Warehousing, Fulfillment and DC Transformation Trends

11 May 2018

By Frank Tobe | May 6, 2018

E-commerce sales for 2017 were $453.5 billion in the U.S. and $1.1 trillion in China, an increase of 16.0% and 32.6% respectively over 2016. This upward trend is projected to continue for the next many years. Consequently flexibility and an ability to handle an ever-increasing number of parcels is of concern to warehousing, fulfillment and distribution center (DC) managers around the world.

Handling, distribution, transport and delivery – and the amortization of facility setup charges which often represent more cost than raw materials and manufacturing combined – are part of mounting challenges faced by today’s fulfillment executives. Accordingly, warehousing and material handling are a big business for hundreds of different types of companies that provide conveyors, rollers, racks, vision systems, hoists, shelving, electric motors, slides, barcode readers, printers, ladders, gantries, tugs, forklifts, skids, totes, carts, and software systems of all types. Most of these vendors provide products which serve the man-to-goods model, ie, a person goes somewhere in the warehouse, finds the item, and either puts it into further play in the system or packs it himself.

Kiva Systems shattered that model with their goods-to-person robots and dynamic shelving systems. Amazon was so enamored with Kiva’s robotic solution that it acquired Kiva and their robots. Since that acquisition Amazon Robotics (as Kiva Systems was renamed) has since produced over 130,000 Kiva robots and put them all to work in Amazon warehouses and DCs thus proving the efficacy of the method – a method which has been copied and also expanded upon by multiple vendors listed below.

Bottom line: In warehouse and supply chain logistics focused on e-commerce fulfillment, whether third-party logistics service providers or e-retailers and their logistics arms, fixed and exorbitant front-end costs for conveyors, elevators and old style AS/RS systems have become anathema to warehouse executives worldwide who are clamoring to lower fixed costs while increasing flexibility and handling more goods. Comprehensive software and analytics — particularly predictive analytics — are on executives near-term agendas. Hence the need to invest in NextGen Supply Chain methods offered by the companies listed below.

Automating lifts, tows, carts and AGVs

Human-operated tows, lifts, AGVs and other warehouse and factory vehicles has been a staple in material movement for decades. Now, with low-cost cameras, sensors and advanced vision and depth-sensing systems, they are slowly transitioning to more flexible mobile robots (AMRs) that can autonomously tow, lift and carry and can work in either autonomous or human-operated modes.

An AGV is an unmanned vehicle pre-programmed to move materials and rely on guidance devices (tapes, beacons, barcodes, laser paths) and stop and wait when an object or person obstructs their path.

AMRs are autonomous vehicles without pre-programmed scripts to control steering, acceleration or braking which can move through facilities based on an ever-learning map and vision system and point-to-point instructions.

Of the top 20 industrial lift suppliers tabulated by Modern Materials Handling, only 5 offer kits or optional self-driving add-ons.

Vendors providing kits and systems for existing forklifts and carts to convert them to Vision Guided Vehicles (VGVs, AMRs) for line-side replenishment, pallet movement, etc. include:

  • RoboCV is a Russian provider of autopilots for warehouse machines at Russian facilities for Samsung, VW and 3PLs. RoboCV also provides cloud-based task optimization and traffic control.
  • Balyo,  a French provider of autonomous vehicle kits to forklift OEMs Hyster and Yale.
  • Seegrid, a Pittsburgh-based provider of vehicle autonomous kits for OEM Raymond, 3PLs and distribution centers of all types, also makes their own VGVs, and provides software and engineering systems to minimize human involvement and maximize VGV productivity.
Vendors providing AMRs, VGVs and AIVs (Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles) for goods-to-person, point-to-point, load transfer and restocking. 

“The hardware and software systems that most warehouses use today were built for a world that is facing extinction. We live in an on-demand world and operations teams are struggling to keep up. A few leaders have adapted to this reality, but most need to modernize quickly for their business to survive,” said Jerome Dubois, 6 River Systems co-founder and co-CEO.

Thus all of these vendors are also in the traffic, warehousing, vision systems and fulfillment software business as well as providing mobile robots outfitted with various shelving capabilities.

  • 6 River Systems has raised $46 million in three funding rounds, the latest was $25 million in April, 2018. See quote from their CEO above regarding old and new tech in warehouses. 6RS was started as a direct result of Kiva Systems being acquired by Amazon and thereby depriving warehouse operators of Kiva technologies.
  • Aethon was a pioneer in developing and deploying autonomous robot tugs for hospitals. They were the first to develop a 24/7 remote command center to ameliorate any glitches. In recent years they’ve integrated their tugs into ERP and MES systems in factories and warehouses.
  • Beijing Geekplus Technology (Geek+) is the leading Kiva-like robot provider in China and is this year bringing their tech to the US and Europe.
  • Clearpath’s OTTO robots takes Clearpath’s history of providing mobile robot development platforms and, in their OTTO line, offer a light and heavy load self-driving platform for factory and warehouse material transport.
  • Fetch Robotics is a well-funded Silicon Valley startup that has developed a line of 3 mobile robots in 10 configurations plus traffic management software that integrates with various WMS to provide point-to-point on-demand transport. Fetch is an approved vendor for 3PL warehouses managed by DHL around the world. They are also providing ~100 grasping robots (mobile manipulators) for researchers and academia to help close the technology gap in this area.
  • Grenzebach specializes in mechanical engineering, integration and plant construction but also automation and robotic equipment. Having previously been a partner/investor in both Kuka and Swisslog, much of their product line is industrial. Grenzebach also offers a mobile manipulator, an autonomous tug and a series of driverless forklifts.
  • Kuka is one of the world’s Big Four robot builders. They were acquired in 2016 by Midea, a Chinese consumer products conglomerate. Kuka’s mobility products are rugged and capable of moving heavy industrial goods either separately or in tandem. Their omniMove platform is solid and stable enough to put a lightweight robot arm on top with all controllers onboard to make a mobile manipulator possible (albeit expensive).
  • Locus Robotics is a story of a satisfied Kiva user and early adopter being frozen out of upgrading and adding additional Kiva robots to his warehouses. So he founded Locus, removed the Kiva’s and built an alternative that satisfied his needs, and has since offered Locus products (robots, WMS integration, traffic management software, etc.) to other warehouse managers. Locus is also an approved DHL vendor for their global network of 3PL warehouses.
  • Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) just got acquired by Teradyne, the same testing equipment provider that acquired Energid and their Actin platform and Universal Robots and their line of one-armed collaborative robots.
  • Robotnik Automation is a Spanish integrator and maker of mobile robots, localization systems, configuration and programming tools (HMI) and Fleet Management Systems (FMS) for autonomous indoor transport for hospitals, factories and warehouses.
  • Seegrid filed for bankruptcy in 2014 but was reorganized and funded by their biggest client and backer: Giant Eagle which now owns 40% of the company. Seegrid provides pallet trucks, tow tractors and vision-guided kits for other lift manufacturers. They also provide supervisor software to manage, monitor and control the fleet in all aspects of material transferring – from parts-to-line to replenishment, putaway, kitting and picking, long hauls, sortation, and end-of-line.
  • Swisslog sells three different types of mobile robots: (1) the omni-directional AutoStore robot that moves around on top of racks in high bay spaces and then lifts out pods for further processing; (2) PowerStore, a high density pallet shuttle system for warehouses with low ceilings; and (3) CarryPick, a modular and flexible Kiva-like shelf picking system without having to make any facility construction changes. A version of the CarryPick robot, TransCar, is used in hospitals for their on-demand and routine material transport.
  • Toyota offers autopilot vision systems for their forklifts and also offers automated carts for factories and warehouses. Their sister company Vanderlande also provides elaborate robotic AS/RSs.
  • Vecna Robotics is a provider of mobile and remote-presence devices for healthcare has, in recent years, been expanding with a full line of 7 scalable mobile transport robots for industry and warehouses including a complete set of software for fleet management.

Where humans surpass machines is in the quick visual determination of what to pick, how to grasp, and then move the item to wherever it needs to go. Until recently, this has been the missing link in automated fulfillment and one of the biggest challenges in robotics acceptance. A few vendors are perfecting the science that enables high speed random grasping from moving conveyors or bins:

  • RightHand Robotics
  • Universal Logic
  • Kinema Systems
  • Swisslog
  • Soft Robotics

Vendors providing grasping capabilities in addition to autonomous mobility include:

  • InVia Robotics
  • IAM Robotics
  • Magazino
  • Dorabot
  • GreyOrange (see the section on Kiva look-alikes for details)
Indoor navigation

Navigation systems have changed along with all the other technological improvements and often don’t require floor grid markings, barcodes or extensive indoor localization and segregation systems such as those used by Kiva Systems (and subsequently Amazon). SLAM and combinations of floor grids, SLAM, path planning and mapping systems, indoor beacons, and collision avoidance systems are adding flexibility to swarms of point-to-point mobile robots and enabling traffic control and dynamic inventory placement.

Kiva look-alikes

In March 2012, in an effort to make their fulfillment centers as efficient as possible, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million and almost immediately took them in-house, leaving a disgruntled set of Kiva customers who couldn’t expand and a larger group of prospective clients who were left with a technological gap and no solutions. I wrote about this gap and about the whole community of new providers that had sprung up to fill the void and were beginning to offer and demonstrate their solutions. Many of those new providers are listed above.

Recently, another set of competitors has emerged in this space. Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba, JD (JingDong), VIPShop, Tencent and others have funded companies who copied the Kiva Systems formula to provide Kiva-like goods-to-person robot systems and dynamic free-form warehousing for their in-country fulfillment and distribution centers.

Now some of those companies are braving the prospect of IP infringement proceedings from Amazon and are expanding outside of China and SE Asia to Europe and America:

  • Grey Orange Robotics has sites using their systems in Japan and Europe and exhibited at Europe’s Logimat trade show where they launched PickPal, an autonomous picking robot which can pick a wide variety of SKUs using machine vision and a scalable gripper system specifically suitable for high-volume order fulfillment.
  • Beijing Geekplus (Geek+) Technology also has sites using their systems in Japan and Poland and had booths at MODEX and CeMAT trade shows to introduce Geek+ to the West.
  • Xinyi Logistics Science & Technology (Alog) – has not yet ventured beyond China and SE Asia.
  • Shanghai Express Warehouse (Quicktron / Flashhold) – this company is funded by Alibaba which is placing their robots in new Alibaba warehouses.
  • Hanzhou Hikrobot Technology (HIK) – has not yet ventured beyond China and SE Asia.

Kiva alternatives

  • Swisslog described above.
  • Dematic (acquired in 2016 by KION Group) is a well-funded supplier of integrated automated technology, software and services to optimize the supply chain. The KION Group also owns Linde Robotics, a maker of vision-enabled forklifts and trucks and Egemin, a provider of AGV systems.
  • Locus Robotics described above.
  • Fetch Robotics described above.

[NOTE: The lists shown above are not fully comprehensive. The universe is much larger. I have some knowledge of the vendors shown and know that they are beyond pilot projects, researching and prototyping which was my criteria for including them.]

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