into the market with well-designed and thought out solutions, and we expect to compete hard to beat them. Fortunately, it is a large market that will never be dominated by one firm. Our goal is to remain the leader in the sector and continue to enhance our products to address the need we know so well. There is plenty of room for more than one successful company in this space."
IDC: "Mobile robots are connected “things” and in this current age of Industrie 4.0, Digital Transformation, and such, how important is it for users of autonomous mobile robots to integrate these assets into their traditional business systems?"
BW: "As a designer, manufacturer and seller of autonomous mobile robots I am conflicted and can’t claim to be an objective voice. Of course, it is hugely important to integrate these assets into their traditional business systems!
The Industrie 4.0, Digitization, and IIOT trends imply that we now have all of this great technology (sensors, Big Data, fast computers, AI/Machine Learning, Robots, Smart Edge devices and so on) available to us. Each piece needs to be connected to the problem at hand. In the warehousing world, we are simply trying to get the orders out the door quickly, accurately and inexpensively with the limited labor available to us. While we never sat down and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had all this technology available to solve our problem?,” we were also not blind to how helpful it can be.
In order to make workers as productive as possible, we need robots to be connected, in real time, to the traditional business systems (WMS, OMS and ERP). These systems rely on our robots to deliver accurate data in a timely fashion. Customers demand to know real-time order status, buyers want to know inventory levels, our customers’ customers want to know where their orders are, and warehouse managers want to know user productivity in general and by worker. This information needs to be presented in an integrated way to the customer. Over the years, we have learned an incredible amount about the behaviors of the participants in the global supply chain. We know what they want to know, understand their competitive concerns, address their security issues, and have developed a trusted connection between our systems and theirs. We receive order data from our customers, but don’t need to accept credit card data. We optimize the picking of orders by minimizing travel for the robots and the people. These capabilities would not be possible without integrating assets. Somewhere in the world, someone places an order on the web and it appears instantly in our systems (and on our robots!) with no human interaction."
IDC's Impression of Locus Robotics
After spending some time speaking with Bruce, it was time to tour the mock warehouse that Locus has set up to showcase how their robots work. In terms of enabling flexible automation in the fulfillment process, Locus Robotics has a solid technology. The robots have a rather small footprint and only weight roughly 70lbs per robot (light enough to operate in a mezzanine). The devices can do a full 360 degree turn in place, and so they can operate in aisles as narrow as you might find in a public library.
The robot comes equipped with an interactive and configurable touchscreen that helps to direct the picker to the product and location as well as an integrated scanner that a picker will use to scan products it is picking to ensure that the right item is going into the right bin for the right order. If the piece required is not in stock, the robot autonomously sends a signal (via integration with the WMS) to let the inventory management system know there is an exception and then carries on with its pick order.
One of the things that really stands out about Locus Robotics is the swarming approach to order fulfillment. The system is designed to maximize the productivity of human pickers, so each picker is able to fulfill many orders in rapid succession, the robots simply go to the pick location and a warehouse worker will pull items out of storage and place them in bins on the bots. A picker may find multiple robots in an aisle at a time and can quickly fulfill one and move on to the next while the robot moves between pick locations thus increasing productivity.
Overall, the market for AMR's in the order fulfillment process is growing rapidly. This is due to increasing pressures on order fulfillment operations and a scarcity of labor. IDC has found that, where deployed, service robotics in general are delivering double digit or better improvements in key metrics such as productivity gains, efficiency gains, and capacity gains, the majority of the time. However, AMR technology is not just a mechanism to execute the fulfillment process (although this what the Locus system is designed for), it can also enable an alignment between physical process execution and digital business management. Expect to see significant increases in the utilization of AMR's in ecommerce fulfillment over the coming years, this technology is delivering too much value for companies looking to remain competitive to ignore.