E-commerce is challenging the retail environment in many ways from
Then there's the challenges before products even hit the store, as
warehouses full of goods struggle are faced with the challenge of
finding staff to find, pack and deliver orders.
The top three challenges facing supply chain executives, as identified
by a Deloitte and MHI
are hiring and retaining a skilled workforce (58 percent), meeting
customer demand for fast response times (56 percent) and lowering
delivery costs (56 percent).
Robots’ potential to improve productivity offers a solution for all of
those challenges by working alongside human workers to pick and ship
more products faster for less cost per pick.
One company that's changing this is inVia
Robotics. They've developed the world’s
first “goods-to-box” robotics system, which was created to transform the
fulfillment and material handling operations of e-commerce providers and
warehouses. I spoke to CEO of inVia Robotics CEO Lior Elazary to learn
more. He explained:
“E-commerce is booming, but retailers are struggling to keep up with
consumer demand, due to rising price pressures, increasing
expectations for faster delivery and a shortage of warehouse labor.
For decades, the man-to-goods model reigned supreme, but now with
robots in the warehouse, goods can autonomously navigate across
warehouses to be sent to their final destinations quickly and cheaply.
Robotics is the next evolution of automation and unlocking its
benefits will enable more businesses to stay competitive, which will
positively impact the industry and economy.”
inVia have produced two robots. The GrabIt robot can lift items up to 30
pounds and up to 24 inches wide, ranging in size from a deck of cards to
a 24-pack of soda. It can also reach up to eight feet and work for 10
hours on a single battery charge. Once a product is picked, a GrabIt
robot can offload an item to its companion - - inVia's second robot, the
TransIt - - which can accumulate orders and zip them to an awaiting box
to be shipped.
Included with the robots is a robotics management system that enables
their customers to dynamically change their workflow in real time as
well as minimize wait times, empowering businesses to change their
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What is significant is that inVia have been able to respond to some of
the challenges experienced by other workplace robotics operations.
"What’s really allowed us to do this is we’re not just a robotic arm
on top of a device. The grip design really enables the device to
really grab an array of things. That said, there's still about 20% of
the items in a typical warehouse that robots can’t pick like little
screws and tiny cables so in those instances a worker can be notified
to bring those items to the packing station. We've also created a
system that is able to take single items - most customers really only
had 1-3 products per item per order e.g. a shirt and a hammer rather
than multiples. The other challenge was developing a cost effective
platform so that it was financially viable for warehouses to acquire
robots. Advancements in AI and vision sensors have enabled us to
utilise a very cost effective platform and has enabled us to scale
and grow very quickly."
This also benefits the warehouse. "We’ve created a flexible system that
puts you in more control of your warehouse. Start with one robot. Start
with 10. Add robots, or pull back, based on seasonal demand," Elazary
The company’s solution is available through a Robotics as a Service
business model (RaaS) that requires a minimal upfront investment,
enabling more businesses to take advantage of robotics’ productivity
gains. Customers pay monthly for each robot, which allows them to
quickly scale up or down to meet seasonal or fluctuating demand. Perhaps
one of inVia's biggest points of difference is that their system can
basically be employed in any factory without the need to redesign the
physical environment by including different shelving or more assembly
lines. As Elazary shared:
"We wanted operations to be up and running very quickly so people don’t
have to change their warehouses and redo everything. Historically most
robotics companies will only work on completely empty warehouses. We can
take the existing shelving and the flow that you have and just modify
the directions of where things are flowing instead of building a system
that you have to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure to
accommodate the robots. An additional benefit is that the rest of the
operations are not disadvantaged if one robot is out of action as is the
case if a assembly line was installed for the robots to use."
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But are robotics taking human jobs?
I queried whether in this instance, robots were taking jobs from under
or unemployed people. Elazary explained that in his discussions with a
diverse number of warehouses, they actually experience significant labor
shortages both in peak and long term periods. For example, their
customer [LD Products](https://www.ldproducts.com/), one of the largest
printer and office supplies companies, has automated what used to be
manual processes and helped it overcome labor shortages and seasonality
while scaling as its business grows.
The warehouse environment is a challenging one for many, particularly as
warehouses are often in remote locations where no one wants to live much
less travel to. The converse is that robotics can actually make the
lives of warehouse employees better. I'm sure I'm not the only person
who read ["The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse
few years ago with a sense of horror and sadness.
Elazary explained that where their robotics had been deployed "workers
give really good feedback because now they don’t have to do that job.
Often people think of a warehouse as having a lot of people there but
they usually don’t, it's a very, very tight margin, usually very short
staffed. Also being a picker is a grueling, physically demanding job.
Some companies actually have raffles at the beginning of the day to make
sure employees come in that day."
There's a lot of application for inVia's system in other industries
including agriculture, customer manufacturing and the general retail
warehouse at supermarkets and department stores where the use of robots
could "put the employees where they are supposed to be which is customer
facing and really driving sales instead just doing the grunt labour or
picking out the shoes, that can be done by the robot."
inVia has created an impressive product, which may indeed bring about
warehouse labor as we know it.