By: Fergal Glynn, Contributor
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the supply chain overnight. Buying behaviors that were predicted to become the norm by 2026 are suddenly a reality. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau, there was more ecommerce growth in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic than the previous five years combined.
Even prior to COVID-19, ecommerce and B2B fulfillment operators were increasingly
turning to Collaborative Mobile Robots (CMRs) to gain operational flexibility and
maintain growth. As CMRs require no new infrastructure, they can be deployed within as little as 2-4 weeks and require mere minutes of training for associates to ramp up to productivity. As a result, CMRs will continue to play a critical role in efforts to meet the unexpected demand, handle the increase in each picking, offset unpredictable labor availability and launch or expand fulfill-from-store and omnichannel initiatives.
Now, more than ever, supply chain leaders know that fulfillment is the key to differentiation, and in some cases, survival. Because of this new reality, CMR providers expect a continued surge in demand as operators implement new strategies to provide cost-effective fulfillment services in an uncertain labor market.
Here are four key benefits that 3PLs, retailers and B2B distributors can realize with the implementation of fulfillment automation that includes collaborative robots:
- Implement quickly without disrupting your operations
Most companies can’t afford to completely abandon their current system or infrastructure; it’s too disruptive and too expensive. And traditional warehouse automation systems can take 12 to 24 months to go live and as much as five years to achieve ROI. Collaborative mobile robots provide a faster alternative for implementing automation and are safer, customizable and designed to work with your existing warehouse processes and staff. Some robotics systems, such as 6 River Systems’ solution, can be implemented in as little as four weeks and support faster, more accurate fulfillment execution across putaway, picking, sorting and packing.
The result is a facility or enterprise-wide network that can support growth, without disrupting your existing fulfillment operations.
Train more associates more easily, for less
Even before COVID-19, warehouse labor was a challenge. Today, it may be THE challenge as the labor shortage that marked the industry from 2015 on has turned into a full-on crisis. In addition, the massive increase in online purchases has created a significant crunch on capacity, both in terms of fulfillment and transportation. Small to midsize 3PLs have been placed under tremendous pressure to maintain SLAs in the face of insufficient labor resources and/or inflexible legacy systems that aren’t equipped to scale. All of this is a strong recipe toward automation.
With training built into the design (some collaborative robots guide your associates through the picking process), onboarding is simpler with collaborative mobile robots. Plus, fewer mechanical touchpoints and integrations make them more intuitive to use. These innovations make onboarding and equipment training a much simpler task, even for the greenest of hires.
- Create the flexibility and scalability you need to meet unpredictable demand
The need to adjust your warehouse’s capabilities to accommodate fluctuating demand is a common challenge in today’s fulfillment landscape—and inflexible systems or legacy automation don’t meet the growing need to adapt. Similarly, the use of traditional tactics like changing warehouse layouts and the use of alternate shifts may provide flexibility in certain situations, but they can be difficult and costly to coordinate. Automated robots, however, can be retrofitted into any existing warehouse layout or design without the need for major changes to racking, bolts or shuttles.
It is also easy to add additional CMRs and temporary labor to adjust for this demand, far more quickly than otherwise possible. CMRs can also be rented, transferred among facilities and/or brought online quickly to adapt to changing needs, providing necessary scalability in the modern warehousing world. Temporary and portable capacity is something that no traditional automation can offer.
- Empower warehouse associates to be more productive
Staffing warehouses has become increasingly challenging as the demand for qualified workers continues to rise. In warehouses that have implemented collaborative robotic systems, there have been a number of reported benefits, such as 2 to 3x increases in productivity, fewer errors and greater employee satisfaction. These improvements have enabled warehouses with autonomous robots to achieve productivity rates that rival goods-to-person technologies.
Collaborative mobile robots are also designed to leverage AI and machine learning, allowing the systems to make data-driven decisions in real time. By guiding associates from task to task and optimizing picking routes, automated robots allow associates to handle several tasks during one walking trip on the floor, thereby accomplishing more in less time. It also reduces steps between tasks and makes streamlines pick paths, reducing unnecessary walking. WMHS
Fergal Glynn is VP of Marketing at 6 River Systems, Inc. (6RS) where he is responsible for demand generation and branding. Founded in Waltham, Mass. in 2015, 6 River Systems is a leading collaborative mobile robotics fulfillment solution provider and part of global commerce company Shopify Inc. (www.6river.com).